Situations that cause ongoing stress can take a toll on the mind and body. Crisis fatigue is a response to the prolonged stress that develops due to unexpected or difficult events, such as war, economic depressions, or a pandemic.
This article will take a closer look at crisis fatigue, including how to spot the signs and how to cope.
Crisis fatigue is a term that people use to describe a burnout response to the chronic stress that challenging events can cause.
It is not a formal medical diagnosis, but people who feel that they are experiencing crisis fatigue may have very real mental or physical symptoms.
Some examples of situations that can lead to crisis fatigue include:
- political instability
- economic depressions
- natural disasters
- racial injustice
A person may experience stress due to the crisis itself or due to its secondary consequences. For example, a person may feel acute stress during a tropical storm but long-term stress if they lose their home and possessions because of it.
During a crisis, people often experience stress, or the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This is the body’s way of preparing for danger.
The symptoms of stress can include:
- an elevated heartbeat
- fast or shallow breathing
- muscle tension
- increased sweating
This response is usually short-term and resolves on its own when a person feels safe again. However, during a prolonged crisis such as a pandemic, people can feel unsafe or threatened for long periods of time, with few breaks.
This long-term stress, or allostatic load, can take a toll on the body, affecting a person’s hormones and neurotransmitters. Without having time to get back to a more restful state, people can begin to experience symptoms of fatigue.
Some of the possible symptoms of crisis fatigue include:
- physical and mental exhaustion
- changes in sleep, such as sleeping more or less than usual
- changes in appetite
- feeling numb or empty
People experiencing general emotional distress during a prolonged crisis may also:
- feel anxious or helpless
- lack empathy for others
- have unexplained body aches or pains
- use alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes more frequently
- become withdrawn
- have difficulty returning to work or school
- have difficulty concentrating
These symptoms can last for weeks or months, and they may be worse if the crisis seems or feels indefinite.
Anyone can experience crisis fatigue. However, frontline workers and other people the crisis most severely impacts are likely to be most affected.
For example, during a pandemic, healthcare workers and emergency responders can have long shifts and ongoing stress, with little time to recuperate. Mental health clinicians and news reports are also extremely vulnerable to crisis fatigue.
- a preexisting mental health condition
- unemployment or financial uncertainty
- bereavement as a result of the crisis
- limited mobility
Dealing with crisis fatigue can be challenging, as the event causing the problem is typically outside of a person’s control and may continue for a long time.
Recognizing the need to look after one’s physical and mental health during a crisis is a positive step and likely one’s greatest protective factor.
Some strategies that may help someone cope with the symptoms of crisis fatigue include the following:
- Take a break: Taking time off of work to rest and recover may be critical to recovery. Take advantage of sick days and leave policies to give oneself a much needed break from stressful environments.
- Disconnect from media: During a crisis, media coverage is typically persistent and intrusive in our daily routines. Taking a few days to disconnect from news coverage and all social media can help a person reset and become less numb.
- Maintain a routine: A crisis can disrupt a person’s usual schedule. Maintaining a routine, or adopting a new one, can help people feel a sense of normalcy and control. It may also help people establish a regular sleep schedule.
- Ask for help: If someone is struggling, help is available. Neighbors, friends, or family may be able to provide practical help, such as picking up groceries. Organizations that provide aid may be able to offer financial assistance.
- Talk to someone: Talking to people who understand a situation can help a person feel less alone, even if there are no obvious solutions. If possible, it may be beneficial to talk to a mental health professional.
- Try a hobby: Hobbies can take a person’s mind off of their situation and give them something else to focus on. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people have tried new hobbies that they can do at home.
- Get some physical activity: Exercise can be another way to relieve stress and give a person something else to focus on. Activities such as yoga, tai chi, walking, or aerobics are free and do not usually require any equipment.
People with crisis fatigue may feel better when they are no longer in the situation that is causing it. However, for some, the crisis will have a lasting impact.
During or after a traumatic event, a person may feel:
- disconnected from their thoughts, feelings, or experiences
People can also develop vicarious trauma, which occurs after witnessing something traumatic happen to somebody else. For example, emergency responders and healthcare workers often experience this type of trauma.
Once the traumatic event is over, most people recover and do not continue to experience these symptoms in everyday life. However, some people may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a long-term condition.
The symptoms of PTSD include but are not limited to:
- flashbacks or persistent memories of the trauma
- hyperarousal or hypervigilance, wherein a person feels like they are constantly on high alert
- difficulty sleeping or nightmares
Trauma and PTSD are treatable conditions. If a person has any symptoms of these conditions, they may find help in a trauma-aware doctor or therapist.
If a person is experiencing troubling mental or physical symptoms for a period of 2 weeks or longer, they should consider talking to their doctor or a mental health practitioner.
Even if a crisis is ongoing, counselors, therapists, support groups, and other resources can help people cope.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
Crisis fatigue is a burnout response to prolonged exposure to unexpected and stressful events. It can cause a range of symptoms, including persistent fatigue, changes in sleep, changes in appetite, and numbness.
There is no single approach to coping with crisis fatigue, but strategies such as maintaining a routine, talking to loved ones, and trying activities that provide a distraction and build resilience may help.
People with crisis fatigue may feel better when they are no longer in the situation causing it, but in the interim, they may benefit from undergoing mental health treatment to manage its effects.
Anyone who feels overwhelmed during a crisis can seek help from a mental health professional.