Dealing with crisis fatigue

4 min read

How grief can lead to a drop in motivation and energy

  • The shock of a loved one’s death can trigger the release of stress hormones. This gives you energy but can lead to a crash weeks later.

  • Known as crisis fatigue, this drop in energy often makes it difficult to do even the bare minimum of everyday activities.

  • Other symptoms include a feeling of disassociation or disconnection from your body, changes in appetite, or disruption of sleep.

  • This is a normal part of the grief process as your body rests and repairs itself after being overtaxed during the first few weeks of grief.

In the first days after experiencing a loss, it is not unusual to experience a rush of energy. You may have heightened sensory sensitivity, with vivid physical sensations that form intense memories. As you throw yourself into making arrangements and comforting others, you may be surprised at the stamina you can tap into to make everything happen.

And then, once this flurry of activity is over, it’s quite common to become very lethargic, often unable to do anything beyond absolute necessities. Like the initial burst of vitality, this lack of motivation for even simple tasks is completely normal, and is generally not anything to worry or feel guilty about. 

When you experience loss, whether it is a shock or a sustained event, stress hormones flood your system. Although people may initially respond well to a crisis by producing more stress hormones to help them deal with it, these stress hormones also affect other hormones in your body, which can in turn affect your mood. You eventually experience what is known as crisis fatigue.

In some cases, your body can become so stressed that you become overtaxed emotionally and physically fatigued. That depletion of both emotional and physical energy can lead to emotional numbness. You might notice a temporary feeling of dissociation or disconnection from your body and the outside world. Other symptoms include changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, and disruption in your normal routines.

This may be especially acute if you spent the initial period after your loved one died caring for others, if you were the point of contact for all the practical arrangements, or if you took on any other role requiring focus and concentration. 

You gave your intense attention to the loss you faced, overspending your energy in order to make it through some of the worst moments anyone can experience, and now your emotional resources are depleted.

Be patient

Though you may know intellectually that lack of energy and low motivation are completely normal parts of the bereavement process, truly understanding this and accepting it when it happens to you can be extremely challenging. Many people are more open to others’ emotional responses than their own, while others have trouble empathizing with their own loved ones who have experienced the same loss. These are both common coping mechanisms.

If you are aware of these responses, you can allow yourself to step back and recognize when you are judging yourself and others. This simply means you are still in the midst of grieving, and you need more time to process your feelings.  

Take good care of yourself

When you notice yourself feeling like an outsider in your own life, or you find it difficult to connect with others, it isn’t necessary to try and force your feelings; it is just part of the process of grief, and there is no one way you should be feeling. If you recognize that you’re running from your emotions—by pushing them down when they start to come up or keeping yourself too busy to feel them—you may want to practice self-care to relieve some of the emotional pressure. 

Start with the basics: make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in regular physical activity. They can also involve preserving your routines, noticing and thinking about your triggers, and staying connected with family and friends, even if it’s only over email or social media. 

While taking these positive steps, try not to numb yourself with alcohol or other substances. These can prevent you from processing your feelings, and may even mask more serious issues with your grief. Instead try to focus on enjoyable, spiritually fulfilling activities like art, journaling, fishing, or yoga and meditation.  

If it’s helpful, get extra support

The strong emotional or physical reactions you may experience following a distressing event will generally subside as a part of the body’s natural healing and recovery process. But when stress becomes chronic and persists for months or years, it can have harmful effects. 

Although there are many initial steps to take to mitigate crisis fatigue, people who experience severe, persistent, or recurrent symptoms should seek the services of a mental health professional. In many cases, the right kind of support for a short time can get you on the path to emotional healing ●