| USA TODAY
Driver has frightening drive through flames in Oregon
A driver recorded the dramatic moments as they drove through the Beachie Creek Fire in Mill City, Oregon, on Sept. 8.
It’s too much.
First the pandemic, which divided us, economically devastated us, and has killed nearly 200,000 of us. Then the racial unrest, erupting at the deaths of more Black Americans at the hands of police: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude.
Now the extreme weather. For only the second time in history, the National Hurricane Center has moved into the Greek alphabet for storm names. This season’s wildfires are bigger, deadlier and more frequent than in years past. In the West, people can’t breathe.
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Add the headlines: Feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lost to complications of cancer on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, 46 days before the presidential election. “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, a hero in the Black community, gone at 43 after quietly battling colon cancer. Another woman accuses the president of sexual assault. A whistleblower claims federal immigration detainees underwent full hysterectomies without their consent.
And the polarization, worse than ever. We don’t agree on masks, on reopening schools, on what to do when a vaccine becomes available.
Many of us are vacillating between horror and disbelief at what can only be described as an American nightmare. Devastation doesn’t cover it. It’s impossible to know if the worst is behind us or still lies ahead.
Apart from our own suffering, constant exposure to suffering of others exacts a toll. Experts say what many of us are experiencing is “disaster fatigue.”
“It’s a sense, essentially, of psychological overwhelm,” said Patrick Hardy, a certified emergency manager and risk manager. “You’re being constantly bombarded with negative information. … It creates this sense of doom.”
When disasters occur sequentially, it can make it seem as though our problems are insurmountable. It’s getting worse and worse, we think. It’s never going to get better.
A strict interpretation of “disaster fatigue,” Hardy said, puts disasters into three major categories: Natural disasters (such as COVID and hurricanes), technological emergencies (chemical spills and power outages) and security emergencies (acts of terrorism and active shooters).
But Hardy said what qualifies as a “disaster” can also be subjective.
“What may be a disaster to someone else, isn’t a disaster to you and me,” he said.
While all of us are tapped into the disasters that become national news, community events can add to the mental load. A plant closing in your town that puts hundreds of people out of work is a disaster, too.
Many are personally suffering and bearing witness to even more suffering, which can lead to another condition called “compassion fatigue.”
“It’s really referring to the stress or the emotional strain of having that high level of empathy, and exposing yourself to this level of suffering, and when that happens over long periods of time, it can manifest in a variety of different psychological ways,” said Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.
Old mental health issues, new challenges
Lisa Phillips, 57, who lives with depression, says she’s “sick” over what’s happening to the country.
Her husband’s dental practice was on mandatory closure for two months, and since she works there, too, both incomes stopped. They’ve since re-opened, but many of the staff have been struggling with health issues and lack of childcare, which has ripple effects for Phillips and her husband.
Her daughter’s university moved exclusively online. Wildfires in Oregon forced her brother and sister-in-law to evacuate their home. The day after their evacuation, her father died in California. The family didn’t gather for a funeral.
To cope, Phillips went back to counseling and increased her medication.
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“It kind of feels like when something else can’t possibly happen, it does,” she said. “I put one foot in front of the other but it takes quite a bit of effort.”
Political differences have also divided her family, compounding tangible losses. Stress and conflict are the new normal.
“I don’t feel apathetic, I feel overwhelmed and I’m very discouraged about the polarization in our country,” she said. “I’m fearful we won’t get back to who we were.”
Matt Wunderli, 36, was in the middle of building a technology startup when he went into lockdown with his wife and kids in Salt Lake City. Now, he’s surrounded by wildfires.
“In the beginning, I think we were all kind of sheepishly laughing about this, like ‘what is going on’?,” he said. “From the pandemic to the civil unrest to the political divides. As a country we’re sort of being slowly unwoven.”
Wunderli says he’s often overwhelmed by the negativity on Twitter, and can find it hard to stay optimistic. Living in a very religious state, he said, people around him often talk about this as the end of times.
“It’s a very stressful time for me as a founder, an entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a neighbor thinking about all the calamity around me and what’s next,” he said.
