If there’s one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that pandemics are exhausting.
Dr Sumera Shahaney, head of clinical operations at Thriva who also works in the NHS, has noted what is referred to as ‘pandemic fatigue’.
“This is usually felt as an inner weariness or worthlessness – many of the things you might associate with mild depression,” explains Dr Shahaney, who says she often sees this associated with feelings of hopelessness about the pandemic.
“Many people have now accepted that life has changed,” she adds, “but we have lost resilience – we have no control over the future and are unable to see an end point.”
On top of that, we’re also more stressed generally, engaging in an awful lot of screen time, moving about far less, and plenty of us are having a rubbish night’s sleep to boot.
And then there’s our social lives, which are completely lacking. Dr Peter Mills, clinical director for Cigna Europe, points out that a variety of experience and interactions are key things that help stimulate our brain and body.
“We are not meant to live like this; we are social animals, albeit some more than others, and we gain energy and inspiration from experiences and from convening with others, which we just aren’t getting right now,” he says.
All in all, it’s a recipe for feeling absolutely done in. So, what can we do about it?
Sort your sleep out
For some, sleep has been a real issue this year. A survey published by mattress company Sleepeezee in August found that 33% of adults reported getting less than four to six hours of sleep a night.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be sleeping between the recommended seven and nine hours right now, that’s not to say the quality of the sleep you’re getting is good. Studies have found sleep quality has been greatly compromised in the pandemic, which isn’t a surprise when you think about how stressful it’s been.
The Sleepeezee survey found 79% of UK adults are reporting feeling tired most of the time – and screen time isn’t helping matters. Among those aged 18 to 34, 78% use their phone before bed, and 38% while they’re between the covers.
If screen time is an issue for you, sleep expert and author of The Good Sleep Guide, Sammy Margo, recommends setting a technology cut off time, as blue light emitted by your devices can suppress the release of your sleep hormone melatonin, and disrupt your brain’s natural sleep-wake cycles.
“The NHS recommends switching off technology an hour before your bedtime,” says Margo. “Or if you are using a screen, at least turn it to night-time mode or install an app that reduces the blue light.”
If you find yourself craving that bedtime scroll on Twitter, reach for a book instead. And if reading isn’t for you, Margo suggests listening to the radio, an audiobook, or some calming music.
Dr Shahaney urges people to do a sleep hygiene check, which includes reducing screen time before you sleep, as well as establishing a consistent bedtime routine, perhaps with a bath or some relaxation techniques.
“If at all possible, try to make sure that your bedroom is a place where you sleep only, and keep the room cool,” she adds.
Consider your diet
Sometimes it’s all about going back to basics. Registered nutritionist Saadia Noorani says the best way to keep up your energy levels and reduce tiredness right now is to follow a healthy, balanced diet.
As part of this, she urges people to aim to eat regularly, and at the same times each day, to sustain energy levels – and this means eating breakfast. “A healthy breakfast provides the fuel needed for the day ahead and an opportunity to obtain a significant portion of our fibre, calcium and iron intakes,” she says.
Noorani also strongly recommends getting plenty of iron-rich foods into your diet, such as dark-green leafy vegetables, cereals and bread fortified with iron, meat, and pulses (such as beans, peas and lentils). Being low in iron can lead to anaemia, which can make you feel tired, she adds, pointing out that women and girls are most at risk due to the loss of blood during their menstrual cycle.
Dr Shahaney urges people to be mindful of their vitamin D levels, too, as they might be contributing to tiredness. It’s thought around one in five adults and one in six children in the UK may have a profound vitamin D deficiency. Health bodies typically recommend taking a vitamin D supplement in the winter months – and most people should aim to have 10 micrograms a day.
Vitamin D is also found in many foods, including oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel), red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified foods, such as some fat spreads and breakfast cereals.
If you’ve found yourself drinking more booze in lockdown, this might also be exacerbating your tiredness. “It’s important to note that alcohol can not only dehydrate you, but also disturb your sleep, leading to tiredness the next day,” says Noorani. Instead, aim to drink more water.
“Sometimes you may feel tired because you are dehydrated,” she continues. “Make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids – the government recommends six to eight glasses every day.”
To boost energy and reduce stress more generally you might also want to look at introducing some aerobic exercise into your day.
Dr Alka Patel, a GP, coach and creator of the Lifestyle First method, says the ideal time and place to exercise is in the sunlight, within a two-hour window either side of sunrise. “This helps to set the clock for later sleep, with the added benefit of vitamin D,” she says.
Dr Mills agrees that regularly exercising and doing activity daily “will have a positive impact on our energy levels” – although he acknowledges that trying to find the motivation to do so can be difficult.
Breathing has a huge bearing on how we feel. “When we are tired or our energy levels feel low we should stop and take a break to breath,” suggests Dr Patel. “A technique I like to use is box breathing.”
To do this, imagine drawing a square box – either on your palm, on a piece of paper or in your mind. Each side of the square is going to take you four seconds to draw and the whole square will take just 16 seconds and with each line you draw you’re going to do something different with your breathing, says Dr Patel.
Draw your line across and breathe in for 4 seconds
Draw your line down and hold for 4 seconds
Draw your line across and breathe out for 4 seconds
Draw your line up and hold for 4 seconds
“Repeat as many times as you want to give you a surge of calm and uplifting energy,” she adds.
Be kind to yourself
Right now our stress levels are through the roof and our bodies just can’t handle it. “As humans, we generate a stress hormone – called cortisol – which is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and acute stress,” explains Cigna’s Dr Peter Mills.
“Our bodies are not designed to deal with such long and protracted stressful scenarios such as the one we currently face, therefore those stress hormones that are there to assist us in times of danger, eventually shut down.
“Those hormones can only achieve that heightened sense of alertness for a period of time before having to take it down a few notches which ultimately affects our energy levels too.”
Looking after yourself “has never been so important,” he adds, urging people to take time out of their day to have some ‘me’ time. “It’s extremely important to give your mind and body permission to relax, and helps to release those surging stress hormones,” he adds.
When to seek help
Prolonged tiredness and fatigue can also be a sign of some serious health concerns, so when might a person want to get medical help?
Dr Shahaney says you should consider how long the fatigue has been going on for? “If it’s been something you’ve been managing for many weeks or months, it might be time to speak to your GP about it, or get a blood test to check your levels of vital vitamins and minerals,” she says.
“Extreme fatigue can be a sign of something more sinister and I’d say when it is associated with worrying physical symptoms, such as weight loss, you may want to address it.”
If you think you might’ve had Covid-19 earlier in the year, fatigue is also one of the main symptoms that people are experiencing long after the virus has swept through their system. The issue can be debilitating.
NHS England has promised to launch 40 long Covid clinics in the next few weeks to help support people with these persistent symptoms.
You can find out more about post-Covid fatigue on the NHS Your Covid Recovery site. People are urged to contact their GP if: their fatigue is getting worse rather than better, their fatigue is unchanged after three months, or they are worried or have other new symptoms.