It feels like it’s been a very long time since ‘normal’ evaporated.  At this point in the pandemic, “exhausted” seems to have replaced “OK” and “fine” as standard responses to queries about how we are doing, especially among women.

And we are exhausted.

But why?

For many, it’s not a mystery.  They have worked insane hours, supervising their children’s Zoom classes while working at the same time; dealing with death and serious illness; serving on the front lines in hospitals; losing jobs and struggling to feed their families.  Too much multitasking, too many unmet needs, not enough sleep.

But what about the rest of us?

I’m not raising children, my family has been healthy, and I still have my job.  I am lucky.  I am ‘fine’.  But I’m also exhausted.  My husband and I keep having the same conversation:

“I’m so very tired!”

“How many hours did you sleep last night?”

“Eight I think.”

I’m sleeping fine.  And since I’m a college professor, summer is my slow season, allowing more downtime than the school year.  But I’m still exhausted and most of my colleagues seem to be in the same position.

On one level, we know what’s making us so tired: It’s the pandemic of course.  But for those of us who aren’t front line workers or working mothers, what specifically is so exhausting?  And what can we do to rest?

I keep thinking that because I’m so tired, I need to preserve energy.  But reclining on a beach chair, slumping on the sofa, and sleeping more doesn’t help.  It just makes me groggy.

Part of what makes this all so confusing is that we use the word ‘exhausted’ to label many different things: When I say I’m exhausted, I might mean that I’m sleep deprived, overwhelmed, physically exhausted after a workout, mentally exhausted after concentrating on a difficult problem, or emotionally exhausted after a charged conversation.

We need to figure out what kind of exhaustion we’re dealing with because they require different types of rest.  As I found out over the summer, (more) sleep isn’t always the solution.  We might need a different kind of rest.

What types of exhaustion are there? 

Saundra Dalton-Smith lists seven:

  1. Physical: Not enough sleep, hard exercise, illness
  2. Mental: Concentrating for a long time, overactive mind, can’t stop thinking
  3. Sensory: Too much noise, too bright lights
  4. Emotional: Spending too much time being inauthentic, hiding your feelings and thoughts
  5. Creative: Inventing and coming up with new ideas
  6. Social: Too much time with people who drain you (for introverts, this might just mean too much time with people)
  7. Spiritual: A lack of belonging and acceptance

We can’t restore all seven at the same time.  We restore one by depleting another, doing the opposite of what made us tired in the first place (very yin/yang!).  A kick-ass workout provides mental rest.  Repetitive activities like knitting lets the senses rest.

What type of rest do we need most right now? 

Many of us need mental and creative rest.  We’ve spent so much time dealing with uncertainty and constant change, putting serious thought into what used to be routine: Should I go into the store? Do I dine out and see people who aren’t vaccinated? If i do, under what circumstances?  And if I’m not willing to see them, how do I handle the ensuing conflict?  It never ends.

We’ve also had to come up with creative new ways of doing our jobs, always preparing to shift to a new alternative as the situation changes.  I’m teaching in person now, but I may be online or hybrid next week; it depends on the pandemic.  I’m supposed to be prepared for all three.

No wonder we feel exhausted.  It’s a lot.

How can we get mental and creative rest during the pandemic?

It will take trial and error.  Experiment and trust your instincts: you’ll feel what is working. 

My advice? Try boring.  Predictability and routines provide mental and creative rest now because they are the opposite of both the uncertainty and of all the creative inventing we’ve had to do.

I make my life a predictable routine in the areas I can control. I stick to a workout schedule and I use videos instead of creating my own workout so that I don’t have to decide what to do. I reuse old recipes and I eat the same breakfast every day. I reread old favorite books and I watch beloved movies over again. 

Yeah.  I’m embracing ‘boring.’  Its restorative powers are underrated.

I’m building on Saundra Dalton-Smith’s TED talk and book

  • Her website and book here.  They both include a rest deficit inventory. 
  • Her TED talk “The seven kinds of rest every person needs” here.