On Robots and ‘Rona: There’s a Reason You’re Exhausted (And What You Can Do)

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Automaticity. 

It sounds like the world of robots, but it is actually an essential part of how your brain works and right now your brain’s automated systems are all askew. Briefly defined, automaticity is the ability of your brain to complete low-level tasks without having to think very hard about them. 

When you read this blog you’re no longer having to sound out all the words – that’s automaticity. When you drive to the store without thinking about the route or run in to grab something on an errand and just “know” where things are, that’s automaticity. When you drive a rental car and suddenly driving seems much more complicated, it’s because even small changes in our environment disrupt that process and require way more brainpower.  

Like a robot in a bad science fiction movie, the automatic functions of your brain have been fritzed by COVID. Whether you’ve been socially distanced for the last six months or are trying to “get back to normal,” it is staggering to consider how many simple things you can not do the way you used to. Everything from going to work to grabbing groceries has been changed in big and small ways.

Even simple things like remembering to pack the hand sanitizer or pack a mask have a significant impact on how our brains work. Whether we are aware of it or not, we’re literally having to think harder about every single thing right now, and that is exhausting. Luckily, there are some things you can do that can help reduce the mental load of this disruption.  

1. Keep it Simple

If there is anything in your life you can make simpler right now, this is the time to do it.  Can you create a 14-day meal plan you just repeat and make a standard shopping list?  Can you create a simple schedule for your kids for getting ready for school in the morning?  Can you wear the same earrings to work every day this week? In short, anything you can do that can help you to build more automaticity and reduce decision fatigue is a good idea.

2. Get Some Sleep

All this learning and adjusting to a new system is quite literally exhausting.  This is a time to prioritize rest. Your brain is working in overtime right now and it needs more sleep to regroup.  

3. Find Some “Flow.” 

Flow is a brain state where we are fully focused on a task and the rest of our mind quiets.  It happens when we are focused on something we find rewarding and mildly challenging.  That something can be running, quilting, knitting, bread baking, tennis, a puzzle, or 100 other things that help you feel focused and energized. 

Spending time in this state literally changes your brain chemistry and can help carry you through the rest of a day. Even 10 minutes a day of “flow” can make a big difference in how well you think and how you feel.

4. Get Support. 

Whether it is counseling, a regularly scheduled phone call with a friend or take out, schedule yourself some support you can count on. When we are feeling overwhelmed it often feels difficult to request the support we so desperately need.

Think about one thing that would help this next week feel better to you (this can be anything from knowing that Friday night is pizza night to scheduling a call with your bestie), and go ahead and plan on this before you need it.  

5. Be kind to yourself. 

I’m certain that if you listened to a grandmother tell the story of the dust bowl, you would not have thought, “Gosh grandma, why didn’t you take that opportunity to lose some weight or do some home improvement projects.” 

Somehow, we have a tendency to say things to ourselves that we would never say to other people. There are so many good reasons that this time is stressful and tiring. You’re in the company of billions of other people that it feels this way. Please, please, please do not make this hard time harder by beating yourself up for finding a challenging time challenging. 

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