Most of us recall where we were when we heard the news: local governments across the country issue mandatory stay-at-home orders due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic. “Two weeks,” we were told. Two weeks of staying at home, social distancing and quarantining until things get back to normal. The problem is, the pandemic carried on much longer than two weeks, and things continue to be, after almost two years, not normal.
The initial doom and gloom many of us experienced during the early days of the pandemic resided in our sympathetic nervous system, the part of the body responsible for our inherent “fight or flight” response. There was panic and uncertainty all around. Navigating everyday life felt insurmountable, to the point that it was easier to stay inside than do anything else.
Chances are, you did something to pass the time. Maybe you took up a new hobby, wrote to a friend or watched exercise videos. Eventually, the glaring threat of the unknown diminished a bit, and you were able to carry about your day in a somewhat normal fashion.
After a while though, the initial excitement of taking on a new project faded. Maybe you just weren’t into that one yoga video anymore after watching it for the 26th time. The acute onset of fear and panic left a while ago, but a new, hollow feeling might have begun to emerge. It’s called languishing.
What is that “blah” feeling?
Researcher Corey L.M. Keyes defines languishing as an “emptiness and stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair that parallels accounts of individuals who describe themselves and life as ‘hollow,’ ‘empty,’ ‘a shell,’ and ‘a void.’”
Languishing can manifest differently from person-to-person and may be characterized by the following. Keep in mind that these feelings associated with languishing may come and go:
- “Blah” feeling
- Lack of motivation
- Disconnection from purpose in life
- Feeling unsettled by not highly anxious
- Not feeling high and low moods
A way to think about languishing is to imagine mental health as a spectrum. On one end is positive feelings (flourishing) and on the other is negative feelings (depression). As you move towards the positive end of the spectrum, you move towards thriving or flourishing. As you move towards the negative end of the spectrum, you move towards debilitation that may manifest as mental health disorders such as major depression.
So, where does languishing fall? Languishing is closer to the negative end of the spectrum, but not far enough along it to be a diagnosable mental health illness. However, professionals think that languishing could be just as debilitating as major depression, and languishing is a major risk factor for depression.
A notable difference between languishing and depression is the lack of despair in languishing. Languishing is not sadness nor anger nor happiness. Instead, languishing can be thought of as that “blah” feeling. You aren’t sad, you aren’t happy, you just are. You exist. If anything, you may feel unmotivated and stuck where you are, even if you are doing something.
For example, maybe you are in the habit of running. You’re still going running every morning, but you no longer feel connected to the activity.
It’s that lack of connection coupled with existing for existence’s sake that is languishing. It’s not hard to see how this may lead into more major forms of mental health illness like depression, which can be characterized as feeling extreme sadness, hopelessness or despair. Depression may also involve more self-criticism and thoughts of harming yourself. Other signs of major depression include:
- Irritability or anger
- Loss of interest in activities and things that previously brought joy
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Fatigue or difficulty completing tasks
- Changes in appetite
- Anxiety or restlessness
- Slowed movements or thinking
- Memory/cognitive problems
- Unexplained physical pain (i.e. back pain, headaches)
How to cope with languishing
Even with COVID-19 cases declining and a vaccine, many people continue to report feelings of languishing. Are you one of them? You can try some of the suggestions listed below to cope with languishing on a day-to-day basis:
- Name your feelings. Recognize that you are experiencing languishing. This is an important step that allows you to accept and honor what you’re feeling as well as determine how you can move forward.
- Ask for help. You do not need to have a diagnosable mental health condition to see a therapist. In fact, it may be best to see someone before you reach a more urgent mental health state. Maybe therapy isn’t for you, but you can still reach out to supportive loved ones. Humans are social animals, introverts and extroverts alike. We need and crave human connection.
- Get restful sleep. If you have irregular sleeping patterns (i.e. wake up in the middle of the night frequently with trouble getting back to sleep, trouble getting to sleep, etc.) reach out to your healthcare provider for recommendations to improve sleep quality. There are many strategies you can try before medication, but your provider may also recommend an appropriate medication if needed.
- Eat a balanced diet. Stop focusing on trendy diets that constantly emphasize what you need to remove from your diet. Healthy eating is a habit, and when building habits, you are much more likely to succeed if you focus on what you would like to be doing rather than what you think you should not do. For example, instead of focusing on not eating sugar or carbs, focus on getting more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into your diet, as these are the elements missing from most peoples’ daily eating. You can start with the simple 5-a-day guideline—get two fruits and three vegetables each day.
- Get some sun. Get outside, if you can, for some sunlight and movement. Sunlight is important in promoting the production of vitamin D, a crucial vitamin for bone health, which is often lacking in Americans’ diets.
- Move more. Being more physically active can have monumental positive impacts on your mental health. Recent research suggests that exercise may be as effective as some anti-depressants! It’s important to note that more research is needed, and you should not stop taking any current medications prescribed to you without talking to your doctor first.
- Change up your routine. Adding newness and novelty to your routine can be thrilling to your life, especially if you are feeling stuck. Try planning a getaway, join a sports team or group exercise class, pick up an old hobby or try a new one. Many of these ideas will not only help get you out of your languishing rut but could also increase your day-to-day and weekly socialization. Most of us have socialized less in the last year or so, so re-engaging with others might be what you really need!
Our mental well-being is driven as much by our hopes and visions of the future as it is by our current sense of purpose and progress. Therefore, to deal with languishing in the long-term, it might be worth exploring your purpose.
Begin discovering your purpose by thinking about what brings you joy or what you feel may bring you joy—maybe a hobby, skill or career you want to pursue. Carve out time in your schedule each day to focus on that one thing. Don’t stop there. It is not enough to plan and think about what we want to accomplish. We must act. How to know if something is worth doing? You’ll know. Some psychologists refer to it as “flow” and it is a state of being when our sense of time, space and self fades away. Find your flow. Discover your purpose!
If you are or have been experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255.
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About the author
Eric Bilder, CHES®, is a wellness advisor and certified wellness coach at Baylor Scott & White Health. He received his degree in Health Studies in 2016 and has since been working in the corporate wellness world. Eric is passionate about health and wellness and believes preventive care is a powerful tool to staying productive, active and healthy throughout life. Eric loves the outdoors and in his free time, you can find him hiking or camping. He is an avid believer that with the right mindset and some hard work, anything is possible.