A little over a month ago, I started feeling more fatigued than usual. Just about everything in my life—from getting out of bed to exercising to writing to coaching to reading—required a significant amount of activation energy. All of these activities usually felt smooth and seamless. Now they had turned into a grind. I wasn’t depressed, or even particularly sad. And I didn’t have the sense of stagnation or emptiness associated with languishing. I was simply tired.
I was—and am—not alone. I started sharing these feelings with friends, colleagues and neighbors, and many of them, too, reported a similar sense of exhaustion.
“I am sleeping and eating well and not commuting to work or worrying about getting dressed up in the morning and yet I still always feel so beat,” bemoaned Linda, a 40-year-old woman who lives down the street.
“I am so tired always,” said Mark, a close friend. “For the first time in my life, I am struggling not to hit the snooze button multiple times.”
These struggles are not new. They were a common theme over the past three years in my reporting on The Practice of Groundedness, and they were a large part of what drove me to write the book. But they are intensifying. Google searches for the phrase “Why am I tired all the time?” have been at their historical highs between July 2021 and September 2021.
There are, of course, many reasons for our collective fatigue: a year-and-a-half-long pandemic, social unrest and democratic backslide—to name just a few. But even beyond these obvious drivers, I think there is something else going on: We are replacing excitement with anxiety.
This phenomenon is subtle and insidious. My hope is that describing it will help.
Even the calmest, most equanimous people benefit from at least occasional periods of excitement. There is a reason that “flat-lining” is associated with death. We thrive with some degree of oscillation in our lives. The pandemic has, by and large, taken these punctuated bouts of excitement away.
Attending concerts, sporting events, movies, even going to restaurants (let alone taking a proper vacation) are not as straightforward as they used to be. For many people with children too young to be vaccinated—myself included—these activities are still off-limits. And even for those who feel more comfortable partaking in these sorts of activities, they are not stress-free. Every night out is accompanied by some degree of decision stress on the front end (should we go or not; is it worth the risk?) and nervousness on the back (is this slight headache from the wine or did I contract a case of the highly contagious Delta variant?) As a result, many people are going out less often. There is a collective lack of excitement in our lives.
A chronic lack of excitement is challenging enough on its own. But it is even worse when we replace our longing for excitement with anxiety, which can feel quite similar in the moment but has an extremely different long-term effect.
Consider this-all-too common example: You are feeling kind of sluggish and bored, so you go online and check trending topics on social media or visit any of the major news websites. You are not going to these destinations to learn anything specific, per se. You are going because you want a jolt to your otherwise flat-lining system. The jolt comes in the form of a horror story about politics, COVID-19, Afghanistan or any number of other unsettling topics. Though that jolt can, at least momentarily, feel like the excitement you are so desperately craving, it is actually anxiety. And repeated bouts of anxiety lead to deep exhaustion.
Put it all together and not only are we lacking many sources of positive and energizing excitement, but we are replacing them with negative and exhausting sources of anxiety. Viewed in this light, the question isn’t why are we tired all the time? The question is how could we not be tired all the time?
The solution, I believe, requires three steps. First, we need to stop replacing our desire for excitement with anxiety. When you feel the urge to doom scroll, ask yourself what is fueling that urge? If the answer is some vague notion of well, it’s something to do, then you’ve got to resist the urge.
Second, we need to do everything possible to insert some positive excitement into our lives in a way that feels safe. There is an inertia to fatigue. And while physical fatigue often benefits most from rest, psychological fatigue—the variety I am describing in this piece—often benefits most from action. In other words, you don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to give yourself a shot at feeling good.
Third, we need to be patient. While there is still much that we can do that is safe, it is also true that there is much we can’t. Things are hardly normal, and to pretend otherwise is absurd. Though it may seem like it will, our current state of affairs will not last forever. This may be a long winter, but it is just that—a season—and seasons always change. There is an old expression that goes don’t just stand there, do something. But in situations like this, perhaps the better advice is don’t just do something, stand there.
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