Eight months into a global pandemic and well into our second set of restrictions, admitting you miss your commute can stick in the throat. The same way saying "I'm tired of working from home" can feel like slapping a gift horse in the face, when you've spent years longing for more flexibility.
These are privileges not granted to all of us, and many workers still face the risks of working out of the home. But it’s not ingratitude making some people tire of the "new normal". It’s pandemic fatigue, the latest threat to beating Covid-19 around the world.
Pandemic fatigue is what experts are now calling the heavy weariness many feel as the months in lockdown roll on, a "combination of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion", says resilience coach and author of The Burnout Solution Siobhan Murray, that has driven many people around the world to flout restrictions.
When the first restrictions hit, hard and fast, in March Irish people wasted no time in massively changing their lives in the hopes normality would soon return. It was like "marathon training", Murray says: "I'm going to train really hard, I'm going to do these restrictions really well for a few weeks and then I'm going to be at the finish line."
"But the finish line kept moving. And the problem is, is that none of us have a chance to reset."
"There was there was no nobody saying, 'okay, this is what we need to do. You need to take a day to reset yourself to get into the next three weeks’. So we've all been emotionally, literally running a marathon and there is absolutely no end in sight."
"This is about self maintenance and self preservation"
What we did instead was bake banana bread to find sweetness in our days, "use the time well" by taking up running. Some learned languages, others mastered a hobby. Some of us threw ourselves into online dating. And they’re just the ones with the luxury of freed up time.
The banana bread, Italian lessons and Strava updates didn’t halt another surge of new cases, so how do we get through more lockdowns? "This is about self maintenance and self preservation", Murray says.
Fight or flight
The snap reaction to the outbreak of Covid-19 has had a profound effect on not only how we live, but our very bodies, Murray says. Most of us entered into a prolonged fight-or-flight state that few of us have left.
"What happened to us in March, it was like we were suddenly locked up and we were all in our homes and our offices and we looked up and there was a family of hungry bears around our gardens and we all ran home, closed all the windows, doors to keep the hungry brown bears out.
"So our adrenaline and our cortisol and our glucose and all surged into high stress. The brown bears haven't gone away. They're still there, but it's become normalised."
You probably know the feeling well: a feeling of being low, waves of sadness and a lack of motivation, even when the constant distraction of work is ever present. "People are being overly productive because in the evenings they've got nothing else to do", Murray says. "So they're opening their laptops and they're doing work.
"A lot of people at this stage are starting to wane on their routines, on the routines that got them through, because in the beginning, everybody was going, 'oh, you know, I'm going to do a Joe Wicks workout and I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that.’
"And it's not sustainable to keep going at that level. So it's kind of all come crashing down."
The effects of this are also physical, she says. She’s seen it in clients: digestive issues, chronic headaches. "And it's not from staring at screens. It's because you're internalizing all the stress that they're feeling instead of saying I'm having a bad day."
Resilience or stiff upper lip?
The last few months have been defined by a humbling display of global resilience. Countries across the world have battled surge after surge of cases, businesses have pivoted to keep open and families, friends and neighbours have pulled together to keep on keeping on.
But there comes a time when resilience gives way to stoicism, the stiff upper lip mentality ensuring children get to school, jobs are kept up but perhaps not enough talking and checking in is happening. The thing about keeping stoic is that while it keeps the ship just about afloat, it can also keep help firmly at bay.
"They're going from their bed across their bedroom to their office desk. For others, it's downstairs to the kitchen or into a corner of the living room."
Having space to shut off and maybe even daydream is now so rare and precious, that some of us are missing our commute. That potentially hour-long block of time was once the most stressful part of many of our days, but now represents something different: time to stay still.
"It was also a time to switch from home to work and work to home", Murray says, adding that she’s seeing more people saying they miss their commutes. . "They're going – for some people – from their bed across their bedroom to their office desk. For others, it's downstairs to the kitchen or into a corner of the living room.
"But that period of time commuting, whether we were sitting on buses scrolling through our phones, reading the news, listening to podcasts, whether we were cycling, walking, driving, it allowed us that time to merely decompress from one way of living, which is home or work."
With two lockdowns almost under our belts, and smack bang in the middle of what is for many the most challenging time of year anyway, this isn’t the time for aspirational to-do lists or punishing expectations. The bare essentials, the things that bring us stability and comfort, are what we need, Murray says.
"This is the time to go, ‘You know what? I'm going to get my sleep in order. I'm going to be mindful of my sleep. I'm going to make sure I get out for a minimum of a walk.’ Anything else? That's great. That's a bonus. Just get outside, get some fresh air, get away from your desk."
A huge test
But what about those few months in between, when things almost felt normal, when we could sit in pubs and go to museums, date and hang out in groups? How do you maintain the momentum gained back in that time now, when restrictions are at their tightest again?
Murray sees this especially with new relationships, and says the current restrictions are putting those romances under "a huge test".
"It's going to show whether relationships are built on compatibility on people rather than just going out and having drinks"
"I think for new relationships it's going to show whether relationships are built on compatibility on people rather than just going out and having drinks and having dinner, that people are actually getting to know each other a little bit more.
"So rather than to see it as a negative, which we can, try to see it as a positive and to still keep those those lines of communication open with the person and to learn more about them.
All in it together?
It has to be said that a major source of pandemic fatigue is seeing others flouting restrictions while you follow them, and for many this has been the undoing of the belief that "we’re all in this together". How do you cope with that?
"It is really hard, but all we can do is control our own behaviour and not the behaviour of others, because the energy that we expend, getting annoyed about situations that have annoyed us. And then we expend all this energy giving us about it, and that stress is double-fold.
"If it's friends and family who don't follow the same values you do, that puts a huge stress on those relationships. So I think it's really important to know what your own values are around all of this."
News of a vaccine becoming available in a few months has renewed hope across the world, and it’s much needed. But what if these six weeks aren’t the last restrictions we live through?
Murray’s tip is to let yourself have that worry, vocalise it and then leave it to one side. "The reality of this situation is that we don’t know what comes next, so all we can do is acknowledge how we feel and then put it aside" – a valuable practice in and of itself.
"There are some good things that have come out of this in that it has made us slow down our pace a little bit in different ways, not the ways that we would have necessarily thought."