Center for Shared Insight, PC

COVID Burnout: Are you functioning in survival mode?

July 14, 2020
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Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.

Maybe you’ve been “staying home” for months and have cancelled all your summer travel plans. Perhaps you’ve been isolating with just family and limiting your outings to essential activities only. With so little outside stimulation and activity, you might still feel exhausted. How could this be when you are doing so little? Perhaps it’s because you are functioning in “survival mode”. 

In this post, we review Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how it can help explain how you are feeling during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might sound familiar to you, you likely don't remember all the levels of his famous pyramid or what they mean. From the bottom of the pyramid to the top, in order of importance to a person’s well-being, the needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. That translates to basic needs of food, water, and rest at the bottom, followed by safety, friendships, accomplishments, and finally achieving one’s fullest potential at the top. 

Maslow & Pandemic Stress

During the coronavirus pandemic, our primary focus, and the message we are hearing from the media, is that physiological needs, such as food, water, and safety should be prioritized over needs like socialization (friendships) and accomplishment (that might be felt through a nice vacation or significant purchase). While this might be true, higher needs can’t be met without the foundational needs being satisfied.

To put it in real-life terms, in our not-so-distant past, we were all wondering if we were going to be able to find enough toilet paper, disinfectant and hand sanitizer to actually stay safe. When energy is diverted to these lower-level needs, it takes away from pursuing higher-level needs. If you’re lucky, this may have been the first time you’ve felt a palpable scare that your foundational needs of food, water, and safety might not be met. For others, food scarcity and concern, missing rent, and not paying credit card payments is still a reality - or one that feels just one step away. This makes it impossible to work on higher-level needs, and results in a sense of panic, just trying to survive.

If those lower-level needs are being met, you might sense unfulfillment as you strive for higher-level needs, like creativity and accomplishment, because you have a hard time rising to that level without fulfilling mid-level needs - including a sense of social belonging and close relationships. When needs in the middle of the pyramid aren’t fulfilled, it’s impossible to meet the needs at the top and trying to do so can leave you frustrated and exhausted. COVID has inadvertently caused a breakdown in the middle of the pyramid for many of us who are forgoing social interactions during “safer at home” orders.

Dating, which falls in the middle section of Maslow’s hierarchy, has been especially hard for so many. Showing up as your best, most authentic self is pretty hard to do when you’re worried about staying germ free, if you can pay your rent next month, and if you don’t have much to talk about besides COVID-19.

What can you do

While we are indirectly asked to function in “survival mode” during this time, take this opportunity to focus on you and your mental health. Tune into gratitude for what you have during this time, such as food, shelter, and safety. Once those needs are met, can you find ways to help others who are having more trouble meeting those needs, to give back socially to your community? Do your best to maintain social circles in the ways you can such as with video calls and small gatherings with social distancing commitments. Putting extra emphasis on any activities that cultivate a sense of belonging and community, which can help you begin to rise into higher levels of functioning as those needs start to be fulfilled.

It’s known that major life changes are some of the biggest stressors in life, such as moving, job loss or changes, getting married/divorced, or having a child. We have all been asked to make significant changes in the way we live during the coronavirus pandemic, and those changes equate to the stress experienced during any other significant life change. Be gentle on yourself, forgiving, and flexible during this “new normal”. Recognize that in the short-term, higher-level needs won’t be met, and make peace with that reality as we move through the often exhausting phases of this pandemic. 

At Center for Shared Insight in Denver Colorado, we work with clients who feel burned out and exhausted and help them recognize what dynamics in their life they might be facing that result in these feelings. Whether it be the coronavirus pandemic and related feelings of anxiety, isolation, or the “COVID funk”, life as a new parent, or the loss of a job or loved one, change often fuels feelings of overwhelm. 

Our team of therapists can help you identify and overcome these daily stressors so that you can move beyond survival mode at the bottom of the pyramid into higher-level functioning toward the top. 

Contact us for a free consultation with our team today. 

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