Tired and cranky? Here’s why COVID-19 is sapping your energy

work from home


You might be feeling more tired than usual at the moment. Understandable if you are working harder than ever, but what if you aren’t?

Some of us have long expanses of unscheduled time on our hands. No more travel. No more commuting. No more gyms, dinner parties or sporting events.

Why so tired, then?

This may be partly due to stress and anxiety. Your body is working overtime to remain composed, with your parasympathetic nervous system trying to calm the sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response. 

Another aspect, though, has to do with how you are thinking. 

When life is in its normal groove, you spend a large chunk of it on auto-pilot. Effortless System 1 thinking is in the driver’s seat, which means you don’t have to think much about how to tie your shoes, get to work or attend a meeting. Your routines and habits take care of business for you, preserving precious brain power for higher-grade, effortful System 2 decisions. 

In a pandemic, when nearly all the scaffolding of your existence has been dismantled, System 1 taps out and System 2 grabs the wheel. You have to think about everything because nothing is habituated.

Take your exercise routine, for example. Normally you may have exercised at the gym after work. Now you work from home and there’s no gym to go to, so suddenly that ‘exercise habit’ evaporates. You have to think about making it happen.

The problem is habits are triggered by contextual cues. Once the context changes, the habit can get a little wobbly. Great if you are looking to break a habit, not great if you want to retain one.

And guess what? Your context has changed. Dramatically.

So why are you tired? Pretty simply, you’ve been thinking more. 

More doesn’t mean better, by the way. In fact, you’ve been clogging up System 2 with stuff you wouldn’t normally consciously contemplate, like where can I walk, can I eat a kebab in the park, and where can I buy flour?

Likely outcomes of System 2 overuse include (which may or may not be from personal experience):

  • Bingeing on Netflix;
  • Overdoing indulgences like chocolate and alcohol;
  • Not being able to focus on tasks like you normally can;
  • Making ‘simple’ mistakes;
  • Getting cranky as your ability to self-regulate diminishes; and
  • Getting tired. 

Your concrete is poured

The good news, as far as your fatigue levels go, is you are already forming new routines and habits in this Covid-riddled world. You have been laying down new tracks for your System 1 brain to follow automatically and you are adjusting. I’m sure you now know how to unmute yourself during Zoom meetings and which corner of the house is best to work from, for instance.

It’s like some fresh concrete has just been poured. The more this new life is normalised, the more System 1 can resume, and you can operate by default.

The question to ask, though, is what behaviours do you want to habituate? Do you want certain behaviours to be set in concrete, or not? It may feel easier right now to sit on the couch in front of Netflix, and that’s okay for a time, but beware of what you are allowing to form.

To learn more, The Conversation has an interesting piece on the role of psychological states, including phases of adjustment.

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