Let’s be honest, living in 2020 hasn’t been a delight. This year has been punctuated by wildfires that ravaged an entire continent, the arrival of “murder” hornets that threaten native ecosystems, a global pandemic, economic distress and uncertainty, continuous examples of systemic racism that have led to nationwide unrest and righteous protests that demand and plead for change, and the list will go on. It’s only June, after all.
In times like these, it’s natural to be feeling a mixture of exhaustion, rage, disgust, despair, desperation, hypervigilance, anxiety and grief. Depending on your personal proximity to one or more of these tragedies, you may be experiencing signs of moral injury and/or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Moral injury and PTSD are closely connected to one another. Both involve an event, series of events or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening. This experience creates lasting adverse effects on the your physical, emotional or spiritual well-being. In essence, the experience changes you and causes you to question sometimes long-held beliefs about human nature, right and wrong, fairness and justice, big-picture meaning and the role that they “coulda/shoulda/woulda” had in preventing bad things from happening.
While a diagnosis of PTSD involves the additional presence of specific symptoms related to experiencing a traumatic event, moral injury can be just as distressing. When stressors accumulate and layer on top of one another, as they have been this year, many people are left to grapple with both concrete and existential questions related to “why” and “what if.”
Why me? Why my community? Why was this allowed to happen? Why hasn’t anyone intervened by now? What if things continue to spiral out of control? What if it doesn’t get better?
Such questions are natural to consider during times of adversity, but the emotional real estate that they occupy can leave you feeling drained, irritable, on edge and hopeless. This “crisis fatigue” can impact our relationships, as well as our motivation to work toward the changes we’d like to see in the world.
It’s not all bad news though. There are some things we can do to mitigate and minimize the effects of crisis fatigue.
Be intentional about how you’re spending your energy
Many of us are feeling stretched too thin lately. To cope, choose one or two priorities that you really want to have an impact around. Focus on things you can control or influence (whether it’s with your voice, your wallet or your personal effort).
Choose your battles (and how you’ll go about fighting them)
Many of us are engaging in some important (and sometimes uncomfortable) conversations. While you can’t control how others will behave during these exchanges, you can decide how you’ll approach them. You can also decide when it’s time to disengage from a conversation that isn’t healthy or productive.
Focus on the things that bring joy and hope too
We hardly need to be reminded of the things that aren’t going well in the world, but we could use a little refresher on the things that make life worthwhile. Take notice of the things (however big or small) that bring some levity to your day.
Take time for self-care
Notice when you’re feeling tired or when you’ve had enough (for now). Give yourself permission to take breaks from the stress to engage in a healthy distraction or an activity that you find enriching or soothing. Self-care isn’t selfish—it’s necessary maintenance and self-preservation.
It’s easy to become isolated when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Talking with someone that you trust about the way all this stress is impacting you can help you stay connected and discredit the notion that you’re alone in how you’re feeling.
Experiencing an adverse reaction to intense and prolonged stress doesn’t make you mentally ill. In fact, it makes you human. There’s no need to consider your crisis fatigue as something abnormal.
However, if you’re noticing persistent anxiety, trouble sleeping, hypervigilance, apathy and numbness, or overwhelming emotional responses that are impacting your relationships or daily functioning, there’s no need to suffer in silence. Consider seeking assistance from a mental health professional who can help you unpack what’s happening, help you move through your feelings and introduce additional strategies for how to cope.
Arianna Galligher is a licensed independent social worker supervisor and the associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.