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AAFAmarillo Area Foundation

The Tilt-a-Whirl, Scrambled Brains, and Pandemic Fatigue

By March 25, 2021No Comments

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Photo of a tilt-a-whirl in Amarillo Texas' amusement park.

Photo courtesy of Marcy McKay, Wonderland Park Website

Have you ever ridden the Tilt-a-Whirl at Wonderland Amusement Park in Amarillo?

I loved that thing growing up.  Strapped into your own private metal booth with three or four of your best buddies, the ride would slowly begin to spin.  Faster and faster, you’d laugh and twirl, while watching others turn in the same muddled madness.  It scrambled everyone’s brains for a few minutes of fun, then we’d all unbuckle and stagger off for the next adventure.

Except living on the Tilt-a-Whirl this past year has not been fun.  Those topsy-turvy feelings have weighed heavy.  Plus, we have not been together.  We were told to isolate and shelter in place.

If battling a global pandemic wasn’t enough, there was also the debate on whether the virus was real or not, if masks helped or hurt, the constant noise of politics and so many other social justice issues.  Everyone had an opinion, while many hollered louder than others to the point of being deafening.

Some people have worked from home full-time, while also juggling home-schooling their children full-time.  You realize it is not possible to do both simultaneously, or at least do them at the same level of proficiency … right?

Yet, that’s what millions of parents have struggled to do.

Others living alone have battled isolation.  No hugs from family or friends.  Not even the smile from a stranger from their favorite coffee shop.

It’s all been too much.

Yet here we are.


Your Stress is 100% Real

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults, 18 years or older, or 18.1% of the population every year.  Women are also twice as likely to be affected with Generalized Anxiety Disorder than men.

When I googled the word “stress” just now, over 1,170,000,000 results popped up in .63 seconds.

That’s billion with ‘b,’ people.

The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse surveyed 2,441 adults in the United States during 2020 and learned that binge drinking has been an ongoing issue, with 34% of the sample reporting binge drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic, including weekly increases as lockdown protocols persisted.

The report defined binge drinking as having at least five alcoholic drinks for a man and four alcoholic drinks for a woman during one occasion.  Participants were asked how their consumption of alcohol has changed compared to life before the coronavirus outbreak. Independent variables that were considered included household composition, job status, essential worker status, and shelter-in-place duration.

This next part is what I found most surprising.

Household income was a factor in this study, as 70% of participants reported an income of over $80,000 annually.  This is in alignment with studies showing that high-income may be connected with dangerous levels of binge drinking.

These aren’t funny memes about toilet paper or baking sourdough bread.

This is serious.

Pandemic Fatigue

I’ve heard it described in different ways:  Quarantine Burnout, Caution Exhaustion, Pandemic Fatigue.  Whatever you call it, this phenomenon is not your imagination.  Everyone has heard of fight-flight-freeze, which are your built-in protective responses.  You are mentally and physically worn out from staying on HIGH ALERT since COVID-19 began.

Here are a few symptoms:

  • Increased irritability
  • Anxiety (which feels different than your normal anxiety)
  • Low mood
  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping or oversleeping
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Feeling run-down
  • Lack of motivation
  • Brain fog


The Science behind Your Stress

Your body has billions of nerve fibers that start at the base of your neck, then run all the way down your spine, as well as into your arms and legs.

Again, that’s billion with a ‘b.’

This is your autonomic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze).

pull quote form the textYour nervous system controls your bodily functions like your breathing, your heartbeat, your digestive processes, all of your ‘going to the bathroom’ functions, your sex organs and sexual responses, body temperature, metabolism, electrolyte balance, sweat, and saliva.

Plus, all of your emotional responses.

Your nervous system oversees a huge chunk of your inner workings.  You don’t even notice that it’s doing its job until there’s a problem:

When you hear shocking news and cannot catch your breath.

When your allergies bother you and your eyes won’t stop watering.

When your heart feels out of rhythm for so long – you notice it, then hopefully, go to the doctor.

Cutting-edge research now shows that your nervous system not only handles all those bodily functions, but also houses your beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Got that?

Body + Brain + Beliefs + Thoughts + Emotions + Behaviors = Same

Your autonomic nervous system has just one job – to keep you safe.  It likes familiar, even if it’s unpleasant.  Think of that difficult person in your life.  You may dread interacting with him or her, but at least you know what to expect.

Your nervous system doesn’t like change of any kind – even positive ones.

Like, exercise.

Learning to say no to that certain someone.

Trying to be kinder to your coworkers, when grumpy is your default mode.

Living through a global pandemic.

Please stop telling yourself, “It’s not that bad” or “It’s fine”.

Just because you’ve been safe and sound at home, with no major financial difficulties or catastrophes – mentally, your subconscious mind doesn’t see it that way.  It’s been screaming nonstop since mid-March 2020, “DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! DANGER!”


