Coping With Crisis Fatigue

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Crisis fatigue is a type of burnout that happens when people experience a prolonged crisis event.

While acute stress can be intense and all-consuming, it's also limited in duration. In such cases, we can look at the situation and see an end in sight. Because we know the crisis won't last forever, we can see a way to endure it until it finally passes.

On the other hand, longer-lasting sources of stress can often feel inescapable and unchangeable. Such stressful situations can include natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or financial meltdowns. While these events are generally time-limited, it often doesn't feel that way for the people experiencing them.

Over time, this chronic stress can take a toll on both emotional and physical well-being. Crisis fatigue can manifest as physical exhaustion, mental detachment, and apathy.

What Is Crisis Fatigue?

Crisis fatigue is not a distinct condition recognized in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" (also known as the DSM-5). Instead, it is a phenomenon that people often experience when faced with a chronic stressor that creates continuous challenges in their life.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of ongoing stress that may cause people to experience crisis fatigue. Other situations that can lead to this response include economic disasters, natural disasters, social unrest, racial discrimination, mass shootings, and war.

In such situations, there are often immediate effects of the stress (such as being discriminated against, experiencing personal losses, or dealing with violence) and prolonged effects that continue to take a toll even after the initial stressor is no longer present. 

Signs of Crisis Fatigue

Not everyone experiences crisis fatigue in the same way or to the same degree. Some common signs of this type of burnout include:

  • Physical exhaustion may manifest as fatigue, insomnia, or physical illness. Changes in sleep habits, constant physical tension, and loss of appetite can also contribute to low energy levels.
  • Mental detachment can involve feeling numb or disconnected from others or even the events of one's life. People might feel almost like they are passively watching the events of someone else's life rather than living through them as an active participant.
  • Apathy may manifest as a lack of motivation, hopelessness, or cynicism. This sense of apathy doesn't just appear as a lack of concern about the self; people experiencing crisis fatigue may have problems empathizing with others.
  • Physical symptoms can also occur when we face short-term stress. People often experience rapid breathing, racing heartbeat, sweating, trembling, and muscle tension. As chronic stress continues to exert its damaging effects, people often experience other physical signs of stress, including body aches, high blood pressure, digestive problems, or headaches.

Crisis fatigue can also lead to other mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. If you are experiencing crisis fatigue, seeking professional help to manage your symptoms and protect your mental well-being is essential.

What Causes Crisis Fatigue?

Several factors can contribute to crisis fatigue. These include:

  • Prolonged exposure to the stressor: When we are exposed to a stressful situation for a long time, it can take a toll on our psychological and physical well-being.
  • Lack of control: Feeling like we have no control over the situation can contribute to crisis fatigue. When we feel that nothing we do will make a difference, we are more likely to throw up our hands and give up.
  • Lack of support: When we don't have a strong support system, it can be harder to cope with stress.
  • Multiple stressors: Dealing with numerous stressors simultaneously (such as being unemployed and dealing with racial discrimination) can increase our vulnerability to crisis fatigue.

Exposure to stressful information can also contribute to feelings of crisis fatigue. For example, being glued to new reports about every disaster, crisis, crime, or conflict can create continuous stress. Tuning in may help people feel more informed about what is happening in the world, but too much exposure can make people feel overwhelmed to the point that they develop a sense of detachment.

Impact of Crisis Fatigue

The cumulative burden of chronic stress and complex life events has been dubbed allostatic load. Exposure to prolonged stress activates body systems that trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and catecholamines, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine.

The stress response prepares people to respond, cope, and adapt. And while we can often withstand the stress, it doesn't mean we don't face the consequences of bearing that relentless load.

Research suggests that high allostatic load is linked to worse health outcomes. Allostatic overload creates "wear and tear" on your body. This negatively affects many areas, including blood pressure, metabolic function, the inflammatory response, and the immune system.

How to Cope With Crisis Fatigue

If you are experiencing crisis fatigue, there are some things you can do to manage your symptoms and protect your mental health. If you've found yourself feeling stressed, apathetic, or detached because of crisis fatigue, consider implementing some of the following strategies:

Take Breaks

Take breaks from the news and social media. It can be helpful to stay informed, but it's also important to give yourself a break from constant exposure to stressful events.

Limit Exposure

Limit your exposure to news that is specifically about the crisis. You don't need to follow every development; just stay up-to-date enough to know what's going on without being overwhelmed. Set limits on how much time you spend watching the news or watching it on social media.

Consider subscribing to a daily summary through a newspaper website. This way, you can stay informed of current events without getting overwhelmed.

Care for Yourself

Make time for relaxation and self-care. Crisis fatigue can be exhausting, so taking care of yourself is important. Make sure to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise regularly.

Stick to a Schedule

When you are dealing with a great deal of stress, maintaining a regular routine can help you feel better. It allows you to care for yourself more effectively as you are dealing with the stressor.

Research is found that having a routine can help people better manage feelings of stress and anxiety. In addition to promoting healthy habits, such routines can help you feel more productive and focused.

Reframe the Situation

Changing how you think about the situation can significantly impact how you feel about it. Cognitive reframing is a strategy often done in cognitive behavioral therapy under the direction of a therapist, but it is also something you can do on your own.

When coping with a situation that contributes to stress and crisis fatigue, remember that it is temporary and won't last forever.

Take Action

Crisis fatigue can sometimes lead to feelings of paralysis and inaction. You might want to help with a problem, but you might not know where to start or how you can contribute. This sense of helplessness can cause stress that adds to feelings of fatigue.

Instead of exacerbating fatigue with endless doomscrolling, look for actions you can take to make a practical difference in your community or the world. You can't solve every problem yourself. Nor are you expected to.

Focus on doing what you can when you can. Reminding yourself that everyone has skills, talents, and knowledge they can contribute to the world can help combat feelings of hopelessness.

Talk to Someone

Talking to a friend or family member can help you feel better if you feel overwhelmed. You can also talk to a mental health professional if you need additional support.

Create Boundaries

Changes in the workplace have meant that many people are working remotely, which can contribute to an unbalanced work-home life. Creating clear boundaries between your work and your home life can help. Such boundaries might involve:

  • Setting up a separate workspace.
  • Avoiding work communications during off-hours.
  • Finding ways to mark a clear transition between your work and non-work time.

Talk to a Therapist

Seek professional help if you're struggling to cope. If crisis fatigue is impacting your ability to function in daily life, it may be time to seek out counseling or therapy. Reach out to a professional to talk about your feelings and look for solutions to help you feel more engaged, hopeful, and connected to the world around you.

If you or a loved one are struggling with crisis fatigue, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.