Why you always feel tired, even if you're moving less than ever


Thanks to hours spent working from your couch, back-to-back Zoom happy hours or just staying idle while binging a new TV show, you may find yourself moving your body less than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. Since you’re not exactly overexerting yourself these days, what gives?

The short answer is this: While you may be doing less physical activity, your brain has kicked into overdrive. In other words, the exhaustion you feel is not all in your head (or technically, in this case, it actually is.)

Although you may not be commuting to work, taking your weekly spin classes or spending weekends running errands, our drastically new coronavirus lifestyles can have a bigger impact on mental health and energy levels than we might think.

“I’ve probably been the most unproductive I’ve ever been,” said Madonna Matta, a 24-year-old graduate student from Austin, Texas. “I’m just tired all the time. I don’t know if it may be the food I’m eating ― more carbs, less veggies ― or the lack of structure, but I just feel melancholy.

“Generally, exercising would make me feel more energetic and lively and now the opposite has made me sluggish,” Matta continued. “Sometimes, it feels easier to just sleep and pretend everything we’re living through is fake.”

For Cathrine Nelson, a 27-year-old content creator in Providence, Rhode Island, the way she feels depends on the day.

“I woke up at 8 a.m. the other day and had a full day,” Nelson said. “Another day, I slept in until 11 a.m., listened to some podcasts and went to bed early. I’ve had productive days and almost completely inactive days. I feel like I am on a slow-motion roller coaster. I don’t know when I am going to hit my next peak or my next drop.”

Why stress leads to so much fatigue

While certain stressors can be helpful for focusing and problem-solving ― like when you need to make a deadline or when you’re driving and someone swerves in front of you ― they are meant to be temporary. The long-term stress we may feel as a result of COVID-19 and the constant flow of news about it is not to be underestimated, and it can exact wear and tear on the body.

“People face challenges that really activate the sympathetic nervous system, so it’s kind of classic ‘fight or flight’ response,” said Craig N. Sawchuk, a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic. “You get the hormone release to help keep us going like adrenaline and cortisol ― those are good. It’s really adaptive that our body can flip that switch. But it’s not meant to be a constant burn, either. And that’s where we run into these physical problems.”

According to Sawchuk, when your brain is constantly trying to adapt to uncertainty, fear and challenges ― like it has during this entire pandemic ― it takes a toll over time. Your body physically gets tired from managing all the emotional stress.

“And that’s where you start to see some of the energy problems starting to happen where we’re fatigued,” Sawchuk said. “We may be actually resting a lot more, sometimes unintentionally so, but it’s not a restorative type of rest.”

Energy expenditure extends beyond just physical activity. We burn up energy processing emotion, regulating our feelings, thinking, worrying and adapting to new challenges.

“We think of physical, emotional and mental energy all drawing from that same pot, so we can think of multiple systems in our lives are constantly ‘on’ and in turn, are constantly draining and wearing away at us,” Sawchuk said.

How to boost your energy, even just a little

There are ways you can boost your energy at home and control stress levels. Johna Hansen, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City, recommended trying these steps:

  • Do some deep breathing. “Take 10 deep breaths on the hour or whenever you think about it,” Hansen said.

  • Drink lots of water and eat as healthy as you can. “Limit your alcohol intake, as alcohol can make you feel less energetic over time.” Hansen also recommended three daily meals around the same time.

  • Practice grounding your thoughts. “Find an object that is familiar (i.e. your feet) and just notice the object for a minute to help ground yourself to the moment,” she said.

  • Accept yourself when you think you’re failing. Worrying about not wasting time or not finishing everything on your to do list will drain you, Hansen said. Cut yourself some serious slack.

  • Exercise creativity in spurts. Do something that you enjoy and know you can finish in a day or two, like drawing a picture, knitting a scarf, cleaning out a closet or writing a letter on paper to a friend or family member, she said.

  • Take screen breaks. “Give yourself plenty of breaks from your screens throughout the day, especially from the news,” Hansen said. “Also, do not bring your screen into your bed so that you can get quality rest.”

  • Pace your work. “Just because you have a lot of time at home, this doesn’t mean you have to spend all of it working,” Hansen said.

  • Take care of your body and your brain. “Zoom with a personal trainer or class, go outside for a walk,” Hansen said. She also suggested meditation and practicing mindfulness body scans.

  • Seek therapy. If you’re able to, “speak with someone who can focus specifically on your needs,” Hansen said. There are tons of resources for online therapy right now.

It’s uncertain how long COVID-19 will keep us in this state of lowered physical activity and heightened stress, but Sawchuk said resilience is key as we navigate the pandemic and the aftermath.

“All of us as humans are resilient ― we really, really are,” Sawchuk said. “Resilience has this almost rubberized quality to it like ‘bouncing back.’ But we will bounce back. It may not necessarily be to where we were at pre-COVID-19 because experience changes us; it changes the brain.”

To Sawchuk, part of building resilience is learning to accept and adapt, which looks different for everyone. In other words, no one should be beating themselves up because they failed to make a sourdough starter or join an online yoga class that day.

“We have to watch out when we’re making unfair comparisons to people that we think are just doing great,” Sawchuk said. “Our goal isn’t to be perfect. Our goal is to be good enough. Being good enough is being kind to ourselves. There may objectively look like there’s more time available, but that’s not necessarily a good thing nor does it mean that we’re going to be more motivated or efficient. It’s about adaptation.”