The Great Exhaustion: the impact of COVID-19 two years on

woman exhausted at desk

Jessica Taylor Yates

Posted February 22, 2022

We have endured lockdowns, spikes in cases, varying restrictions, and constant uncertainty. Now we find ourselves battling a new challenge - The Great Exhaustion.

Feeling sluggish, tired, unmotivated, and just a bit…meh? It’s not just you. Various names have been thrown around – from 'The Great Slump' to 'The COVID Hangover.' Millions of us are feeling exhausted, despite having recently returned from the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Rachelle Michalow, Clinical Practice Facilitator at Lifeline Australia, says the new year may have been challenging for many people, noting that while the holiday period can be a time to relax and unwind, “many people were unable to start the new year as planned.” 

So, how do we fix this feeling of languishing and exhaustion into the new year ahead? 

What is the Great Exhaustion?

Is COVID-19 stress common? 

The feelings of tiredness, weariness, exhaustion and being overwhelmed are most certainly common and real at this time. Senior Psychologist in Private Practice, Joe Buckby, also notes that “there are multiple reasons why people may feel this way."

"Anyone living through the pandemic over the last two years is experiencing very real stress.”

From losing jobs to working overtime from home, cancelling dinners, holidays, and weddings, all while spending our days with our eyes and ears glued to the news - the emotional and physical stress has taken its toll.

Michalow adds that “many people are feeling more than one emotion at the same time, and all reactions to this challenging time are valid.” 

Why am I feeling this way?

Over the past two years, many of us have been coping, rather than thriving. Plans have been put on hold only to rush back at double the speed, as well as the reintroduction of socialising, travel, work and our daily routines.

“COVID-19 has affected us all in different ways, and many of us have experienced a wide range of emotions”, says Michalow, noting that some of most common have been feelings of “being overwhelmed, angry, disillusioned, sad, indifferent, excited, happy or hopeful.”

“There is a jaded sense of cynicism,” adds Buckby. “We’ve been here before, and been told that it’s over, only to have that overturned. When the goalposts keep moving, lots of people end up engaging in unhealthy thinking patterns that are perpetuating and exacerbating their stress.”  

What has made this pandemic more difficult is that the usual coping mechanisms we would be advised to engage in – positive experiences, physical exercise, and socialisation – have been unable to happen. Not being able to experience these “normal behaviours,” he adds, has led many to a decrease in healthy lifestyles that are usually used as a buffer against chronic stress.


man feeling down

Feeling exhausted, weary and jaded after the past two years is not uncommon. Image: Getty. 

What are signs you may not be coping?  

These mental health struggles can also occur at ages across the board, from young people to adults; and particularly with men.  

There may be ongoing standing traumas that many people already suffer from which were increased by the pandemic. Isolation, restriction from activities and global stress “can exacerbate this trauma exponentially,” says Buckby. 

Michalow advises those who are struggling to seek help. If you are unsure, she says that “it can be helpful to listen to the signals our body is giving us to alert us that something is not quite right.”  

Some issues may be “a fast heart rate, fatigue, headaches or an upset stomach, feeling helpless or hopeless, emotional outbursts, feeling more irritable than usual, increased use of alcohol or other drugs, changes in sleep patterns or appetite, withdrawing from others, or suicidal thoughts.” 

What can I do to feel better? 

While there is no miracle to ‘snapping out of it,’ Buckby says the best thing we can do is focus on what we can control, and try to let go of what we can’t.

“What can make people distressed is putting emotional energy into things they don’t have control over," he says. "When will masks go away? Will I need more and more boosters? When will everything go back to normal?”

While these questions are of course common and valid, they don’t do much for our well-being, because we don’t have control over the answer, which in turn, leads to more stress. Instead, both Buckby and Michalow advise that focusing on putting time, effort, and energy into things you can control – a healthy diet, getting back into exercise, sleep routines, and maintaining supportive relationships can assist in reducing stress and supporting our mental and physical wellbeing.  

“Rather than focusing on things that may not come to fruition during this time, you will gain more fulfillment by living healthily and by your values,” says Buckby. “You can gain a greater sense of contentment by focusing on what is important to you, and how you want to live your life. While there may be things occurring outside of your control, you can focus on being the best version of yourself, or being a great dad, sister, friend, or colleague.”  

It can also be helpful to take time at end of the day to practice gratitude, either through meditation, mindfulness, or a gratitude journal. Take time each day to calmly look at what is going well in your life, both internally and externally. It may be that you cooked a great meal, had a meaningful conversation with a family member, or saw some beautiful flowers on an afternoon walk. 

How can I help someone else feeling this way? 

Michalow advises that if you see signs someone is struggling, you can help them by checking in and being willing to listen. “Provide them with a safe space to open up and make sure to acknowledge their experience so they feel heard and understood,” she advises. 

She also says it is important to encourage them to seek help wherever they most feel comfortable, and ask if they would like your support in this process.

“While checking in may seem like a difficult conversation to have, it could make all the difference,” she adds. 


If you or someone you know feels overwhelmed or in need of support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 at any time of the day or night.