Doctors Explain The Psychological Reason You’re So Tired During Social Distancing

Without a commute, you’ve been able to get your eight hours of sleep a night for the first time since college, but you’re still a zombie during the day. Worse, knowing that one of the symptoms of coronavirus is fatigue is making you second-guess that you’re otherwise feeling fine. Doctors say that there’s another explanation — coronavirus-related sleep issues can actually be related to trauma.

"In these times of uncertainty, many people may be feeling fearful and anxious about things that are beyond their control," Dr. Nicole Tang D.Phil., Dr. Shilpa Patel Ph.D., and Dr. Harbinder Sandu Ph.D., researchers at the University of Warwick, tell Bustle via email. "Stress, worry and anxiety can all contribute to fatigue, which may be exacerbated by the situation we find ourselves in." Overthinking, fear, and grief, as well as the disruption of our usual routines, can affect the quality of your sleep and your energy the following day.

Exhaustion is a well known response to traumatic events, whether they’re sudden shocks or long drawn-out changes like the ones we’re experiencing now. The Royal College of Psychiatrists notes that during and after a traumatic experience of any kind, you may experience sleep problems, poor concentration and memory, and brain fog.

"Our mood and sleep are responsive to our anxiety and stress levels," the University of Warwick researchers say. "If we are not sleeping well at night, it’s understandable why we feel tired during the day." People with post-traumatic stress disorder often experience exhaustion and sleep problems, but anybody coping with intense emotions can feel it too.

In people with coronavirus, fatigue is most often accompanied by several other symptoms. If you’re just feeling tired and no other symptoms ensue — like a cough or fever — there’s a strong chance that you’re psychologically stressed, not coming down with COVID-19. A roundup of research on hospitalized COVID-19 patients published in JAMA in February 2020 noted that 98% of patients had a fever, 82-79% had dry cough, and 11-44% had fatigue. The European Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) issued guidance on March 12 that named fatigue as the third most common symptom, occurring in 38% of laboratory-confirmed coronavirus cases; fever occurred in 88%, while dry cough occurred in 68%.

"If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, like a dry cough, sore throat, or fever, contact your medical health care practitioner," Dr. Seema Sarin M.D., an internal medicine physician, tells Bustle.

The best way to deal with this lack of energy, experts say, is to wait and see if you develop other coronavirus symptoms — and try to handle your psychological stress while you do. Isolation can contribute to this feeling, the University of Warwick researchers say, so it’s important to keep in touch with others using Facetime, Zoom, or Houseparty if you can. "Set small and achievable goals and pace yourself; both under-activity and over-activity can lead to fatigue," they say. "Be kind to yourself and others." Dr. Sarin also recommends staying away from social media if you can and limiting news intake to trusted sources like the CDC, to reduce constant exposure to stressful events.

Studies cited:

del Rio C, Malani PN. February 28 2020. COVID-19—New Insights on a Rapidly Changing Epidemic. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.3072

Experts:

Dr. Shilpa Patel Ph.D., Medical School, University of Warwick

Dr. Harbinder Sandu Ph.D., Medical School, University of Warwick

Dr. Seema Sarin M.D., EHE Health

Dr. Nicole Tang D.Phil., Department of Psychology, University of Warwick

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