Crisis fatigue: How to manage mental exhaustion

Stressed man sitting in the dark looking at his phone

Feeling exhausted as you watch the news or scroll through your social media feeds? Tossing and turning at night trying to sort it all out? Weary of heated discussions that seem to go nowhere?

If so, you’re not alone.

The past two years have brought layer upon layer of stress and crises: a deadly pandemic, continuing racial inequities, economic upheaval, deepening political divides, war. And the list goes on. So many big things seem to be going wrong in the world, exposing flaws in our systems and laying bare the disparities and inequities that make it difficult to thrive.

We’re worn out, left with feelings of frustration, anxiety, disgust, grief, helplessness and even apathy. There’s a name for what we’re experiencing: crisis fatigue. And it can impact our relationships, as well as our motivation to work toward the changes we’d like to see in the world.

It’s important to remember that what you’re feeling is common and valid, and there are ways to cope and places to find help.

Signs that you could be experiencing crisis fatigue might include:

Energy depletion

Our energy is a lot like currency: Each of us may start with a different amount, we have to make choices about how we’re going to spend it, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. When demands on our energy outweigh our supply, the result is exhaustion.

Even the most well-resourced person is likely feeling the impact of recent events. No matter how resilient we may be, we all can buckle under the weight of multiple forms of adversity that must be faced at the same time. It might be tough to engage at all.

Moral injury

Moral injury is distress related to perpetrating, witnessing or failing to prevent acts that conflict with one’s own moral beliefs, values or ethical codes of conduct. It often results from stress and crises.

For example, images of war and violence, like what’s taking place in Ukraine, can lead to moral injury. When a person reads about or witnesses unprovoked and devastating violence, it can alter their beliefs about whether we live in a “just” world in which good things generally come to those who work hard and do the right things. Feeling overwhelmed, angry or sad about war and violence is actually a sign of health (it indicates that a person is compassionate and caring), but our belief systems can become so altered by what we’ve seen that we begin to lose our sense of hope for humanity as a whole.

Mental and physical effects

Constant exposure to stress and crisis without adequate opportunity for respite and restoration can take a toll on one’s physical and mental health.

Exposure to stress activates the body’s survival mechanism. Stress hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol are released in an effort to optimize our response to the threat. While this is helpful in the short term, prolonged activation can negatively impact the immune system and cause inflammation, difficulty with digestion and elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Facing difficult situations can also lead to depression, anxiety, irritability and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. When stressors accumulate and layer on top of one another, many people are left to grapple with questions related to “why” and “what if.”

Strategies for coping

Be intentional about how you’re spending your energy

Many of us are feeling stretched too thin. To cope, choose one or two priorities in areas where you really want to make an impact. Focus on things you can control or influence (whether it’s with your voice, your wallet or your personal effort).

Limit your intake of media resources

Media can influence how we view the world around us. While it’s important to stay informed, it can be useful to take breaks from media sources (including social media), and to approach content with benign curiosity rather than dogmatic loyalty. Ask questions and seek to understand viewpoints that don’t align with your own. Learn to recognize and reject “clickbait” that’s designed to inspire an emotional reaction but is likely inaccurate.

Try to keep a balanced view

While it’s not good to turn a blind eye to critical issues, such as war, it’s important to also expose yourself to stories in which people are behaving kindly and offering what help they can to make the world a better place. Additionally, if there’s something you can do to make a positive impact, challenge yourself to do it, even if it’s small.

Approach uncomfortable conversations carefully

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 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 what brings 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 healthy distractions or activities that you find enriching or soothing. Self-care isn’t selfish — it’s necessary maintenance and self-preservation.

Access support

It’s easy to become isolated when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Talk with someone who you trust about the way all this stress is impacting you. This can help you stay connected and discredit the notion that you’re alone in how you’re feeling.

If you experience persistent anxiety, trouble sleeping, difficulty relaxing, 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.

More information on seeking mental health care

Help for mental health conditions

Ohio State offers personalized, compassionate care for your mental health concerns.

Learn more

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