Running on empty: How the pandemic has left many of us feeling cranky
Francesca Vrattos was walking out of a store several weeks ago when a man getting into his car about 30 feet away called out to her. She couldn’t understand him or read his lips behind his cloth face mask. “Excuse me?” she said. He repeated his comment again, and again. Each time, with increasing irritation, Vrattos replied, “Excuse me?”
Finally, in exasperation, she walked toward him and harrumphed, “I can’t hear you!” So he repeated his remark.
“You look pretty today.”
Vrattos, 68, felt like a fool. She tilted her head and, blushing behind her own mask, said, “Awww, thank you.”
The Petaluma woman walked back to her car and sat inside reflecting on how short-tempered she was to this stranger who was just trying to be kind.
“I’m not normally like that,” she said. “But then, nothing is normal right now.”
A half year into the coronavirus pandemic, with no end in sight, rising tensions have left many of us feeling irritable, short-fused and more quick to detonate over even small annoyances.
“My anger, which I think we all feel, is toward the fact that people are just not listening. A lot of people have lost their minds,” said Teri Altizio, 56, who lives in Santa Rosa. “They’re doing stuff that they would not normally do. I don’t understand how we’ve managed to go from a normal society to a psychotic society.”
She recalls standing in line at the grocery story when a woman at the counter barked at her to get back. “Gee, I’m sorry. It wasn’t like I was coming up there to do anything. But the fear is real for some people.”
The coronavirus — with its quarantines, shortages, prolonged lack of contact with friends and loved ones, limitations on normal day-to-day life, job losses and furloughs, economic uncertainty, canceled vacations and family celebrations and, at its worst, sickness and death — is taking its toll. Fear and frustration have depleted the reserves of many people, even those who are normally patient and even-tempered.
Despair seems to be setting in. A Gallup survey in mid-July showed 73% of adults believed the pandemic is getting worse. A Gallup Poll in early August found only 13% of adults are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, the lowest level in nine years. More than half the respondents in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July reported that their mental health had suffered because of the pandemic. In a Pew Research Center study in April, 7 in 10 adults said they needed a break from COVID news.
“A lot of it is being locked up for so long. People have literally lost their minds watching what is happening,” said Altizio, who works in medical administration. “Look at all the violence going on right now, the shootings, the vandalism. The way people are talking to each other. The fights. The suicides. People are just going into that big hole and they’re not getting out of it. Like my stepmother used to say when you get in a hole, ‘Put down the shovel.’ ”
Blowups in store checkout lines and other public places, often over the wearing — or not wearing — of masks, have become commonplace. People are calling each other out on social media for bad behavior, with middle-aged white women a specific target. They’re shamed in dozens of viral videos for behaving like “Karens,” a pejorative for selfish, overbearing and privileged women who act out in public.
Scuffles over toilet paper in the spring have escalated into angry confrontations over face masks as the summer heated up.
It seems as if people, suffering COVID fatigue, have diminished capacity for compassion.
This may be because they are in a survival mode, said Dr. James Doty, a compassion researcher and founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.
“There are limits to compassion and the amount we can empathize when we feel helpless and in despair,” Doty said.
“If you feel safe and calm and things are fine, then it’s certainly easier for you to look at others and want to be helpful,” Doty said. “Part of the problem is that people are nervous, scared and frankly, many are unemployed and not able to pay their rent. That creates even more anxiety and fear. When people are anxious and fearful, they turn inward.
“In some ways it’s like tribalism,” he continued. “If there’s abundance and plenty for everyone, no one is complaining. If there is scarcity within a group, people get very anxious and want to make sure they have their share. Scarcity results in people shutting down and not being open to sharing.”
Lynne Brown of Santa Rosa said she recently has been asking herself, “What’s wrong with me?”