Utah (ABC4) – If you’ve been feeling mentally or physically burnt out, or just plain exhausted, you’re not alone and it’s normal, according to Dr. Kristin Francis, Assistant Professor at University of Utah Health.
Dr. Francis says after over a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health professionals are seeing a multitude of symptoms in the general population.
“We are seeing an increase in Major Depressive Disorder, which is more than just a depressed mood. It’s a two week period where you have multiple symptoms, including often suicidal thoughts. We are seeing more anxiety disorders: panic, more PTSD in frontline workers, and increased substance use disorders,” she tells ABC4.
“Specific symptoms we’re seeing is people describing a feeling of persistently being down, not being able to enjoy activities that they can now return to, or kind of some apathy. We’re seeing more exhaustion or fatigue, kind of like a burnout feeling,” she adds.
Another symptom she’s observed is people feeling a bit of disorientation and having difficulty adjusting and getting back to how life used to be pre-pandemic now that things are opening back up.
“Learning how to manage again things that were easy before, like how we were juggling work and school and sports,’ she explains. “Now people have gone for awhile without them, and it makes things a little disorienting to get back in their routine.”
Additionally, mental health professionals are seeing an increase in suicidal thoughts, which is common following a big stressor, Dr. Francis says. “I see a lot of people who just don’t know if what they feel is normal or not.”
After the events of the year, it’s perfectly normal.
“Absolutely. Our bodies are designed to manage stress acutely. We go into the fight or flight response,” Dr. Francis explains.
She says she thinks this is why people were eager to help and did generally okay in the beginning stages of the pandemic.
The fight or flight response creates endorphins, but over time, it becomes very stressful on the body to maintain that productivity and fatigue and exhaustion begin to creep in.
“Physiologically, it’s like running a marathon. You start to run out of important neurochemicals. You get pretty worn down,” she states. “So most people are feeling that right now. The adrenaline has worn off. The exhaustion has set in. Things haven’t gotten back to how great people thought they would be. So yes, I think it’s very normal. That is the normal right now- is that people are feeling more than a little tired, just kind of worn out.”
Clint Thurgood, a Behavioral Health Clinical Leader at Intermountain Healthcare says sleep loss and brain fog are mental health symptoms he’s come across in patients.
“Brain fog is having trouble putting thoughts together, difficulty concentrating, physical and mental exhaustion, lack of motivation, short-term memory issues…” Thurgood says.
“This has been a year of chaos. Everyone’s world has been turned upside down. Our routines are much different now than they were a year ago…,” he explains. “Your brain is a computer and anxiety and stress and trauma, those are the programs that tend to be in background and use up memory and tend to make the computer run more slowly…”
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to feel better if you’re experiencing these symptoms.
What can I do to manage these symptoms?
The first step is getting screened for a major depressive disorder or anxiety disorder, Dr. Francis states.
“Those are different clinically than just the normal mental strain or fog people are talking about. It can include that, but it’s more severe and if you’re having suicidal thoughts especially. So get screened and make sure it’s not a treatable condition with an antidepressant.”
People can also build their resilience.
“Our ability to bounce back is a really cool thing about humans, and you can actually build up that ability to bounce back by doing things that are good for yourself, that feel good,” she explains.
This can include getting outdoors and getting sunshine, even if this means simply sitting outside.
Moving your body, keeping a routine, socializing with friends, volunteering, and minimizing alcohol intake and other substances are other ways Dr. Francis suggests people can build resilience.
“[Alcohol and substance intake] feels good in the moment for most people, but it has a rebound anxiety in your body, and people are at increased risk for developing habits right now of substance use, which can end up taking off and being something else,” she explains. “So just not even getting into that scenario.”
She also suggests engaging in hobbies that you’re interested in or were previously interested in.
Thurgood says it’s important for people to have balance and take time for themselves.
“Doing something you enjoy every day can help. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of sleep. The body needs to reset and the brain, sometimes that computer just needs to be turned off and be allowed to rest and recoup,” he states. “There’s an absolute connection between physical health and mental health and social health.”
But with mental health symptoms becoming more prevalent, are mental health professionals worried?
Is the increase in these symptoms concerning?
Dr. Francis says she’s concerned about the mental health stigma and that people may not reach out for needed help or wait to reach out until their symptoms are severe.
“I worry more that people just won’t ask for help that they need or they will think this is something they just have to willpower through if it’s a serious condition like Major Depressive Disorder or an anxiety disorder… you need help. You need support,” she says.
Another big concern she has is the possibility of seeing more suicide completion, especially in healthcare professionals who have been at the frontlines of the pandemic. She says it’s currently too early to tell if there have been more suicides during the pandemic.
“The suicide completion rate is always concerning to us,” she states. “We look at populations who are poor, underserved, and also people who have lost the most financially, socially in the pandemic- they are at highest risk for completion.”
As for those who have reached out for help, Dr. Francis is worried that many have suffered in silence for too long. They come in in a lot of distress, she says, but are so relieved when they see improvement.
However, she tells ABC4 that though the mental health stigma is concerning, she’s seen it decrease during the pandemic.
“More and more people are talking about how they’re feeling. I have personally seen a breakdown of that stigma.”
Thurgood says he worries that people need to find balance and need to feel whole amid all of the changes they’ve experienced.
He cites events from September 11, 2001, and how people worried that would be the end of their existence and wondered how life would ever be manageable and enjoyable again. Now here we are, close to the 20-year mark and we still find enjoyment, he says.
“We’ve been able to find that balance again and that ‘new normal’ we hear about. The pandemic is just another opportunity to learn from the past and to become more resilient. Resilience is not bouncing back to 100%, but resilience is about being whole in the environment where you currently find yourself.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or reach out on the SafeUT app.