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Does The Pandemic Have Your Brain In A Fog? Doctors Say You're Not Alone

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

If you're struggling and feeling physically exhausted a year into this pandemic, you are far from alone. Mental health care providers say a lot of people are right there with you. They also say it's a normal reaction our bodies are having to very abnormal times. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Dr. Jessi Gold says in recent weeks, she's often felt wiped out and needing to catch up on sleep.

JESSI GOLD: For me, that can feel like this overwhelming sense of, like, I can't keep my eyes open for one more minute, if somebody asks me to do anything else, I'm going to scream kind of feeling.

CHATTERJEE: And Gold, who's a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, says exhaustion is the No. 1 complaint she hears from her patients these days.

GOLD: It's like this, I don't know what it is, but I can't function. I'm so tired. Something else is wrong with me. Am I physically ill? Am I depressed?

CHATTERJEE: Another complaint - an inability to concentrate.

GOLD: They sort of just come in and say, I used to be able to be so much more productive, and I can't do it anymore. I just go to work, and I'm just like, nope, not doing anything.

CHATTERJEE: Psychiatrist Kali Cyrus is also hearing similar stories.

KALI CYRUS: I'm hearing it in, for example, it's just so hard to get out of bed, or I've been misplacing things more often.

CHATTERJEE: Cyrus is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins.

CYRUS: We're all not as strong as we usually would be. We're at a - you know, a low normal right now, if you would even call this normal.

CHATTERJEE: She says it's because we've been running an emotional marathon this past year. Psychologist Lynn Bufka is with the American Psychological Association.

LYNN BUFKA: We also know from other research that people will talk about fatigue as something that they experience when they're feeling overstressed.

CHATTERJEE: She says the pandemic and all the changes that have come with it have increased people's stress levels. And prolonged stress and disruption can make us exhausted in many ways.

BUFKA: When we're feeling stressed, our sleep can get disrupted, which naturally leads to feelings of tiredness and exhaustion.

CHATTERJEE: A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 2 in 3 Americans are sleeping more or less than they would like during the pandemic. And other studies show that more people are experiencing anxiety symptoms. And prolonged anxiety can also exhaust us, says Washington University's Jessi Gold.

GOLD: We evolved as creatures, as, like, people that run from predators in the animal kingdom - right? - to have anxiety as a way to predict threat and run from threat.

CHATTERJEE: When we're anxious, our muscles tense up. Our hearts race. We're vigilant, ready to fight off a predator or run away from it.

GOLD: And you can only run a hundred-yard dash for a short amount of time, not a year, and not a year where they keep moving the finish line, right? And we can't do that. Eventually, our muscles and our body says, no, I'm tired.

CHATTERJEE: That tiredness can also be a symptom of depression, says Dr. Sandro Galea. He's an epidemiologist and the dean of the School of Public Health at Boston University. His research and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the number of people experiencing symptoms of depression have gone up during the pandemic.

SANDRO GALEA: Even if people do not rise to meet the threshold of having depression, result in this general unhappiness, this general disaffection, this general sense of I'm just tired of it all.

CHATTERJEE: He says that's a predictable response to the trauma of the pandemic.

GALEA: The definition of a trauma is an event that threatens people's sense of safety and stability, which this is.

CHATTERJEE: But the good news, he says, is that for most people, the exhaustion and other mental health effects of this pandemic won't last forever.

GALEA: Most people are resilient to traumatic events. And we should always keep that in mind. That means that most people do fine, and most people bounce back fairly quickly once the trauma resolves.

CHATTERJEE: However, as his own previous studies have shown, some will continue to struggle.

GALEA: And those people are typically the ones who have been both most affected in terms of having loved ones die or having jobs affected, having housing affected and also have less wealth, less social support.

CHATTERJEE: And they will need help and access to mental health care to recover once the pandemic ends. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.