Opinion: Pandemic Burnout—It’s Not Your Fault and It’s Not Just You

Musselman Library staff have created a "Muss-To-Go" system of offering students books safely during the pandemic (Photo Mary Fraiser/The Gettysburgian)

Musselman Library staff have created a “Muss-To-Go” system of offering students books safely during the pandemic (Photo Mary Fraiser/The Gettysburgian)

By Phoebe Doscher, Magazine Editor

“How are you doing, really?” 

This is the question that precipitated a Gettysburgian editorial last fall deconstructing stress culture at Gettysburg. We discovered that we were not, in fact, “good,” or even okay for that matter, and addressed the toxic behavior of letting our mental health slide during a busy semester. That was in 2019. 

Fast forward 14 months, and we find ourselves in the midst of what seems to be a never-ending pandemic. The answer to that ever-looming “how are you” has not changed—our answers are often even more bleak than usual.

A college semester can be overwhelming, but a pandemic only heightens any preexisting school and work stress. Many of us have begun to reside in a state of chronic lethargy while our brains attempt to reconcile with the disastrous state of the world. Truly, chronic burnout is real, and it has implications on our overall cognitive function. 

What does that mean for us this spring semester? Lots of burnt out students. Luckily, that burnout has a specific name, and can be squashed—but part of addressing it requires recognizing that it’s real, and that it’s not our fault it’s happening to us.

As humans, we only have the capacity for so much. Science journalist Tara Haelle writes in the Atlantic article “Your Surge Capacity is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful,” that during the pandemic, our minds are in crisis mode, and the complete departure from normalcy coupled with everyday stressors legitimately cause us to burn out quicker and for longer. Essentially, our surge capacity—or short term survival in stressful situations (i.e. a pandemic)—reaches its limit.

“‘The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity,’ [says psychologist Ann Masten, PhD]. When it’s depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”

This semester, students are expected not only to maintain the demands of a regular course load, but to deal with the weight of additional anxieties, like navigating online classes, missing our friends and social interactions, and losing formative experiences. If our surge capacities are reaching chronic depletion, and, on top of that, our lives have turned upside down—from canceled abroad plans to postponed graduations—it’s no wonder our to-do lists have gotten longer and our energy for the things that used to make us tick have waned.

“Normalize the fact that everything you could do was enough.”

The normalcy of our college semesters has slipped away, and as humans, we grieve this palpable loss. Haelle pinpoints this as “ambiguous loss,” or “any loss that’s unclear and lacks a resolution,” which is not unique to the loss of a person, but rather the loss of something we were attached to. Yes, we actually grieve the absence of formative experiences that were meant to fill our college careers.

The psychologists cited in the Atlantic article found that the best ways to combat this loss—thus squandering, or at least coping with, the lack of productivity—include  recognizing that this grief is very real, expecting less from yourself, building resilience, and filling your time with fulfilling activities.

Okay, try telling college students to expect less of themselves, or to take up yoga and mindful breathing. Maybe a more attainable goal, rather than to expect less, is to dismantle and reframe expectations altogether. At the end of each day, try reminding yourself that you did everything you could, and resist the urge to expect yourself to achieve everything you “should.” Normalize the fact that everything you could do that day was enough. And be sure to catch yourself before you reach your breaking point.

This pandemic has been long, and it’s hard to envision an end in sight. But legitimizing your stress, procrastination, and overall lethargy, recognizing that you’re certainly not alone, and picturing your mind-body-energy tank running on low for the past year make it a lot easier.

So, next time you’re writing a to-do list for the day or setting goals, be kind to yourself. Be firm, hold expectations so that you end up doing something, especially if something extrinsic—a grade, a deadline, a salary—depends on it, but don’t run your circuits low. And don’t forget, our circuits are shorter than usual. So, if you notice yourself drifting into a productivity lull (seriously, don’t ask me how long it took to write this article), or just approaching a mental fog, remember that it’s not your fault. It’s a psychological symptom of the world right now. 

So, go on that walk, lay in bed and continue to binge Netflix, or even get up and bang out that essay. We’ll adapt to the ever-changing new normal, but don’t make the process harder on yourself than it already is.

This article appeared on page 13 of the March 16, 2021 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.

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Author: Phoebe Doscher

Phoebe Doscher ’22 is the News Editor for The Gettysburgian. She previously served as a staff writer, features section copy editor, and Assistant News Editor. Originally from Sandy Hook, CT, she is an English with a Writing Concentration and Theatre Arts double major. Aside from writing and editing, she studies voice at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music and can often be seen working on and offstage in the theatre department.

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