The Power of Naming Your Experience During the Pandemic

Do you feel dispirited?

Posted Aug 21, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster

KEY POINTS

  • Labeling the experience during COVID-19 may help reduced PTSD.
  • Neuroscientists, health psychologists as well as meditation teachers support the health benefits of labeling how an experience feels.
  • Reactions to the Delta variant dovetail with B.F. Skinner's work on Intermittent Reinforcement.

We were about to head off to a much-needed family beach vacation when we found out that our destination had become the epicenter of COVID-19’s Delta variant on the east coast of the US. What to do? One of us had a compromised immune system. A baby was visiting, as well as a few unvaccinated children. We called friends and colleagues who were already there to get a sense of how they managed and whether we should cancel the trip.

“I’m dispirited,” one of my extremely articulate colleagues told me. “Totally dispirited.” Her words stopped me. This friend is one of the most astute observers of American life that I know, and her words resonated with me. “That’s it,” I thought, “that is exactly how I’m feeling.”

Several weeks ago, psychologist Adam Grant wrote an essay for the New York Times about the pandemic, arguing that we were “languishing,” what he called “the neglected middle child of mental health.” The word didn’t work for me; it didn’t capture the “gut punch” that I was experiencing. It also didn’t work for my clients, who joked that it didn’t describe the angst and despair they felt. One quipped, “languishing for me is a Victorian lady on a chaise lounge, drinking tea in a bone china cup, with a hand on her forehead because of a headache,” she sneered. “For me, this feels like life or death.”

Lest you roll your eyes at our field’s obsession with finding the right word to describe our experience accurately, clinicians have found that one of the best ways of managing emotions is to name them. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel has a saying that I like, which is “name it to tame it.”

Our great writers would concur. Anton Chekhov wrote that "the task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly." And it turns out there is great wisdom in doing so.

Meditation teachers have a practice called “noting,” which involves labeling what you are feeling. The research suggested that this technique can move us out of the amygdala, our brain’s alarm center, into the pre-frontal cortex, where we can access a greater degree of executive function. Shifting out of this fight or flight response can give us a sense of perspective and containment of our anxiety and dread. Joseph Goldstein, a well-regarded mediation teacher, compared it to putting a “frame” around a picture.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett finds that people who can construct finely-grained experiences tend to go to the doctor less often, use less medication, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness.

As I reflect more deeply on what many of us are experiencing with the onslaught of the Delta variant, I found myself thinking about experimental psychologist B.F. Skinner’s work on intermittent reinforcement. In short, when things are reinforced in unpredictable ways, it increases our anxiety and heightens our tendency to react rather than respond. This is precisely what so many of us are experiencing. We thought Covid was behind us. We thought that the vaccine would be effective. We thought that we would be able to return to our lives. Yes, this is indeed dispiriting.

Yet what most concerns me goes beyond word choice. It is something that dovetails with what Adam Grant was seeing—that those of us who are languishing, or dispirited if you prefer, are at higher risk for PTSD. In January, I think of a patient who had stopped drinking, stopped smoking, and increased her exercise. She was feeling motivated to get through those dark days. The vaccine gave her hope that things would get better. This week she was discouraged—she was drinking daily, had gained 10 pounds, and didn’t feel like getting out to see friends or exercising.

Another patient told me she felt like she was living in what she called the “non-time of airports and waiting rooms.” Her dreams captured this sense of dislocation, being suspended in time. “In a recent dream, or was it a nightmare, I was at an airport, my hands were gloved, and I didn’t know if I should go to the arrivals or the departures. I couldn't find my luggage. Where are we?” she asked poignantly. “I feel so trapped, like this will never end.”

So, as clinicians, what can we do?

I’m drawing on the skills of mindfulness and compassion to help my clients. Again, noticing and naming what you are experiencing is a good way to start. And having someone to listen and hear you make a difference as well. As Dan Siegel puts it, we need to “feel felt.” One client this week, when I told her the story of my friend feeling dispirited, said, “Yes, that’s it, it’s like I’ve lost my spirit. That is helpful.”

I also draw on the research and practice of Self-Compassion. One of my favorite practices is called a Self-Compassion Break. We note that things are difficult in this practice, rather than going into denial or eating, or drinking or distracting ourselves with substances. We acknowledge that we are not alone and that right now, at this moment, thousands, if not millions of others, are feeling the same way. And finally, we bring some kindness or compassion to ourselves. This practice and these three steps can make a huge difference in building resilience.

We don’t know when this will end. That is true. But we can reflect on what we need to proceed. So try this. Spend a few moments labeling what you are feeling, and then reach out to someone who can hear you, so you feel less alone. And finally, bring in some self-compassion and kindness.

One story that I return to in difficult times is told by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who would talk about the destruction he witnessed in Vietnam. When you get knocked down seven times, he said, get up for the eighth time. 

May we all aspire to this resilience and determination.