During this time of COVID-19, deprived of our regular activities — going to the gym, cultural events, movies, dinners with friends and travel — we’ve been without these ways to let off steam and cope with stress. Before the pandemic, we all took those things for granted. It was easy to visit with a close friend or take a vacation out of state.
But during this last year, we’ve been unable to enjoy even the simplest of pleasures, like having a latte at our local coffee shop. For months, during lockdowns, we’ve been stuck at home, save for walks in our neighborhood and visits to the supermarket. The net effect has been increased inner tension, boredom and lack of novelty, which has led to amplified anxiety, frustration, depression and anger.
Adam Grant, noted psychologist and economist, wonders if the pandemic has brought about what he calls a state of “languishing” — a sense of joylessness, apathy and a lack of focus and well-being. I think of it as pandemic fatigue.
So how have we coped with these challenges? Many of us have spent hours engaged in the art of distraction — Netflix binges, baking, cooking, eating comfort food, and for some, increased alcohol and marijuana consumption. Distraction focuses our attention away from our inner experience. But often, when we finish watching our favorite Netflix show or eating several slices of home-baked sourdough bread, our malaise returns. Distraction is a temporary fix.
So, what other alternatives can we employ to cope with negative emotions?
Acknowledge your experience. Be aware of what you’re feeling — bored, sad, blah, frustrated, unfocused, tense or angry. Identify and give the feeling a name. Note what sensations go along with the emotion.
Look for triggers. Sometimes, something will trigger an emotion — an exchange with a friend or family member, an article you read in a newspaper or a show you saw on television. It’s helpful to know what might set off an unpleasant emotion. The other day, my frustration level hit a 10 when I locked the bathroom door and couldn’t find a screwdriver to open it up! Taking a few moments to consider why I was so annoyed would have been very helpful.
Lean into your experience. This is often the opposite of what we’ve learned to do. Typically, we want to escape or avoid unpleasant and uncomfortable sensations. Feeling anxious? How about a glass of wine. Feeling sad? Watch “Schitt’s Creek.” Bored? How about plugging in your Xbox. Tired? How about a slice of pie.
“Leaning in,” however, requires spending a little time simply allowing yourself to feel what you are experiencing. Let the mood wash over you, immersing you in its sensations and shape. Hang out with your boredom, your fatigue and your frustration. Don’t push it away. Don’t distract yourself. Don’t be in a rush for it to change. Pay attention. See what happens. Take a few moments of pause before you do anything.
Our negative feeling states are much like the weather in Washington — always changing. Rather than focus on how much you hate the clouds and rain, approach your emotional weather with a more neutral and accepting attitude. When you do, the landscape subtly shifts — the gray light changes the way you see the texture of the trees, the shrubs and the flowers.
And then, without any forewarning, the sun breaks through the clouds, if only for an instant and everything changes once again.
Leaning in allows you to respond to your experience with more awareness, rather than your habitual go-to reactions. Give it a try and see what happens.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.