From Anguish to Languish

Man lying on bed

A couple of weeks ago, an article in the New York Times, written by Adam Grant, suggested that most of us, after over a year of coping with Covid, are languishing. The first time I’d heard this word being used in a Covid context was when I was approached by a CBC Radio producer who told me about the article and asked if I would offer my opinion on this to some morning hosts. She certainly piqued my interest and wanting to know more, I agreed, and then went to work researching what this is all about.

What I learnt is that the words, “languishing” and “flourishing”, were coined as psychological terms by American psychologist/sociologist, Corey Keyes, who is well known in the field of positive psychology. They describe the mental health of adults, from one extreme to the other.

When you think back to where you were over a year ago, when our world was rocked by news of Covid and its devastating impact, many of us were in a state of anguish or distress about how to cope with our new normal. We felt shocked and frightened at the uncertainty of what had blindsided us. As time marched on, we learnt how to cope, how to live despite horrific news of numbers roller coasting, of lives lost, a medical system overwhelmed and burdened, and businesses having to close.

Now, more than a year later, we have become somewhat used to our new normal and unless you have been personally struck by loss or harm as a result of Covid, you may be more able to ride the waves of change with greater resilience. Your anguish may have turned to anger or impatience and irritability. You may also, as the New York Times article suggests, be in a state of languish.

I can’t take credit for providing you with the definition of languish, for you too can find it by doing a Google search – it is to “lose vitality, grow weak or feeble” or “to suffer from being forced to remain in an unpleasant state or situation.” So, yes, I agree that we many of us may be languishing. Some may even say that they are feeling “blah” or “meh.”

Several of the radio hosts asked me how one could tell the difference between languishing and depression. Since languishing is certainly trending towards depression, it is difficult to find the blurry line that separates the two. When you are languishing, you are may not feel as joyful as you were before the pandemic began. You may have difficulty concentrating or be feeling a diminished sense of being productive. Perhaps you’re feeling less motivated, having a difficult time creating structure in your day, may not be eating or sleeping or taking care of yourself as you used to. Perhaps you’re not that interested in connecting with others.

Since many of these characteristics are also found in people who have been diagnosed with depression (especially if the symptoms are consistent for a period of time), it may be difficult to pull the two apart. And maybe it’s not important to, since regardless of whether you are going through a period of feeling “blah” or “depressed,” many of the treatment approaches would be the same.

Other than speaking to a trained professional who can offer treatment, there are several ways to help oneself.

First, go easy on yourself. Recognize that what you’re feeling, especially during a pandemic that has been around for longer than we anticipated, is normal. This is not to say that you should just accept what is and languish, but it’s often helpful to know that you are not alone and that there is hope and help available.

Try to make sure that you are engaging in even small activities each day that brings you joy. A special ritual such as picking up a latte or going for a walk while listening to your favourite podcast, can elevate your spirits.

Experts in the field of positive psychology recommend finding opportunities for getting into states of “flow.” This means to totally immerse yourself in something – could be a work project or putting a jigsaw puzzle together or gardening. Its whatever allows you to lose yourself, so to speak, in the activity. This apparently promotes a feeling of well being and has been found to be one of the contributing factors for people who are coping better during the pandemic.

Adam Grant, the writer of the New York Times article, wrote in one of his Twitter posts, “the absence of mental illness doesn’t mean the presence of mental health.” I like this because what it says to me is that just because you have not been given a diagnosis, does not mean that you feel mentally healthy. After such a lengthy exposure to Covid related news and events in real life, our mental health has taken a beating. People have used words such as “traumatic,” “grief,” and “despair” to describe how they’re feeling. It’s indeed important to recognize and validate your emotions.

So, the next time someone asks how you’re feeling, instead of responding with the usual “I’m fine,” acknowledge that you may be languishing, if you feel you are. Chances are that when you explain what that means, you will get an “interesting, that’s exactly how I’m feeling, too!” response.

I urge you to reach out – to a professional or a friend – to talk about your feelings. You’re not alone!