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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.”

Low reserves

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.”

Trauma buildup

Lynne Brown of Santa Rosa said she recently has been asking herself, “What’s wrong with me?”

“I’ve always wanted to donate to almost every human charity that needs money. Nowadays, terrible thoughts come into my head like, ‘Syrian children — are you kidding? That’s half a world away. I can’t worry about that!’” Brown said. “I’ve been very upset with myself over this change and seeming lack of compassion. I’m still giving regularly to charities, but the wish to help everyone in the world if I could seems to have fled as I feel more powerless.”

The wildfires that ravaged Wine Country in the last few years brought out the best in many people and a strong desire to pull together as a community. But Bob Canning, a retired commercial copywriter for Disney who lives in Petaluma, said “the coronavirus brings out the worst in people” and it makes him begin to “COVID-ly rebel.”

“I don’t take kindly to selfish, arrogant bullies who refuse to wear a mask or ridicule people who do,” he said. “I had words with a crabby woman belittling an older woman for wearing hers outside of the Petaluma post office early on who said, ‘If and when the president wears one, I will too.’ ”

In Sonoma County, these feelings might be even more acute because of the accumulation of trauma, said Adrienne Heinz, a Healdsburg psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress and mental health in disasters.

“I’ve lived through two evacuations, a flood and now the pandemic,” she said. “Our little community has endured so much adversity and we keep bouncing back, but it’s getting harder.

“When you go through a trauma, it brings back every other trauma you’ve been though,” she said. “There is this cumulative burden of adversity. There’s a lot of ways to rise and get through it. But it tests our ability. This particular type of disaster is invisible. It’s so uncertain. We don’t know the parameters, when it will end. It weighs heavily on folks. You can only limp along so long.”

These uncertainties have left a lot of people at the end of their emotional tether, and one of the reactions is anger.

Lea Davis, 56, who works at local big-box store, can relate.

“It’s not who I am, but I’m finding myself wanting to snap at people a lot,” she said. The customers also can be cranky. They’re irritated when items aren’t in stock, which is sometimes unavoidable because of the pandemic. She said she’s seen “so many fights almost happen.

“I actually had a few days when I had to self-quarantine and I probably spent two days of it crying,“ the Santa Rosa woman said.

Anger, according to Heinz, is a “smoke signal” that there are feelings of vulnerability under the surface.

“When we’re in this situation where we don’t have control, eventually we experience despair, because tomorrow will be no different than today. That’s exhausting emotionally,” said Heinz, who, in addition to maintaining a private practice, is a research scientist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System and Stanford University.

“When your feelings are not getting met and you’re afraid someone might give you a deadly virus, it’s hard to tap into your empathy reserve. And that is what Sonoma County is know for,” she said. "We’re used to coming together. Disaster is a great connector, but we don’t connect because we’re all in this survival mode.”

Suzanne Edminster is an artist with a studio in Santa Rosa’s SOFA district. She said she’s noticed society’s mood has shifted.

“No more Quarantinis and no more sourdough,” she said, referring to the slightly giddy early days of the pandemic when people good-naturedly poured drinks and baked bread and expected it all to be over in a few weeks.

Now weeks have stretched into months. People, Edminster said, are feeling a deeper level of loss as they realize this could go on for a long time.

“It’s like we are all trapped on a little lifeboat together. There is that feeling of who is going to survive?” she said. Artists’ physical exhibitions and shows, their bread-and-butter income, have been canceled for months. And she is concerned about her 91-year-old mother in a retirement home.

Edminster said she and her husband have actually increased their charitable giving, seeing so many millions of Americans teetering around on the edge of financial collapse. But at the same time she said she feels depleted, as if she doesn’t have it in her to absorb the whole world’s suffering.

“I feel like I’ll just take care of little businesses,” she said, admitting that she finds she’s more apt to be unintentionally inconsiderate of others’ feelings, as much as she tries to remain as compassionate as she can.

“That’s all the energy I have,” she said. “It’s become one of those ‘I love humanity. It’s the people I can’t stand’ kind of things.”

Strategies for managing COVID fatigue

Practice radical self-compassion. Visualize who loves you unconditionally: a grandparent, a parent you were especially close to who heard you and saw you without judgment. Imagine spending time with that person and give them a hug. This is practicing radical self-compassion. It allows you to find deeper empathy for others.

Write down what you’re going through. Even if it’s just for five minutes a day, do this journaling exercise. You start to write your own narrative rather than reacting to the narrative being put in front of you by others or the media.

Talk with children about the challenges you're all going through. This is your family narrative. Think about your children or someone who sees you as a mentor. What story would you like to tell them about how your family got through the COVID crisis and fire season? What values would you like to highlight? Children know when their parents are struggling, and talking with them is centering for them.

Get clear with your values. In a crisis, everything is stripped away to what you value most. What is your north star, your core values? A lot of things we can’t control, but values are something we can control. In a time of chaos it is comforting to return to them.

Practice radical empathy. In a tense moment, if you see someone acting out or behaving in a way that triggers your anger, take a moment and put yourself in her shoes. You don’t know what she is going through. Try offering a disarming comment to defuse the tension.

Mammalian dive response. Scientific studies show that when you’re exposed to extremely cold temperatures, it forces your body and breath to slow down. Take a cold shower. Splash your face with cold water. Put an ice pack or a package of frozen peas on your face.

Forest bathing. The Japanese have a practice of walking through the forest for mental and emotional cleansing. Getting out in nature is calming and healing.

— Dr. Adrienne Heinz, psychologist, research scientist and expert in post-traumatic stress.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

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