Change fatigue: the feeling of ‘I can’t deal with one more thing’

It’s been said the only constant is change, and during a pandemic that rings doubly true. Nearly every day it seems there’s new information sparking new worries, raising questions and compelling us to make decisions. There’s no doubt many of us are just plain tired of it. There’s even a name for it: change fatigue. And while the term may have originated in corporate settings, it fits well for the current challenges we face.

To learn more about the condition, its causes and symptoms and what we can do about it, we talked with Alfonso Ramirez, MA, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) director of behavioral health equity. Ramirez has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is an expert in trauma-informed guidance for children, families and communities.

OHA: What exactly is change fatigue?

AR: “Generally, it’s really just feeling tired, overwhelmed or apathetic. The sense of ‘On no, here we go again.’ The thing about the pandemic is the sheer number of changes, and the unpredictability. When things are unpredictable and extreme, and that goes on forever, it leads to sensitization, which means you are sensitive to any kind of stress. First, it was, ‘Don’t wear masks,’ then, ‘Yes, wear masks,’ then ‘We’re closing down schools, closing down work, you can’t go to restaurants.’ And then there was George Floyd. That moment and movement highlighted the horrible reality of systemic racism and the need for profound change. It was another thing for people to think about and try to manage, within organizations, among friends and in many deep and personal ways. Then Delta, Omicron, misinformation on social media, and now inflation and the war in Ukraine. All these stressors make us really sensitive to the next thing. That’s why we have a lot of change fatigue. It’s the feeling, ‘I can’t deal with one more thing.’”

OHA: How does it affect our lives?

AR: “People like routine, we are rhythmic creatures, and we can get fatigued when those rhythms are disrupted. And I think there’s been a lot of fear – and still is – about ‘how do we keep ourselves safe?’ There are a lot of decisions that people are having to make, and frankly I think they are overwhelming. ‘Am I far enough apart from someone in the store? Is it safe to go to the store? Is it safe to go outside? Do I visit grandma? Should I get the vaccine?’ More than anything else it’s the unpredictability of the stressors that has made it hard.”

OHA: Are there other times in our lives people might have experienced this?

AR: “Absolutely. Divorce, bringing a new baby home, losing a loved one, moving, children leaving home – those are situations that are somewhat similar, situations where changes have been really hard. The interesting thing about COVID is that we’ve all gone through this at the same time. Everyone can relate to the stress to some degree. If I’ve never had a baby, it’s hard for me to understand what someone means by that stressor. If I haven’t gone through a divorce or lost a loved one, it’s hard to relate to that. But with COVID, we all have that connection to understanding what that stress is like. I can say, ‘well I lost my friend, my vacation, my lifestyle changed, and I know there are people who have lost that and more. I can feel more compassion for them. It’s hard for me and yet I know it must be harder for others.’”

OHA: How do we help ourselves?

AR: “One of the things that helps is just to find a new rhythm. If keeping a mask on is helpful for you, just keep it on. If you want to follow social distance guidelines, do that until you feel comfortable not doing that. One of the best predictors of how you are going to get on with things is your connection with people. Staying connected, calling people, spending time with them — all super important and underappreciated. Even if it’s something as simple as joining a bridge club or attending a poetry slam or being part of a music group. As much as we are able, connecting with people is probably one of the best things we can do. The other thing is really to plan out things so you have a routine. Have your clothes ready for tomorrow, eat at a certain time, walk at a certain time–anything that gives you predictability and can bring a rhythm to your life is good. Another thing is to develop a routine around helping others. For example, working in a soup kitchen or a community garden. It gives people a sense of purpose or control. The feeling that you are of service to others can be really helpful and is also is another form of connection with other people.”