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Languishing: Have You Been Feeling Blah?

By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

Have you ever heard of languishing? Perhaps it’s the dominant emotion of 2021 and you’re not alone in what you are feeling – according to the New York Times, “we all have a lot of symptoms in common right now.” Have you had trouble focusing or noticed that there have been things you aren’t looking forward to in 2021, even though vaccines have been attainable and on the horizon?

What is Languishing? 

Languishing can be easily confused with burnout, but it consists of still having energy. It’s not depression because we don’t feel entirely hopeless – just joyless and aimless. Languishing is described as a “sense of stagnation and emptiness,” as if you are muddling through your days and looking at your life through the lens of a windshield that is “foggy.” Sounds pretty blah to me. While scientists are working on dealing with disease control and the physical symptoms of COVID-19, many people are struggling emotionally with the “emotional long-haul of the pandemic.” It’s normal to feel unprepared for it as last year slowly faded into 2021, where not many changes took place at first.

At the beginning of the pandemic, our brains were on high alert and the threat detection system, also known as the amygdala, was in fight or flight mode. Naturally, as we all learned that “masks helped protect us – but package scrubbing didn’t – we developed routines that eased our senses of dread.” However, as the pandemic dragged on, the anguish gave way to this chronic condition we have described as languishing.

Mental Health on a Spectrum: Depression to Flourishing

We therapists think and talk about mental health on a spectrum – from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is considered to be the peak of well-being: this occurs when we have a “strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others.” On the other hand, depression is the opposite. One feels “despondent, drained, and worthless.”

Languishing, however, would be considered as the “neglected middle child of mental heath – a void between languishing and flourishing, or the absence of well-being.” When languishing, we are not functioning at our full capacity and it “dulls our motivation, disrupts our ability to focus, and triples the odds that we’ll cut back on work.” The danger with languishing is that it can sneak up on you. You might not notice the dullness or catch yourself slipping into isolation or being “indifferent to your indifference.” According to Grant, “when you can’t see your suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.”

Psychologist Corey Keys coined this term and one of the best strategies to dealing with difficult feelings is to label and name them. It feels validating when we can figure out what’s going on in our heads and make sense of it. So, what can we all do about it? A new concept called flow, or an antidote to languishing, is what kept people maintaining their pre-pandemic happiness when things were at their worst. Flow is the “elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or momentary bond, where your sense of time, place, and self melts away.” If we work to find new challenges, experiences we enjoy, and meaningful work, we can remedy languishing. To do this, we will need to focus on giving ourselves uninterrupted time as “fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence.” Time to set boundaries, pay attention to small goals, avoid interruptions with intention, and give ourselves the freedom to focus.

Reference:

Grant, A (2021). There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: It’s called languishing. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

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