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Emotional Health

COVID-19 Stress Is Causing ‘Moral Fatigue’ Epidemic — Here’s How to Beat It

Here's how to avoid it.


The estimated 35,000 decisions we make daily are known to cause “decision fatigue,” the tendency to make worse choices as the day wears on. And experts say the unprecedented stress we’re under now has created a heightened form of exhaustion called “moral fatigue,” which arises when our choices can have profound consequences.

“Decisions that were automatic, like going to a restaurant, now have greater repercussions for our health, leaving us drained,” says psychiatrist Dion Metzger, M.D., who estimates that 80 percent of her patients are showing symptoms of this exhaustion.

Women over 40 are at highest risk of moral fatigue, says Dr. Metzger. “Women tell me they worry if they’re making the right choices for their parents and kids.” And while any decision with moral repercussions can bring on fatigue, a 2019 study shows it’s especially true when we perceive a potential negative impact. Thankfully, the steps below can help ease this fatigue.

Hold this ball

In a study of people suffering from mental exhaustion, folks who practiced a tai chi-like exercise called “White Ball Qigong” for five minutes twice daily saw their energy soar. To do: Stand with your arms outstretched and imagine you’re holding a ball of light in your hands; as you inhale deeply, picture the ball growing and let your arms expand with it. As you exhale, imagine the ball shrinking and let your arms contract.

Dr. Metzger says, “This exercise reduces anxiety and fatigue by redirecting your focus away from your stress.”

Try “micro meditation

Good news for women who struggle to sit and meditate: A new study of healthcare workers found that mediating for just five minutes a day for a week quashed stress and fatigue. Dr. Metzger suggests using the Calm smartphone app for 2-to-4 minutes a day.

Listen to this song

Scientists have discovered an easy, low-cost and effective way to ease anxiety. New research from the University of Pennsylvania reveals that listening to the song “Weightless” by the band Marconi Union (available on YouTube) for three minutes reduced surgical patients’ anxiety as effectively as sedatives. And previous research found that the song lowered stressed-out subjects’ blood pressure and reduced anxiety by 65 percent. One reason? The song has a tempo of 60 beats per minute, and when you listen to it, your heart rate slows to match it, which brings on calm. The study author Veena Graff, M.D., an assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania, explains: “Music lights up the emotional area of the brain, the reward system and pleasure pathways. So patients can be in their own world, where they are comfortable and have control.”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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