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Pay More Attention to Your Stress

In your nervous system, only 20% of your messaging goes from your brain to your body, while 80% of your messaging goes from your body to your brain.

What does that mean?

That means ALL of your stress is inter-connected. Your physical, emotional, and behavioral stress fit together like a puzzle that’s unique to you alone.  Learn how your pieces fit together in order to create healthier patterns.

Again, are you following?

Physical Pain + Emotional Pain = Same


Your Physical Stress

Where do you carry your aches and pains?

Tight shoulders and neck, upset stomach, clenching or grinding your teeth, headaches, tingling limbs, numbness, insomnia, sleeping too much, racing heart, heartburn, low blood sugar, low sex drive, weight gain.

Do a mental body scan.  What has ramped up in your body during COVID?  How are you helping to ease the pain?  Stretching your body every morning and night does wonders while eating a tub of ice cream before bed does not.


Your Emotional Stress

Everyone handles stress differently.  People tend to either be more hands-on or hands-off.

Negative labels for those who like to take charge are bossy, know-it-alls, or control freaks.  They have been subconsciously agitated by the pandemic because they’re trying to control the uncontrollable.  They can’t fix this.  They haven’t been crushing COVID perfectly.

Negative labels for people who are more laissez-faire with stress are irresponsible, lazy, or unreliable. They have subconsciously felt agitated since they are even more disorganized, scatter-brained, or shutdown than usual.

Again, maybe you’ve been more take charge in some areas, while more disheveled in others.  Regardless, your nervous system has been in overdrive for too long, and it’s worn out.


Your Behavioral Stress

We all have our go-to bad behaviors, which have been rampant behind closed doors.  Are you a stress eater?  Do you like to numb out on too much TV?  Buying stuff online … just because?

We’re all trying to act nOrMaL during aBnOrMaL times.


Slow Down the Tilt-a-Whirl

There are so many things beyond our control these days, but we have more autonomy over how we respond.  Focusing on that will help alleviate your anxiety.

*Double-down on the Basics – You’ve heard this one countless times because it works. Focus on eating healthy.  Steer clear of carbs, sugar, and alcohol because those three cause inflammation to your brain and body, which are already struggling with quarantine life. Drink more water.  Move your body daily.  Go to bed early.

Do the best you can.  When you mess up, which we all have done more times than not, forgive yourself and begin again.

It’s truly that simple.

It’s really that hard.


*Tap into Your Inner Kid – What’d you like to do in elementary school?  Buy some crayons to draw (even if you’re bad at it), paint, play with Playdough, get yourself an Etch-a-Sketch, play Clue or Monopoly.  Build a house of cards on your kitchen table.  Go shoot hoops.  Crank up music you love.  Ride your bicycle.  Reconnect with joy.  Have fun for the fun of it.

If you didn’t have a happy childhood, give yourself the one you deserved.  There’s a reason why they say laughter is the best medicine.

It works.


*Vitamin D – This is one of my favorite hacks because it’s so simple and free. Sunshine is the best, all-natural mood booster. It lifts your spirits, relaxes you, and strengthens your focus. This even works on overcast days. Plus, sunshine resets your circadian rhythms to help you sleep better and even lose weight. Set down your phone, then sit, stand, or walk outside for 5-20-minutes. Research varies on when the best time of day is to go outside, so do what works for your schedule, but if you’re worried about skin cancer or the heat, morning would be best.

Lastly, some people struggle with Vitamin D absorption (certain fair-skinned folks, or even dark-skinned people). Since that’s a broad range of skin tone, have a doctor check your Vitamin D for accuracy.


pull quote from the text*Find the Blessings in Disguise – Scientific research shows that gratitude rewires your brain to be more flexible and resilient.  Those are handy skills to have right now.


*Use This as a Reset – Vaccines are here, and it looks like brighter days are ahead, but before you rush back to business as usual, take stock of what’s worthy of your time and attention.

Do those people, places, things, or activities add value to your life?

If not, let them go.


Unscramble Your Brain

You cannot control everything happening outside of you, but you can absolutely learn how to control your insides, to unscramble your body and brain when they get triggered.  To get back on track when you get off track, because mistakes, setbacks, U-turns, and failures are absolutely part of the process.

Now, you understand why you’ve been stuck or unable to change in certain areas of your life.  It’s just been your nervous system trying to keep you safe.  Going against the very things you want.  You can learn how to thrive, even while riding the Tilt-a-Whirl during a global pandemic.


Marcy McKay

About Marcy:

Marcy McKay is an award-winning author, speaker, and coach. Her passions are writing, connecting, and inspiring. She writes fast-paced fiction that pulls at your heartstrings, as well as nonfiction books to help people get unstuck.

Marcy loves working with groups or 1-on-1, empowering people to be the best version of themselves. She graduated with a B.A. in Public Relations from Baylor University in 1988, and has been a leadership consultant and freelance writer since 1996.

To learn more visit her website: