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Cease languishing & start blooming!


This time will be remembered—12

By Sunita Vijay

COVID-19, a nasty contagion, wrecked 2020 and now continues to mow down 2021. It’s back with more ruthlessness, devilish vigour, vengeance and destructive strength. Initially, we accepted the dismal phase, consoling ourselves that this shall pass. Slowly, it started overpowering our mental health. We didn’t recognise the symptoms. Many of us had trouble concentrating. Even the vaccination drive didn’t ease the anxiety. The New Year passed by in a lull. Enthusiasm, joy, thrill stood drawn from life.

It is languishing – the most dominant emotion of 2021!

I googled the symptoms and found ‘The New York Times’ to diagnose this sense of stagnation and emptiness as languishing. Our days are a higgledy-piggledy ride, like journeying on with a foggy windshield – the future refusing to give a clue. What is touted to be the most dominant emotion of 2021, languishing is when nothing is clear, no respite seen, only an endless dark tunnel where we behold disease, fear, death, hospitalisation, treatment, pills, scans, etc. ‘The neglected middle child of mental health’, it is ‘the void between depression and flourishing’, the absence of well-being. Much like the precariousness we feel while languishing, the emotion is easy to emote but a challenge to describe: ‘It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless.’

Arguably, the Indian population is currently experiencing different emotions on the mental health spectrum. Some are utterly overworked simply performing their duties or rendering care. They face exhaustion. Others trudge along through each day, not yet having witnessed the horrors of COVID in the first person, at least not medically. While in early 2020, as the pandemic hit, they must have developed routines, feeding off continually updated ‘intel’ regarding the virus, masking and scrubbing fomites, they now experience despair, gloom, plummeting of motivation, inability to focus. The amygdala (the brain’s very own threat-detection apparatus) doesn’t stimulate their bodies to fight or take flight right now; instead, they find themselves ‘languishing’.

Corey Keyes, the sociologist who coined this term, described how ‘not depressed’ doesn’t necessarily imply ‘thriving’. You may not exhibit symptoms of mental illness yet. Still, his research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade are those who are languishing right now. This almost seems to be PTSD, a by-product of going through, individually and generationally, an unutterably complex pandemic.

‘Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.’
How to transcend languishing!

What triggers languishing is the unending phase of the pandemic. The lingering question is – Will the world ever be COVID free? When will we fearlessly hit the moment of no masks, lockdown, social distancing, and restrictions in gathering and meetings? It seems like this very question is languishing – there’s no clarity on how the virus will behave in the future. Experts writing in ‘Nature’ suggest it might turn endemic, continuing to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come. But it might even weaken, as coronaviruses have earlier. However, there is no definitive assurance.

In such a situation – first, embrace guarded optimism, which means hope for the best but don’t grow lax about COVID-appropriate behaviours and protocols. The silver lining is that, compared to the 1918 flu, we are in a far more scientifically evolved world. People are more educated, social media exists to spread awareness (also rumours!) at jet speed, improved medical facilities like life-support systems revive even the worst medical cases, and we can engage in prophylaxis. But the moment we show slack, we fall prey to this nasty virus. It is everywhere, prowling, changing forms, increasing virulence and ready to pounce the instant vulnerability is indicated.

Second, savour small triumphant moments. Grow microgreens. Indulge in gardening. Learn new traits. Sow seeds in pots, play board games, try the crossword. Keep yourself occupied with positive thoughts so that there is no space for any negative feelings, fear, worry and doubt. Try something challenging each day. Push your boundaries. Draft an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, engage in a meaningful conversation with people sharing common interest and hobbies. Talk with friends. Attend learning sessions. This will restore energy and enthusiasm.

Third, protect your mental health passionately. The loss of normalcy, loved ones, and fear and uncertain circumstances have added to this upheaval. However, whether to fight the disease or paint a picture of hope for those we care for, a solid mental outlook is the biggest health potion right now. Respect the scale of the problem, chuck the carelessness which brought about a monstrous second wave in India, but remain consciously calm about it. Let’s minimise the spread and not let it become a mental contagion or make the situation worse with pessimistic extrapolation. Let courage, good health and solidarity be contagious. Let’s help in any way we can. Let humanity breathe robustly in us!

Sadly, our society normalises physical health challenges but stigmatises mental health challenges. A major take away from this time is acknowledging and identifying the precursors to depression and other mental health issues. We thus give voice to quiet despair and light a path out of the void. Let’s recognise those who seek professional help as utterly courageous.

Let’s re-examine our conscience as a species and learn lessons the right way. Humanity is transformed by those who take the most sublime lessons from tragedy. It’s never late. We will weather this storm. But we must resolve to be a ‘better human’ version of ourselves.