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The Name for the Pandemic Emotion We're Feeling

Acedia is an all-but-forgotten emotion that’s having a pandemic resurgence.

  • Acedia is an emotion that was historically common in monks, who spent long periods of time isolated.
  • The emotion describes a feeling of being so overburdened, overwhelmed, and bored that a person's response is to shut down, making it difficult to concentrate — similar to what people are experiencing during the pandemic.
  • If you're experiencing acedia, the best thing to do is to acknowledge it. Creating a break in your routine, for instance by trying a new activity, can help you refocus your attention as well.
Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

As the one-year anniversary of pandemic lockdowns approaches, many people are reporting a constellation of feelings—fatigue, depression, anxiety, and burnout—coming together in ways they’ve never experienced. It has become harder to pay attention, and mustering the focus to dive into a good book can seem like a challenge for even the most avid readers.

Some explanations and names have emerged for these pandemic feelings, including Zoom fatigue, “smooth brain,” and “brain fog.” But as I recently learned from scholars Niki Kasumi Clements and Jonathan L. Zecher, there is a centuries-old word that might sum this feeling up better than anything we’ve come up with: acedia.

Read on to learn about the history of this emotion and what it might tell us about the feelings many of us are experiencing lately.

What Is Acedia?

Before there were the “Seven Deadly Sins,” there were “Eight Trains of Thought” that theologians considered necessary for Christians to navigate: gluttony, fornication, avarice, sadness, anger, vainglory, pride, and acedia. During the 6th century, acedia was lumped into “sloth,” but in fact, it has nothing to do with laziness as we know it.

According to the 5th-century monastic John Cassian, acedia was “a wearied or anxious heart” and “an irrational confusion of mind” that tended to strike people who were solitary. This pernicious feeling, which Cassian also called “the noonday demon,” rushed in like a fever, making its victims feel listless and “immobile in the face of all the work to be done.”

Acedia was especially common among monks, who lived highly repetitive lives dictated by routine and who spent long spans of time isolated in cells. According to Clements, acedia made it difficult for monks to concentrate. They were eager for distraction and longed for social interaction, and in its absence, they would often become disengaged or blank.

Acedia is at once a feeling of being so overburdened, overwhelmed, and bored that you become anesthetized. Anxiety, fear, dread, and sadness all collide, making such a potent cocktail that your primary emotional response is to shut down. Acedia manifests as a constant fatigue, which is why it later became associated with laziness.

While we might think of this as a “bad” feeling, Clements stresses that it can actually be a useful tool for navigating crises. Acedia can be an important signal that you’re experiencing a crisis in the first place, and navigating acedia can actually help humans work through crises and make progress.

Acedia Shares Many Similarities with Pandemic Fatigue

I probably don’t have to belabor the parallels between pandemic life and what monks like Cassian reported experiencing. Certainly, monks’ daily routines were different from today’s. Their homes were different. Their social interactions were different. But at its core, pandemic fatigue shares many similarities with the historical emotion acedia.

The scholar Jonathan L. Zecher has argued that we should revive the term acedia for two reasons. First, because the term “distinguishes the complex of emotions brought on by enforced isolation, constant uncertainty, and the barrage of bad news from clinical terms like ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety.’”

In other words, using the term “acedia” expands our ability to talk about what we’re feeling as an emotion, not a diagnosis. Like sadness or anger, acedia can come and go. It can strike anyone at any time. Acedia is a valid emotion, not something to experience with guilt or denial.

Secondly, in Zecher’s words, “When an experience can be named, it can be communicated and even shared.” Some of our terms, like Zoom fatigue, scratch the surface of this shared experience, but the term acedia goes both wider and deeper, covering the general ways in which the conditions of the pandemic have affected our collective experience.

The more easily we can name what we’re feeling, the more easily we can deal with it.

What Can You Do If You're Experiencing Acedia?

There are very real psychological reasons for pandemic fatigue. Attention is a limited resource, and evidence has shown that emotional stimuli can interfere with a person’s goal-oriented processing. In other words, your brain can only handle so much, and when acedia consumes your mental energy, it becomes harder to focus.

Moreover, the pandemic has reduced our opportunities for novelty and physical activity, both of which are important for healthy cognitive function. In the words of Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine, “We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment.”

If you’re experiencing acedia, one of the best things you can do is admit it. Acknowledge your feeling. Don’t feel guilty or build false narratives, like “I’m just being lazy,” or, “I have no reason to be tired.”

Recognize that acedia isn’t something to be “overcome.” It’s an ongoing struggle, a part of navigating being human. Like other emotions, acedia can inform your expectations, actions, and behavior. It can also be your catalyst for a much-needed transformation.

Still, it’s important not to become mired in acedia. When it occurs, acknowledge it and process it. The good news is that you probably already know why you’re feeling acedia. But don’t be surprised if your usual solutions for fatigue, anxiety, etc. may not provide relief. Acedia is a unique emotion, which means it may take unique solutions.

According to Cassian, one of the best solutions to acedia is manual labor. That’s because, in the words of Clements, “Refocusing attention on daily bodily practices challenges the seemingly hopeless task of raising one’s thoughts from the thick torpor of despondency.”

If manual labor doesn’t sound ideal, consider your own modification of Cassian’s idea. When you’re stuck in the fog, try to find a novel activity, or perhaps a physical one, that allows you to refocus your attention. Even a small break in routine may help you break acedia’s emotional hold.

References

Clements, Niki Kasumi. Sites of the Ascetic Self: John Cassian and Christian Ethical Formation. University of Notre Dame Press, 2020. https://undpress.nd.edu/9780268107857/sites-of-the-ascetic-self/

Cunningham, Susan. “Struggling with Brain Fog? You’re Not Alone.” UC Health Today. January 21, 2021. https://www.uchealth.org/today/struggling-with-brain-fog-youre-not-alone/

Cushing, Ellen. “Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing with Your Brain.” The Atlantic. March 8, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/03/what-pandemic-doing-our-brains/618221/

“It’s Not Just You. The Pandemic Really Is Making It Hard to Focus on Anything.” CBC Radio. December 18, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/spark/it-s-not-just-you-the-pandemic-really-is-making-it-hard-to-focus-on-anything-1.5848063

Lavie, Nilli. “Distracted and Confused?: Selective Attention Under Load.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9 (no. 2): 2005. 75-82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2004.12.004

Lee, Jena. “A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue.” Psychiatric Times. November 17, 2020. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/psychological-exploration-zoom-fatigue

Pudelko, Béatrice. “Having Trouble Concentrating During the Coronavirus Pandemic? Neuroscience Explains Why.” The Conversation. June 8, 2020. https://theconversation.com/having-trouble-concentrating-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-neuroscience-explains-why-139185

Zecher, Jonathan L. “Acedia: The Lost Name for the Emotion We’re All Feeling Right Now.” The Conversation. August 26, 2020. https://theconversation.com/acedia-the-lost-name-for-the-emotion-were-all-feeling-right-now-144058

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