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"Languishing" is a COVID-19 pandemic side effect - here's what it means

June 23, 2021
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As people start to get back to a somewhat “normal” life, Dr. Barry Sarvet, chairman of Baystate Health’s Department of Psychiatry, says there will be some who will flourish, while others might find themselves languishing, feeling “blah,” for a number of reasons.

Grieving Our Past Lives

Sarvet says the pandemic has been traumatic for many people, either because they got sick themselves or someone they love did. “Some people have had grief reactions, either because they lost someone during the pandemic or because they lost the life they knew,” Sarvet says. “Many are still dealing with residual illness – they haven’t fully recovered because they are dealing with long-haul COVID.”

Dealing with Unknowns

While many are eager for re-entry into a world they haven’t participated in for more than a year, others are afraid.

“While the risk is now finite, the pandemic hasn’t ended,” he explains. “There are still many unknowns. How long will the vaccine last? How effective will it be for variants? People still have questions and that can make them very anxious.”

He says even though government officials and the scientific community have told people it’s OK to venture out into the world a little more now, many don’t trust the advice because advice given throughout and especially at the peak of the pandemic changed day to day, sometimes hour to hour.

“People got used to being at home,” he says. “They became accustomed to being stagnant and isolated. Some felt like they were in a perpetual fog.”

How COVID-19 Has Affected Our Mental Health

Sarvet explains that while everyone wants to move on, it will be more difficult for some. Some people find themselves in a constant state of depression, not necessarily severe, but enough to make them feel empty or like they don’t want to do anything.

“People had so many different experiences during the pandemic,” he says. “Many worked from home and were isolated. The transition back might be more difficult for them. Others had to work on site from the time the pandemic began. They might have an easier time, but not necessarily, especially if they saw a lot of illness and death. People who aren’t as privileged as others and didn’t have the choice of whether to work at home might have a harder time dealing with the ‘new normal.’”

"Moving On" is Easier Said than Done

Sarvet says it’s not just the continued unknowns of the pandemic, but worries about child care and other issues that affect the family on a day-to-day basis as people return to work and their previous lives.

“People are already feeling different levels of depression, and stress will make it worse,” he says. “The worry isn’t over. What people are worrying about might change, but it hasn’t stopped. And then there are those who are still struggling with trauma.”

Seeking Help

Sarvet says people should seek treatment if they think they are depressed – depression is a health condition. They should start by talking with their primary care physician and then decide a treatment plan – the primary care physician can help their patient navigate the system and provide referrals.

Substance abuse disorders have also been prevalent during the pandemic, he shares. People begin to feel depressed or feel themselves languishing and decide to self-medicate. Post-traumatic stress is another issue, and sometimes there’s a combination of PTSD, substance abuse disorder and depression.

“People should try to pay attention to their sleep habits, nutrition and exercise,” he advises. “If they’re tired and listless, have withdrawn or don’t feel motivated, they should seek help. While some people might be able to find their way out by exercising or engaging with others, some will need a little more and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Taking Small Steps to Improve Your Habits

Sarvet suggests people find what ordinarily provides pleasure or stimulates them and go for it. People should think of “doing for themselves” as a prescription, because just like medicine, it will make them feel better.

“People can make a list of what they used to enjoy before the pandemic and start chipping away at that list,” he says.

People of different ages have experienced different things. For instance, young children lost a lot of time in school, doing activities and participating in sports. He says some experienced maltreatment from parents or caregivers who were very stressed through all of this.

“They need to get back to their ‘normal,’” he says.

Young adults, he says, had their dreams deferred, their education disrupted and they had trouble pursuing their careers, while adults faced major economic stressors, relationship issues, substance abuse and the hardships of responsibilities that piled on during the pandemic, along with all the worries.

“Adults had to deal with the uncertainties while taking care of their aging parents and their children, and many had to deal with grief while doing so,” he says.

Older adults, especially prone to anxiety over their health, had to deal with fear and all of the other health factors, not just a virus that might kill them.

“They, in many ways, were the ones hardest hit,” he says and recommends that people stop, think out what makes them feel better, feel happy, get them out of their chair or bed.

“The good news is people can make plans for the future now,” he says. “We might not be back to pre-pandemic life, but we’re getting there.”

Are you struggling?

The best place to start looking for help is with your primary care provider. If you don’t have one, now is the time to be proactive and find one.

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