5 mindfulness strategies to help you recharge

Suffering from quarantine fatigue? The cure may be all in your head. 

Nancy Fitzgerald
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You’ve been stuck in the house for months and the isolation is starting to take a toll. Maybe you’re tired all the time, or cranky or anxious and depressed. Or all of the above. That original burst of energy you had back in March? The closet-cleaning ambitions, the Italian lessons? You’re so over that now. You just want to get back to normal.

There’s a name for that: quarantine fatigue. And it’s not new. In a recent article published in the medical journal The Lancet, the authors examined studies of quarantines that were imposed during other epidemics, such as the 2014 Ebola crisis and the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The conclusion? Isolation can be tough on your mental health. In one of those studies, 73% of people who’d been quarantined experienced depression, and nearly 10% of them still had depression symptoms three years later. 

Being home and inactive could be a recipe for depression, says clinical psychologist Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D. “And quarantine can be a problem for those who suffer from anxiety, too, especially if their way of dealing with anxiety has been keeping busy — shopping or eating at restaurants,” she says. 

But it’s important to remember, Smedley adds, that many people are fatigued because they’ve gone through trauma as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — they’ve been sick or lost their livelihood or even a loved one. 

How Mindfulness Helps Ease Emotional Overload

Quarantine fatigue is all about overload, says Anne Alexander, editor of Mindful magazine. “Our brains get tired of trying to manage so much alarming information,” she explains. “Things we never had to think about before, we’re suddenly thinking about constantly — Do I have my mask? Is that person standing too close to me at the store? Will there be another surge? It makes us mentally fatigued and we’re left without the emotional bandwidth to manage our own moods.” 

One way to cope: Mindfulness. “It’s a practice that helps us reframe our minds and shift our attention,” says Smedley. “It allows us to step back from all the uncertainties and all the scary stories our minds are telling us, and just focus on the moment.” 

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Are you sure your life will never be normal or happy again? Take one minute and focus on nothing but your breathing, concentrating on the way you inhale and exhale. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your chest and all the sensations you’re experiencing. Random thoughts keep popping up? That’s OK — just notice them and let them pass by.
Practicing mindfulness isn’t complicated. “You don’t have to spend hours sitting on a mountaintop,” says Alexander. “When you feel yourself spiraling with worry and fear, take a couple of minutes and breathe. Or go outside and notice how the sun feels on your skin or the way the sidewalk feels under your feet. By doing that, you’re training your mind to focus on what you want to focus on — and that means it’s not open season for all those intrusive thoughts.” 

5 Ways to Help Make Mindfulness Work for You 

One of the best mindfulness practices is one that focuses on gratitude. Studies show that people who cultivate thankfulness can improve their sense of well-being. 

Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has found that a thankful state of mind can bring a variety of health benefits, from a stronger immune system to a better ability to cope with stress and daily challenges. 

Being grateful can help you shift your attention away from difficult situations and improve your state of mind. After all, says Dr. Smedley, “we are what we pay attention to.” Here are some simple, effective ways to practice gratitude:

1. Flip the switch. Often, what’s upsetting is not the challenging situation itself — it’s the way you perceive that situation. So, the next time you find yourself missing your friends, for example, see if you can flip your mental switch to frame things differently. 

“Our minds tell us the story that we’re sick of virtual interactions,” says Smedley. “But try this the next time you’re on a video call: Step back and ask yourself if you’re enjoying the experience. Did you laugh at a joke, share a story about your family? Did the conversation lift your mood? When you focus on the present moment, you might find you’re actually having a good time.” 

2. Take a gratitude challenge. It’s easy to come up with a couple of quick things we’re grateful for — our family and friends, our health, our home. But it might be harder to keep that list going day after day. 

“Challenge yourself to look beyond the obvious,” suggests Alexander. “Use playfulness and curiosity to uncover the surprising things you appreciate. If you’re thankful for the trees outside your window, envision your sense of awe when you look up to the top branches. When you get to that place of awe, it opens your mind up and relaxes you in ways that are different from the tightness and stress you were feeling before.”

3. Set a gratitude trigger. When you hear your phone ping, you check your texts or messages; when your gas gauge hits the red zone, it’s time for a fill-up. Set yourself a gratitude trigger, too. 

“When I eat an orange,” says Alexander, “I try to keep the mindful practice of peeling it slowly and feeling grateful for the spurt of juice and the sense of freshness and joy I experience. It helps to have some token that reminds us to be grateful.” What’s your gratitude trigger?

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4. Keep a gratitude journal. Writing down what you feel grateful for is a great way to cultivate a spirit of appreciation. Emmons found that people who listed five things in a weekly gratitude journal reported fewer health problems and greater optimism than those who didn't.  

Writing thank you notes is another powerful gratitude practice. Participants in a 2018 study were happier after expressing their appreciation in writing. 

5. Go easy on yourself. As you work on developing these new habits, try not to judge yourself. “Gratitude can be a great practice,” says Smedley, “but it’s not intended to make you analyze your own shortcomings or make you self-critical. I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m not sick and I haven’t lost anyone to the virus, so I should be more grateful.’ For them, practicing gratitude backfires; they end up feeling bad about themselves.” 

If negative thoughts float into your consciousness, just notice them and let them go. Don’t make gratitude a competition — even with yourself.