As we set our sights on the new year ahead, we are all doing so feeling, in varying degrees, the effects of two long years of pandemic life. As one day blurs into the next and one month into another, the consequences of sustained stress can rise to the surface in subtle ways. Prolonged stresses may be negatively affecting your memory and cognitive skills.
“If we’re under a lot of stress, sometimes it can very negatively impact retrieval of information,” Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology and director of the Schacter Memory Lab at Harvard University, explains to NBC News. One example is what Schacter refers to as “blocking,” where information is available in memory, but we can’t retrieve it when we try to call it up. “The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon we all are familiar with would be an example of blocking.”
Adds psychologist Lily Brown, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, “If you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from pandemic life, you may find it hard to focus well or target your attention on one particular thing.”
In the New York Times in December, organizational psychologist Adam Grant points out that having trouble concentrating could be a sign of another more troubling condition. “As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-haul Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic,” writes Grant. “It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless … It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing … a sense of stagnation and emptiness. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
“In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing,” says Grant. Where flourishing is the peak of well-being, depression is the valley of “ill-being.” If you are flourishing, you are considered to have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. If you are clinically depressed, you can feel despondent, drained and worthless.
Says Grant, languishing is “the neglected middle child of mental health.” It fills the void but is given little attention. “You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity.”
“‘Not depressed’ doesn’t mean you’re not struggling,” he writes. “‘Not burned out’ doesn’t mean you’re fired up. By acknowledging that so many of us are languishing, we can start giving voice to quiet despair and lighting a path out of the void … It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.”
The antidote to languishing is a concept Grant calls flow, “that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self, melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow.”
In a recent contribution to an NPR New Year advice series focused on 2022, Keisha “TK” Dutes points out the damaging role that “the hypercritical mental chorus we call negative self-talk” plays today in creating mental roadblocks to positive actions and mental well-being. “Next time you notice you’re caught in a cycle of self-criticism, ask yourself: ‘Would I talk to my best friend this way?'” says psychologist Joy Harden Bradford. “We’re talking about using the same kind and gentle language and approaches that we do with the other people we love in our lives — with ourselves.”
“If the thoughts that run through your head are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more likely pessimistic,” warns the Mayo Clinic. Such an outlook can magnify the negative aspects of a situation and create a condition where you automatically anticipate the worst.
Practicing positive self-talk starts by following one simple rule, says the Mayo Clinic. “Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. Be gentle and encouraging with yourself. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you.”
As recently reminded by Steven Petrow, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, “Buried under the grief and loss that we’ve experienced in 2021, there are seeds of hope for the new year.” Adds Richard A. Friedman, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, “I think people can look forward to appreciating just how resilient they are by taking a look back at how they’ve endured the past two years.”
Previously reported by the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, more than 7 in 10 Americans ages 50 to 80 said they feel the same level of resilience — overcoming challenges, recovering and bouncing back from adversity — as they did before the pandemic. And 15%said they felt more resilient. “Adversity is painful,” Friedman says, “but it can also make us stronger and better.”
Reports Time magazine’s Tara Law, the pandemic continues to be a rich period for scientists who study happiness as they follow “the biggest collective threat to happiness most of us have ever known.”
According to a University College London COVID-19 Social Study, a running study of more than 40,000 people, what they’re finding is that the pandemic has not brought an end to happiness. While it has forced people to find new ways to connect, as a result, many people became closer to their neighbors. Of the participants in the COVID-19 Social Study, a third of respondents said they’d received more support from their neighbors during the pandemic than before it. The study also showed that volunteering has significantly increased.
Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor at University College London and a leader of the study, says, “If there’s any silver lining to the psychological upheaval of the pandemic, it’s greater mental health literacy. People were forced to grapple with their own understanding of mental health … their ability to recognize their own symptoms and feelings or potential mental health problems. COVID has been its own campaign about mental health.”