I often tell my patients, “Putting a name to what you’re feeling is the first step in managing your emotions.” But what happens when you don’t have a word to describe what you’re feeling?
Many of my patients tell me they feel burned out yet still have energy; they feel somewhat joyless and aimless, yet not hopeless or depressed. Well, there’s a name for that feeling, and it’s shaping up to be the dominant emotion of 2021: languishing. Pandemic PTSD is on the rise because the pandemic has been a traumatic event. Our nervous systems have been in a chronic state of fight-or-flight, and what began as acute anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.
What is Languishing
In psychology, we think about mental health as being on a spectrum from depression to thriving. Languishing in the neglected middle ground of mental health. It’s the absence of well-being – you don’t fit the description of mental illness, but you’re not exactly the picture of mental health either. Languishing can feel like:
- you’re not functioning at full capacity
- you lack motivation
- you have difficulty focusing
- you have a sense of stagnation and emptiness
- you’re viewing life through a foggy windshield
Research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade and the ones who are languishing right now. So what can we do?
Name it to tame it.
We still have a lot to learn about what causes languishing and how to treat it, but naming it is a first step that could help defog our vision. Having a name for what we feel reminds us that we aren’t alone: languishing is common and shared.
An antidote to languishing? A concept called flow.
During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of wellness was experiencing flow-states. A flow state, also known as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person is fully absorbed in something meaningful to the point that their sense of time, place, and self melts away. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their pre-pandemic happiness.
Usually, we find our flow in enjoyable experiences like gardening, painting, or doing meaningful work. I find flow when I read a page-turning book, or I redecorate spaces in my home. My assistant gets into her flow when she’s graphic designing or cleaning her house. Find the flow that works for you!
Give yourself uninterrupted time.
Research has found that the most crucial factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress. Treat yourself to uninterrupted blocks of time throughout the day. Give yourself space from constant distractions so you can experience the freedom of focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.
Focus on a small goal
Carve out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you. Choose something that is “just-manageable” enough, meaning it stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. This could be a new type of workout, a DIY project, a new recipe, a Sudoku, word search or puzzle of some sort, or listening to an engaging podcast.
Languishing is not merely in our heads — it’s in our circumstances. We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges. It’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being.
“Not depressed” doesn’t mean you’re not struggling. “Not burned out” doesn’t mean you’re energized. 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.
Remember, this will not last forever. Be kind to yourself and those around you, we’re all in this together. And have a very Happy Mother’s Day!