If You’re Completely Exhausted, There’s an Explanable Reason
Here’s what’s happening to you in the simplest of terms.
Last week, I hit a peak of exhaustion. I’m still there. I have no energy, motivation, or positivity. I’m cranky, tired and my eating habits are not unlike a testy 7-year-old. I’m not even sure my dog likes me in my current state.
It got so bad last week that I cried. For no reason. I just needed to cry for a minute, hoping it would make me feel better. It didn’t. I hoisted my emotional white flag and gave up.
Then I did what any person with mental health self-awareness would do. I went to my therapist.
“Something is not right,” I told her. “My life really isn’t a whole lot different than it was two months ago. In fact, if you look at it, I might be in a better place. I just feel absolutely horrible all the time and I can’t explain it.”
I’m not the only one in this place. Dozens of friends are feeling the same thing. People have stopped being nice. Everyone is on edge. We’re jumping at each other.
My therapist’s response was reassuring but still leaves me at a bit of a loss. That’s not her fault. It’s mine. If she had a magic wand, trust me, she would have used it by now.
What she shared with me is that what I’ve gone through, what we’ve all gone through, is a totally natural and well-studied response to stress. It’s called General Adaptation Syndrome. It’s like a cruel but natural mental health Candyland we’ve had no idea we’ve been playing.
Let me break it down for you. And, yes, there will be a TL;DR at the end because I know you’re running on fumes.
Crisis struck us hard
In a short period of time, we all went from enjoying our winter fade off and give way to sunlight to a watching a pandemic alter our entire state of being. We went into crisis mode. When this happens, our adrenaline shoots through the roof. We reacted to it in freakishly similar ways.
I watched a vast amount of people at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis find a highly unusual amount of energy. Think about what you did when we first got quarantined. You started a project, didn’t you?
I built an entire dining table by hand. I started cross-stitching. Okay, it was gangsta rap lyrics, but regardless… I painted the inside of my house. I cleaned out my closet. I went hiking several times a week.
What’s unusual about this is that I really didn’t have a whole lot of newfound time on my hands. I was working more under quarantine. Still, I was freakishly happy in April and almost felt bad about it.
The idea that we all became incredibly inspired, active, and engaged as a result of more time on our hands is pretty much a fallacy. It’s because our bodies were in crisis and survival mode. We had to do something. Anything. We couldn’t help it.
It was the adrenaline talking. The side benefit was that people were nice. We cared. We checked in on each other. That makes us happy and feel good even when the world was burning. Sadly, adrenaline is a finite resource.
They threw a “new normal” at us
After a month or so of Zoom calls, virtual happy hours, spotless homes, online delivery services and every episode of Tiger King, we were being sent a clear message. This is the “new normal.” I hate this phrase. It’s supposed to make us feel better, but it does the complete opposite.
The issue with being presented a new reality is that we have two choices: we accept it or we fight it. There is little space in between. Do or do not. There is no try.
If we accept it, we adapt. If we don’t, we resist. Some folks did fine in accepting it. They rolled with the punches. They’re not sheep. They understand what they can control and what they can’t control.
Some people resisted and resisted hard. Protesting for haircuts, anyone? They’re not sheep either. While I don’t agree with storming a state capitol in the name of the right to go out to eat, I completely understand it now.
We turned into toddlers at nap time
If you’ve raised a toddler or been around them for even a short period of time, they have a modus operandi. It’s innate for three-year-olds.
Johnny plays all day long. Johnny then is told he has to shift gears and take a nap. Johnny fights his caregiver tooth and nail until he collapses on the floor in a heap and falls asleep so hard a dump truck could roll through the room and not wake him.
We are Johnny. We are all Johnny.
Our once prolific supply of adrenaline has flown out the window. We’ve fought this whole “new normal” crap, mumbling under our face masks while we buy now easy to find toilet paper, livid at the guy with his shopping cart in the middle of the aisle.
We have nothing left in the tank. We’re exhausted. When we’re running on fumes, we can't go down the road, much less up a mountain and we still have to climb the mountain. This isn’t good for anyone’s mental health.
Understanding this was my “holy crap” moment of realizing there was nothing wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with you, either. Your frustration isn’t misplaced, because it belongs nowhere. It just…is.
The cycle started over again and we weren’t ready
As soon as the world started to open up again and we caught a glimpse of what our lives used to be like, an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer. Now, our world literally started burning.
The hard part is that we are forced into the cycle once again but we’re too exhausted. We haven’t recovered from the first crisis. So we fly through the adrenaline rich crisis mode right passed the adaptation phase and collapse, once again, in exhaustion. Our emotional Candyland has turned into Chutes and Ladders and we don’t even like board games.
Where does this leave us? We must heal. We need to refill the tank.
I have a lot of work to do in recovering from this exhaustion. The worst part is that I’m too tired to do the work. I’m going to cut myself some slack, though. I need a minute.
I’m going to chip away at my exhaustion like I’m Andy Dufresne taking a wall out into a prison courtyard.
I’ll get my house squeaky clean again. I’ll set up the meditation space I desperately need. I’ll commit to writing through this. I will say no when I need to. I’ll curl up on the couch and watch something stupid if that means resting.
Find what it is that gives you a little gas. Don’t overextend yourself. Give grace to the angry and impatient people. They’re exhausted, too. Remember that you don’t have to alleviate anyone else’s exhaustion but your own.
TL; DR — This is your best right now. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are human. Welcome to the party.