Languishing? Brain fog? Pandemic stress and isolation could be getting you down.
After a year of hypervigilance, isolation, stress, and loss, many people have emotions and feelings they have trouble naming. They aren’t feeling sad and hopeless, but they aren’t happy either. Their days go by without rousing much interest or enthusiasm. They’re not their sharp, alert, sociable former selves, though they’re still able to muddle through work and handle the most important daily tasks.
Does this sound like you? If so, putting a name to your feelings might help. And there are steps you can take to boost your sense of wellbeing and recover your ability to focus.
What is languishing?
In a 2002 journal article, sociologist Corey Keyes used the term languishing to describe a state of wellbeing in the lower range of the mental health scale. (He used flourishing to describe the upper range.) His model was part of a broader effort to focus research and resources on population mental health—to treat mental health as a public health issue. His flourishing-to-languishing scale offered an alternative to the default definition of good mental health as not having a diagnosed mental illness. By putting names to this continuum of mental health and proposing ways to measure a person’s sense of wellbeing, he created useful a path for future study.
He also gave a name to a relatively common emotional state. People who are languishing have feelings of “emptiness and stagnation.” They are feeling neither good nor sad. They feel nothing. This is different from depression, which is a clinical—and treatable—mental health disorder characterized by feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
After a year of pandemic-related isolation and worry, of missing the joyful celebrations of life, of losing ground on in-person activities and interests, of grieving the deaths of friends and family members, many people are feeling emotionally bruised and numb. The “blah,” disinterested, and disengaged feeling of languishing has a familiar ring to it. To many people, it sounds like their life in this pandemic.
What is brain fog?
Another mental health term that’s been discussed and written about in connection with the pandemic is brain fog. Brain fog isn’t a medical or scientific term. It’s used to describe the muddled thinking and forgetfulness that can be a symptom of certain illnesses or the result of lack of sleep. It can also be brought on by extended periods of stress and anxiety—the kind of feelings many people have dealt with for months through the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you find yourself having trouble focusing on tasks or remembering details—even remembering what you just went into another room to get—that kind of foggy thinking and memory lapse could be the result of unrelenting stress related to the pandemic or of sleep deprivation caused by worry and loss of routine.
How to Move from Languishing to Flourishing and Overcome Stress-Related Brain Fog
The first step in dealing with any mental health problem is to notice and acknowledge it. If the descriptions of languishing or stress-related brain fog resonate with you, you may now have a name for what you are experiencing. That in itself can help. By naming an emotion, feeling, or mental state, you’re better able to notice it. When you notice it, you can begin to take action to make yourself feel better.
One good reason to take action is that languishing and brain fog carry risks. Languishing is associated with higher risks of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Brain fog can lead to mistakes and accidents, and it can hurt your productivity at work. While you’re languishing or in a state of brain fog, you’re also missing out on the joy that comes from full engagement with life. You’re not in a state of optimal wellbeing.
Here are some practical steps you can take to shift your emotional state from languishing to flourishing and overcome stress-related brain fog:
- Engage in an activity that interests and challenges you, and that brings you satisfaction. Think back to times when you were fully absorbed in an activity, to the point where you hardly noticed the passing of time. This state is known as flow. A musician might experience it while playing a well-practiced piece of music, a writer when fully engaged in the act of writing. You might experience it while trying a new way of cooking, writing computer code, doing a crossword puzzle, biking, painting, woodworking, or giving a child your full attention. Find an activity that you enjoy and that engages your mind, and carve out time for it.
- Protect yourself from interruptions. Interruptions are the enemy of flow. It might be the beep of a new message on your phone, a problem that’s brought to your attention while you’re concentrating on something else, or a child who needs your help when you are working. Life today is full of interruptions. For some people, interruptions have increased with the pandemic. For others, working at home has brought relief from interruptions by colleagues. Whatever your situation is now, and as you move forward with changing work expectations, find ways to protect at least a few hours each week for uninterrupted concentration—and for moments of relaxation and relief.
- Spend time with people who bring out the best in you. You may not be able to visit in person yet if you are not fully vaccinated, but you can connect by phone or video. Think of the people you know who listen when you talk and acknowledge your feelings, and for whom you do the same in return. Think of the people who make you laugh, who can comfort you when you’re sad, help you see other points of view when you’re frustrated or angry, and who share your interests. Reconnect with and make time for these people. Social engagement and support are key to positive mental health—and, for many, they have been lost as a casualty of the pandemic.
- Focus on and accept the here and now. One of the reasons the pandemic has been so stressful is that it has brought a fear of terrible events that might happen: You or the people you love might become severely ill from the virus, or even die. Another is the frustration it has brought as boundaries and restrictions have been imposed to reduce the spread of the disease: You can’t do all of the things you’d like to do or that you think might make you happier. An antidote to fear and frustration is to focus on the here and now—the present moment—and accept it for what it is. This is the essence of mindfulness, a practice that has been shown to sharpen thinking and counter negative emotions. In a simple mindfulness exercise, focus your mind on the present moment—what is happening right now, the sounds and smells around you, how your body feels—and accept it as it is. By concentrating on the here and now, rather than what has happened, what might happen, or what you think should happen, you’ll find yourself growing calmer and more relaxed.
- Take small steps, and celebrate small successes. When you’re not feeling your best, the many challenges you face can seem overwhelming. That’s a reasonable reaction when you consider them all together. To make progress, pick one thing you’d like to improve in your life—something small to start with. Then consider what steps you might take to make that one improvement and take a first step—any first step. It doesn’t have to be the one that will make the biggest difference. As you take and master that first step, celebrate your progress. All big changes are made this way: one step at a time. As you see and feel progress, you’ll feel better about yourself and your prospects. That will motivate you to take another step.
Focus on organization and memory. Where you might have gotten by with minimal notes and a basic calendar when your mind was clear, if your thinking is fuzzy and your memory weakened from pandemic-related stress, you may need to up your organization game. Pay close attention, and repeat information to yourself that you’ll need to remember. Keep written task lists, with reminders and alerts in your calendar. Organize your workspace and your home so that you can find what you need when you need it, like always keeping things in the same place right when you walk in the door or when finishing with a specific task or document.