Since early March, fatigue has become a constant, unwelcome companion for many people.
The pandemic has been exhausting, especially lockdown with its maelstrom of stress and upheaval with sleep disruption, as well as wild Covid-19 dreams, being widely reported. In some cases, this has been exacerbated by overindulgence in activities that are known to have a detrimental effect on sleep - namely poor food choices, daily wine o'clock, far too much screen time and erratic bedtime routines. The easing of restrictions has opened up our world a bit and theoretically this should reenergise us, but we are not necessarily feeling any less shattered even though there might not be a daily commute to face and social calendars remain less than full.
Gráinne Lawlor says that she has suffered from fatigue over the last few months, more so than normal. The operations manager for Adventure Trails, which offers food and drink tours and experiences in Dublin and Galway, was heading into the busy season when the pandemic brought everything to a halt. While some members of staff were let go, she has remained working from her home in Celbridge in a largely administrative role and the changed nature of her job has been a contributory factor to her tiredness.
"Although I was operations manager, I was very much dealing with people," she explains. "I was running and organising tours and developing new tours and travelling over and back to Galway. I work with people a lot and they tend to give me energy. You'd come home tired but the quality of the tiredness is very different to now. It's the thing of not fully switching off. I'm not very used to working from home and so it's trying to set times and keep an eye on emails, when there's not a lot coming in but you're constantly looking at it. I'm working for eight hours, there's not a huge amount to do but I don't feel I can make plans because I want to stay on top of what does come in and that's tiring."
The end of lockdown and being able to see friends and family, has been a welcome development but Lawlor, who has been living alone since her housemate moved out at the beginning of lockdown, admits that her energy levels have still not returned to anywhere near what they were pre-pandemic.
"I'm not much of a morning person anyway but I find it really hard to get up in the morning and I find it really difficult to motivate myself and I definitely see that that is still there," she says. "I can go out on a walk and for the first 45 minutes I'm flying and then on the way back I can feel myself absolutely exhausted whereas before I was a good walker - I can walk all day and night and a do a lot walking tours, my body moves that way a lot - so definitely, physically there is a tiredness."
In terms of her sleep, Lawlor reports that some weeks are fine, other weeks not so much. "I will have blocks of time where I find it really hard to get to sleep even though I'm exhausted and I've been looking forward to going to bed all day and then finding it really difficult to actually get to sleep and being awake quite late," she says.
Her experience of working from home chimes with the experts' view that remote working, which looks set to continue for many employees, can be draining.
"We miss the social interaction. Working from home is not the same as going into the office and having face-to-face meetings with colleagues," says Motty Varghese, senior sleep physiologist at Sleep Therapy Clinic in St James's Private Clinic, Dublin. "Also, our sensory experiences are limited. Even if we just consider half an hour trip to the office and back on the bus or Luas, the half an hour sensory experience we have would be much higher than what we would have in the four walls of our own home office."
He also points to Zoom fatigue as well as the merging of the personal and the professional as potentially depleting energy levels. "You step out of your office and you're straight into your personal space whereas the commute back and forth from home and office with your book or your headphones on may have acted as a buffer for a lot of people and that separation is gone, which may be leading to exhaustion."
Being in a state of anxiety is naturally tiring and the pandemic has provided lots of reasons to feel worried ranging from concerns about your own and your family's health to financial stress.
"Anxiety is exhausting," says Dr Joe FitzGibbon, the author of Feeling Tired all the Time, whose specialist interests include fatigue and allergies. "Anxieties require energy. They require thinking about and our bodies react physically to the anxiety: heart rate goes up, breathing rate goes up."
Very few people can claim to be immune to the heightened sense of tension that the pandemic has created but this is even more acute for someone with specific concerns about loved ones.
"If you're living with a very elderly grandparent who has diabetes then you are going to be much more concerned and much more cautious and you are going to be more vigilant, so anything that requires more vigilance is exhausting as you have to be constantly aware and constantly on your guard and that requires a certain amount of energy," says FitzGibbon.
There's also the fatigue that comes with readjusting to a new normal, which brings an increase in planning and organising. According to neuroscientist and psychologist Dr Sabina Brennan, the body and brain thrive on regularity, and in our current lives, many of our daily actions can no longer be done on autopilot. Remembering to bring your face mask with you to the supermarket, for example, requires effort. "Adapting to a new way of living means that the brain has to invest resources in behaviours that are not habitual, which will make you feel tired," she notes.
But while we can't change our situation or eradicate the pandemic, we can take measures to fight fatigue by following the central tenets of good sleep hygiene. Brennan, the author of 100 Days to a Younger Brain, suggests going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, including weekends and getting seven to nine hours' sleep; switching off devices that emit blue light an hour before bed and making sure the room is completely dark. She also recommends being physically active during the day but not close to bedtime and creating a sleep haven. "Avoid dual use - if you have to use the bedroom as an office find ways to screen off the workstation so that you can't see it while you try to sleep," she says.
Sleep physiologist Varghese advises to take our chronotypes - your preferred time of the day to conduct activities - into account. "Some of us are morning individuals and some of us are evening time, and especially when we are working from home, we do have that flexibility to pay attention to our chronotype and adjust our bedtime accordingly and plan your work accordingly."
The pandemic gave rise to poor sleep habits for lots of people, but that's not to say that these habits can't be turned around, especially if we try to not become anxious about not getting enough sleep, thus compounding the problem. Instead, the key is to view it as a natural physical process that will happen provided we do the right things to set the scene.
"It's not just your behaviour but your beliefs and attitudes that are important for us to get a good night's sleep," says Varghese. "It's important to be mindful of sleep and for us to see every night as a new night. No matter how long you've slept poorly for, since lockdown or for years, you have all the potential to get a good night's sleep."