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COVID Left Us Languishing. Here’s Why We Should Care.

The opposite of thriving, languishing renders us apathetic. Relief is possible.

Key points

  • The prolonged and persistent stressors inherent during COVID have depleted people's emotional reserves.
  • Languishing, which is defined as the absence of mental health, effectively describes the state that many individuals find themselves in.
  • Several actions can help people move from languishing toward health and thriving, including taking incremental actions in the right direction.
liza summer from pexels
Source: liza summer from pexels

In December of 2021, the word “languishing” popped up in the popular press and psychological literature like never before. Twenty-two months into quarantine-related isolation, constantly changing guidelines about disease management and cultural reopening, and the resulting anxiety about both had brought us to a place where we could all agree. If thriving was the name for optimal mental health, its polar opposite, languishing, described our current state of being.

Sociologist Corey Keyes described languishing as the absence of mental health, finding that adults in this state were two times more likely to experience a major depressive episode than moderately mentally healthy adults and six times more likely to experience major depression than those adults who were currently in a state of flourishing.

Key to this finding is that subjects who were languishing at the time of the study were at risk of greater concerns for mental health in the future. Recent research focusing on health care workers in Italy during COVID supports this finding, showing that medical workers who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD down the road than their peers.

In the common vernacular, words like “weak,” “droop,” and “fade” are associated with a languishing state. Psychologically speaking, however, languishing is “characterized by ennui, apathy, listlessness, and loss of interest in life” which feels like a loss of vitality or a sense of persisting with no reward or movement in sight.

When languishing, we feel dull, bland, and bereft of motivation. Often, we aren’t fully conscious of our failure to thrive. We aren’t experiencing explicit symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other maladies, but neither are we feeling resilient, capable and as though we are on a trajectory toward thriving.

Keyes's research suggests that, when we are languishing, we’re three times more likely to cut back on work. Given that the entirety of life during a pandemic requires extra work, this is of particular significance.

Since unaddressed languishing leaves us vulnerable to future mental health concerns, it’s crucial that we take stock of its presence in our lives and take steps to work all the way through it. Here are some ideas for how to begin this process.

Take the feeling seriously

Own it. Name it. Address it. Take stock of the message indicators that your body and mind are offering you. Are you dropping balls, in a malaise, and finding yourself not caring about much? Rather than trying to distract yourself from these feelings or deny them altogether, own that you may be languishing. Emotional states are best worked through by an honest naming of what is occurring.

Once named, share with others who may relate or who can bear witness to the difficulties inherent in this state and help you move through it. Free Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction trainings can be found online and may be of particular help in developing a plan for addressing languish. Connecting with a therapist who can help you work through this is also a great idea.

Practice effective mental health hygiene

The hardest time to do the things that you know would improve your mental health is when you are feeling indifferent about all of life. Because of this, small tweaks can be powerful in changing the trajectory of your emotional health.

We know that physical exercise, fresh air, a diet with sufficient protein and rich nutrients, sleep, and relational belonging can all improve our mental health. Choose one of these to take small steps toward achieving. Make it relatively easy to accomplish, then add a second small action and continue to do so every few days.

For example, perhaps you choose fresh air but actually getting out of the house feels beyond what you can manage, find a window to open and sit near it for a full 10 minutes, doing nothing but breathing deeply of the fresh air. Once you’ve done this for 3 days, add a 5-minute walk around your house or block or, if that feels like too much, walk in place by the window. After 2 days of this, add a check-in call with a friend during your fresh air walk.

For maximal benefit, make small notations on your calendar about your progress toward each goal each day and reward yourself for the ways in which you are deliberately moving the needle on your mental health trajectory.

Identify your primary and most effective sources of the three Rs

The three Rs are Refreshment, Rest, and Reward. If you are languishing, creative and strategic thinking are likely at an all-time low. If you can’t identify actions and behaviors that are deeply refreshing, restful, and rewarding for you, think back to times in life when you felt content and at ease. Were you getting consistent social time? Were you reading books that brought you joy or new insights? Were you having monthly massages or going to therapy regularly? Were you taking trips or visiting restaurants? Were you attending lectures or arts events that inspired you?

What clues can you take about how to work toward these states now? You may not have access to the full gamut of options that you had before COVID, but determine ways of adapting to current opportunities and schedule times on your calendar specifically to seek out these things. Keep these dates with yourself. Access to meaningful rewards can be a huge motivator in seeking contentment and psychological health.

Multiple intelligences theory can be helpful in determining what is refreshing, restful, and rewarding to your specific way of being in the world. The eight types of intelligence, as spelled out by Howard Gardner, are Word, Math, Picture, Body, Music, Science, People (Interpersonal), and Self (Intrapersonal). While a “math smart” person may find a number puzzle restful and restorative, a “body smart” individual will get much more out of a good long walk, a lap swim session, or a game of badminton. A “picture smart” person might find restoration in the creative process or in gazing at beauty while a “science smart” one might feel most rewarded by finding predictability and consistency in their routine. A quick look into how you fall in this space might go a long way toward helping you find ways of refreshing and restoring yourself and offering meaningful rewards for your pursuits toward shifting yourself from languishing to thriving.