If you’ve been feeling “meh” recently and can’t quite put your finger on why, it might be an unexpected side effect of COVID-19—even if you’ve never been infected with the coronavirus.
The official name for it is “languishing,” as Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote recently in The New York Times. “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness,” he wrote. “It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
What is languishing, exactly?
The term originates from the Latin “languere,” which means to be weak or faint, and was coined by the sociologist Corey Keyes. “It encompasses distressing feelings of stagnation, monotony, and emptiness,” Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Johns Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in California, tells Health.
Languishing is a common feeling for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic, psychiatrist and author Gayani DeSilva, MD, tells Health. “The pandemic is a significant change for most people, affecting different areas of their lives,” she explains. Like all major changes, it’s taken a great deal of adjustment—which can be stressful, even if there have been positive aspects.
“In psychological terms, when we cannot readily make a decision between known choices, it’s called ambivalence,” Dr. DeSilva explains. “Languishing can be thought of as the physical and conscious manifestation of being unconsciously or subconsciously ambivalent. There are many aspects of this pandemic—the threat of the virus itself, the travel and mask restrictions, the vaccine, and more—that leave us confused. Decision-making then becomes difficult.”
Psychologist Sheila Forman, PhD, calls languishing the “pandemic blues,” and says its pervasiveness comes as no surprise. “For over a year now the majority of Americans have been asked to stay at home, work at home, do school from home, shop, play and socialize at home,” she tells Health. “At first, for some, it was a welcome respite from the daily grind. But as time went on and the realities of the pandemic sunk in, what started as a nice way to spend some time became our lives and with it a heightened sense of sadness, loneliness, and depression.”
Basically, the pandemic took its toll in numerous ways, and has left us languishing.
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Languishing is not the same as depression
Record numbers of adults have reported feeling depressed, anxious, and even suicidal during the COVID-19 pandemic. But languishing is different from depression, the experts say.
“It’s not a mental illness, as it doesn’t have the intensity or duration of symptoms of depression or anxiety,” explains Dr. DeSilva. “But it’s also not a feeling of thriving.” It’s like wanting to get dressed up for a night on the town, but choosing to wear comfy pants and go to your usual diner for dinner instead.
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Are some people more likely to languish than others?
Nobody is immune from languishing, but you’re probably less prone to it if you’re able to handle and adapt to stress. “Knowing how to manage stress keeps you from getting overwhelmed and confused,” Dr. DeSilva says. And this applies whether you have a history of depression or have never experienced mental health issues, although Dr. Magavi notes that those who are genetically predisposed to psychiatric conditions, or have a history of anxiety or depression, are more likely to languish than others.
Extrovert personality types may also be more likely to suffer from languishing, Forman adds, for the simple reason that staying home and being away from people is harder for extroverts than introverts. “Extroverts are people who get energized by being with people––they recharge in a crowd and being around people is vital to their overall well-being,” Forman explains. “Introverts, on the other hand, prefer to regroup alone, and solitude is heaven for them.”
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How to stay out of the languishing zone
If you feel like you’re languishing, don’t beat yourself up about it—millions of others around the world are likely experiencing the same thing. But you can take steps to shake off those feelings of emptiness and stagnation.
First of all, take care of the healthy basics: nutritious meals, exercise, relaxation, connection with friends and family. Then give yourself what you need. “Ask yourself, ‘what do I need right now?'” Dr. DeSilva says. “Then do it. So if you need to rest, then rest. If you need to get out of bed, then do it. The fact that you made a choice and carried it out takes you out of being ambivalent. There are no wrong choices.”
A good technique to combat languishing is journaling, which could take many forms—you could write a gratitude letter, outlining all the things you’re thankful for, or the things you love about yourself. Dr. Magavi prioritizes gratitude in an individual’s pursuit of self-compassion and motivation. “I recommend that my patients list things they are thankful for physically, emotionally, and spiritually every morning and evening, especially when they’re lonely or sad,” she says.
If you don’t feel like writing, Forman suggests painting, drawing, or sculpting––in fact, any creative outlet is better than none. “Get your feelings out any way you can—you’ll feel better after you do,” she says.
Remember, things are changing for the better. It might be a while before we’re back to our pre-pandemic lives, but the shifting restrictions allow us to make plans with friends and family. “Start making plans for the future—a trip you might like to take next summer, or an outdoor activity you want to try,” Forman suggests. “Having something to look forward to can lift your mood.”
If you think your feelings may be due to a mental health issue, for instance if you’re feeling anxious, sad, or hopeless and it’s affecting your ability to function as you would normally, consider making an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist. “Cognitive behavioral therapy allows individuals to identify their anxiety pattern and tackle this by reframing thinking and engaging in healthy behaviors. In some cases, medications are warranted to treat mood and anxiety concerns,” Dr. Magavi says.
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