5 Signs of ‘Worry Burnout’

People in a state of chronic stress become despondent and defiant, said Angela Neal-Barnett, a psychology professor at Kent State University and the author of “Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic and Fear.” “People say, ‘It just doesn’t matter to me anymore,’” she said. “When you’re at that level, that suggests you’re just overwhelmed, you feel helpless, you feel hopeless. You say, ‘Do what you may, I don’t care.’”

This apathy could impact public health at a global scale. The World Health Organization released a policy framework last year citing “pandemic fatigue” as a key obstacle to getting people to comply with Covid precautions. In January of this year, researchers found that, as the pandemic wore on, people reported less adherence to social distancing measures.

You avoid the news. You might feel like you can’t handle another ominous headline or hear one more update on the virus, said Dr. Gallagher. She herself felt this recently when she stumbled on a news broadcast and immediately changed the channel. “I was like, I’m going to find a ‘Seinfeld’ rerun instead,” she said.

You feel numb. Worry burnout might be associated with what psychologists call “learned helplessness,” a sense of overwhelming powerlessness after trauma, said Dr. Judson Brewer, an associate professor at Brown University and the author of “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.” Stress might have motivated us in the early days of the pandemic to scramble for solutions to make lockdown more tolerable; now, he said, many of us have learned that we cannot control much beyond our individual behavior.

“If we spend all of our time worrying, it’s like turning our engine on, putting our car in neutral, slamming on the gas and wondering why we don’t go anywhere,” he said.

Grappling with that incessant uncertainty makes us wonder, consciously or subconsciously, what the point of caring is and why we should bother paying attention to the news at all. This emotional numbing has also appeared in victims of natural disasters and in health care workers.

You’re tired all the time. After an intense period of anxiety, people often feel depressed and depleted, Dr. Newman said. Whether the source of the worry is a global disaster or the day-to-day stress over work or family, anxiety causes us to constantly scan for threats until we reach a point of exhaustion, she said.