“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.”
There are 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 naming and describing it will help.
Even the calmest, most equanimous people benefit from at least occasional periods of excitement. We thrive with some degree of oscillation in our lives. The pandemic has, by and large, taken these punctuated bouts of excitement away. Concerts, sporting events, attending 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 and nervousness on the back end. As a result, many people are going out less often. There is a collective lack 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.
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 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.
Third, we need to be patient. Though it may seem otherwise, 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 as I write in my new book, The Practice of Groundedness, in situations like this, perhaps better is advice is don’t just do something, stand there.