A country unrecognizable
Christina Cuevas, 35, lives with her husband and two sons in Gardena, California, and recently recovered from postpartum depression. Then the pandemic hit.
Her anxiety spiked. Cuevas, who has asthma, is having panic attacks. She’s stressed about her family’s businesses – she and her husband are in real estate development –and she’s worried for her children and their futures.
“Every day you’re bombarded with something new,” she said. “I’m of Mexican descent, and I was born in America. Yesterday was Mexican Independence Day. I had tequila with my husband. We were celebrating the culture and then I read that news article about hysterectomies being performed on immigrant women. I was sick. It’s repulsive that this can happen in America.”
Right now, she says “there is no hope.” There is only the election.
Abbey Barton, 26, lives in New Orleans, which is often hard-hit during the hurricane season. New Orleans has had a couple of close calls in 2020, on top of the pandemic.
“We’re in the peak of hurricane season, and there’s no outlet for stress fatigue,” she said. “Can 2020 just be over?”
She knows people so overwhelmed they’re not preparing for storms as they typically would. Defeat, she says, seems all around.
“I’ve had people say to me ‘I was exhausted by everything before the hurricane season. If it gets me, it gets me,'” she said.
Barton worries about what her city, in some ways already unrecognizable, may look like when the pandemic is finally over.
“Walking downtown, you don’t hear the music anymore,” she said.
Worried for the kids
Austin Sargent, 29, is an English teacher and high school football coach in South Carolina. There are times he’s felt overwhelmed, but mostly he’s focused on his students, who often seem paralyzed by their circumstances.
School was a release for a lot of kids. And while in-person instruction has resumed where he teaches, they are now dealing with new and different stressors. Friends who’ve been apart for months are adjusting to new protocols and social norms.
The kids, he said, are struggling just as much as adults.
“I’m an English teacher. We read, and then we ask ourselves, ‘What is the author really trying to say?’ In the first couple of weeks of school, we’re going over literary terms, talking about the mood of the text, how it makes the reader feel. And one of my students raised their hand and said ‘I don’t watch the news, because it makes my mood so terrible.'”
‘Not in this together’
Denys Williams, 48, moved from San Leandro, California, to Reno, Nevada, about a year ago, when it all felt different. Now, she’s living in a new city much less diverse than her previous one, which can be isolating.
“It’s not only that 2020 is a dumpster fire, it’s that there’s no one around me who I can really relate to or talk to about it,” she said. “We couldn’t breathe in Reno for a good week and a half, add to that the political unrest, the racial injustice, not feeling like anyone is in my corner — it’s been so difficult.”
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This summer, she said the KKK showed up in a town about 20 minutes from where she lives. She’s dealing with stressors some of her non-minority friends and co-workers can’t fathom.
“My co-workers will say, ‘How are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘It’s tough.’ They’re like, ‘Hang in there, we’re all in this together.’ But we’re not. I want to say, ‘You have no idea.'”
Hardy says when feeling overwhelmed, look for positive stories. They’re out there, even when they’re difficult to find.
Cut yourself slack: It’s called decision fatigue
“There are stories of people surviving disasters, people doing the right things, people enduring,” he said.
So much of what feels surreal and absurd about this moment is how much is out of our control. Making a plan, for what to do in a disaster or even what to do to feel productive amid the chaos, can help people wrest back some control.
We all want to know how this ends: How do we cope with uncertainty?
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The greatest danger, experts say, is a descent into apathy. That people will start to believe that the things they do don’t matter.
Phillips, Wunderli, Cuevas, Barton, Sargent and Williams all said they plan to vote in November. Wunderli started a podcast addressing mental health issues for founders and entrepreneurs. Phillips said she joined the board of a local non-profit and has continued to support local charities. And even though she always wears a mask when she’s out, she says she still tries to smile, with her eyes, at everyone she sees.
“What if everybody just gave up?” Wright said. “Then the world would really be in trouble. Individual actions do count because they accumulate. The worst thing that we could do is throw up our hands and say, ‘Nothing matters, so why even bother?’ Because if every single person did that, what would this world look like?”