Exhaustion sets in as COVID-19 pandemic enters third year


Whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated, the recent surge caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant probably feels like a cruel joke as it pushes the pandemic into its third year. And it’s taking a toll.

“Right now, the fatigue is coming into an all-time high, having to do this Groundhog Day over and over and over again,” said Cathryn Nacario, chief executive of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of San Diego and Imperial counties. “And everybody’s just exhausted.”

Nacario, who also is president of the Mental Health Contractors Assn. of San Diego County, said mental health providers in large and small agencies have shared similar experiences, with clients who feel frustrated and confused by shifting guidelines issued by county, state and federal agencies.

“It’s a weekly, changing, moving target that’s taken its toll on everybody,” she said. “It has people completely over the top. There’s also desperation of, ‘When is this going to be over with?’”

San Diego clinical psychologist Michelle Carcel said anxiety levels dropped last year as infection rates decreased and businesses reopened, but they’re on the rise again.

“We’re seeing this across the board,” she said, adding that the back-and-forth rules of how to function during the pandemic have added to stress levels.

That frustration was summed up in a recent Instagram post by Twiggs Bakery & Coffeehouse co-owner Dan Stringfield.

“I’m fighting that ‘here we go again’ feeling,” he wrote about learning that two orders for wedding cakes had been canceled with less than a week’s notice because the ceremonies had been postponed due to COVID-19.

“We got through it before,” the post continued. “We’ll get through it again, though this time we’re dead inside. Joking. Sort of. This too shall pass.”

Reached at the bakery, Stringfield said orders for eight birthday cakes had been canceled in the past few weeks.

“It’s not like we’re going to go bankrupt, but it’s this ‘déjà vu all over again’ feeling,” he said.

Things have been worse. Toilet paper has not disappeared from shelves, as it did in the early days of the pandemic; theaters and restaurants are open; and there are no long lines to get into Costco and other stores. But as bad as 2020 was, there was a sense then that the ordeal was temporary. Now it feels never-ending.

“I think it’s almost at a scarier crisis level, because we did fall into a little complacency,” Nacario said. “You know, ‘Things are getting better, it’s going to be over, 2022 is going to be great.’ And then everybody got kind of backhanded with this, and it’s deflating.”

And the stress isn’t just about the pandemic.

“This is in combination with other things going on,” Carcel said. “We’re also seeing changes in our economic situation, financial situations. This is happening in a political way as well. So we’re seeing a little bit of a resurgence in anxiety and depressive symptoms in a lot of people.”

Inflation hasn’t been this bad in 40 years, the supply-chain disruption is affecting everything from tacos to auto parts, and the country seems more politically divided than ever. People who had looked forward to vacations are making other plans as thousands of flights have been canceled because of staffing shortages caused by Omicron cases.

“There’s a lot of external factors that are influencing people’s overall mood, and that’s triggering for people who have trauma histories,” Carcel said.

While anxiety levels may have reached an all-time high, the stress has been building for some time. Carcel’s practice is at capacity, and she said she hasn’t taken a new client in months.

Carcel said people who had developed ways to handle stress are seeing those skills and strategies wane during the new surge.

Meditation is a form of stress relief for many. Jeff Zlotnik, co-founder of the San Diego Buddhist temple Dharma Bum, said classes in the practice have soared.

“They’re afraid, they’re uncertain and, I think, scared with what they’re dealing with now,” he said about people who have begun meditating. “And that’s led people to seek something for their mental and emotional health.

“In short, there’s a tremendous increase in people we’re seeing, and it’s a stress level that I’ve never seen in my life. And we’ve been running this temple for 15 years.”

The temple was closed for visits for about 17 months, but meditation classes continued virtually. As coronavirus cases dropped last year, the temple reopened in July. But with Omicron cases on the rise, it closed again last week.

“Here we go for round two of being shut down completely,” Zlotnik said.

Going back to online sessions was the right thing he do, he said, adding that 15 people have thanked him for thinking of their health and safety. Ironically, attending meditation classes in person was causing people to stress out, he said.

“Even though people are tired of being shut out, they’re just more comfortable not being there in person,” Zlotnik said.

The stress levels have been particularly hard on school-age children and their families, said neurophysiologist Joanna Savarese.

“Because it’s been so inconsistent over the last few years, the kids haven’t been able to stabilize,” she said. “You’re kind of going in and out. We were going into lockdown, and then we weren’t. And some schools were online, and some weren’t. Some schools had masks, and some schools didn’t. There’s just a lot of inconsistency in the educational system right now because of COVID.”

Savarese is owner of San Diego BrainWorks and recently launched an intensive outpatient program for adolescents.

“We’re focusing on all adolescent mental health issues, and we’re also working with families managing themselves, managing their kids, managing communication, coping strategies and support,” she said.

The isolation of distance learning added to the pressure of students to perform, she said, and to the stress of parents who had to observe them. That could be especially exasperating for parents with children who have learning challenges and mood issues.

“It put a lot of added pressure on parents who also work and need to manage their own lives,” she said.



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