If, like me, you're emotionally flat-lining right now, you might have post-pandemic stress disorder

Normality has almost returned. So why don't I feel happy?
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In May 2021, at the height of the pandemic, an article in the New York Times went viral for bringing the psychological term ‘languishing’ to our attention. It describes that flat, aimless feeling which hovers awkwardly somewhere on the emotional spectrum between gloom and contentment. You're not quite happy; but you're not sad, either. You're just… well, you're just a bit lost. At that time, after almost a year of successive lockdowns, it perfectly encapsulated how we all felt.

In the piece, US psychologist Adam Grant writes: ‘Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.’

But what would you say if I asked you what the dominant emotion of 2022 is so far? We're vaccinated, the world is welcoming us back and, while many of us are still choosing to test regularly and exercise caution, we are able to see our loved ones whenever and however we want. So, the dominant emotion of 2022 is surely relief? Hope? Joy?

The thing is, if I'm being really honest here, I haven't felt total, unbridled joy in quite some time. Content? Sure. Grateful? Always. There are moments of delight, of course: like when I hug my parents; when a colleague makes me laugh; when my boyfriend puts his arm around me in the morning; when my friends say something sweet or supportive or silly while sipping pints in the pub. But they are fleeting. Soon, that feeling of stagnation and senselessness seeps back in and I just feel… well, I don't feel much at all. 

It's like languishing, only this time, there's not the obvious cause there was back in May 2021. This has more of a permanency to it. This is languishing 2.0.

And I'm not the only one who feels as though my emotions are flatlining. “That's exactly how I feel,” says one friend when I bring it up. “I also find I'm easily irritated or agitated, but don't get bursts of joy to counteract it. It's like two years of intense highs and lows has meant that actually we don't know how to deal with normality anymore.”

In fact, it's estimated that the pandemic led to a 27.6% increase in cases of major depressive disorder and a 25.6% increase in cases of anxiety disorders worldwide in 2020, according to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) last month. It's no wonder we're so psychologically burnt out. The pandemic has bled us dry of emotion.

“You've heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which occurs after someone experiences a significant traumatic event in life, but I think there's a new potential disorder on the horizon – post-pandemic stress disorder (PPSD),” says psychotherapist Owen O’Kane, author of How to Be Your Own Therapist. “PPSD is directly linked to the traumatic impact of the pandemic, and our struggle to adjust to ‘normal’ life alongside a significant rise in mental health presentations, particularly with younger people.”

O'Kane asserts that while it's not yet a formal diagnosis, he believes PPSD – or something similar – will be clinically recognised soon, as the psychological fallout of the pandemic becomes clearer.

“My key concern is that many people will have experienced varying degrees of trauma over the past two years: loss, isolation, illness, unable to say goodbye to loved ones, business failures and horrific news headlines daily. The list is endless,” he says. “The issue for me is the ‘invisibility’ of a pandemic. There is a real risk that trauma impact will be minimised, whereas an event like a war would normalise the consequential impact of trauma.”

O'Kane also points out that people often mistakenly believe that trauma symptoms will be seen at the time of the event, but in reality, it's often a few months or even years later. That could explain why so many of us are feeling emotionally void right now, even though life has been back to ‘normal’ for quite some time.

It's also because when we're in the midst of a traumatic event, our brains respond in crisis mode. “Our threat systems are highly activated, so we are hardwired to self-protect and be ‘on guard’ during those periods,” explains O'Kane. “It’s the aftermath that allows space for emotions to arise and this can be an array of emotions such as sadness, anger, listlessness, numbness, and disbelief.

“The aftermath is the period when self-care, self-compassion, and self-patience really counts. You have experienced an incredibly difficult period of your life. Healing needs time, space and understanding.”

So, how do you recognise potential PPSD symptoms?

If you notice either new or worsening symptoms in the following areas since the pandemic, then it is possible some degree of trauma may be present and you may wish to seek professional help, according to O'Kane:

  • Increased levels of anxiety
  • Variations in mood
  • Sleep issues
  • Nightmares
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of pandemic/lockdowns
  • Feeling on guard on constantly vigilant about future pandemics or recurrences of Covid
  • Intrusive type thoughts about your pandemic experiences
  • Social anxiety
  • Demotivated and loss of interest in everyday life

How can you cope with PPSD?

  1. Always seek professional support if you are struggling to cope or symptoms feel overwhelming. Trauma responses often need professional support, and it’s important to recognise this.
  2. Prepare how you will readjust to ‘normal life’ and opt for a pace that is comfortable for you. Adapt a phased approach and don’t attempt to jump in too quickly.
  3. Create a daily schedule to help you reset. This might include designated time out periods, walks, exercise, meditation, or anything that helps you switch off. This will help you feel a greater sense of control and allow psychological recovery.
  4. Talk through any issues you are struggling with, even if it’s a friend who is a good listener. When you talk, you process material, and this leads to healing.
  5. Remember this has been unimaginably difficult for most people. Go easy on yourself.

If you're struggling to cope with your mental health, speak to your GP or visit mind.org.uk.