Languishing woman
The Digital Issue

Languishing Is the Mood of 2021. How to Identify It and How to Cope

Key Takeaways

  • Sociologist Corey Keyes coined languishing as the opposite of flourishing.
  • Symptoms of languishing include burnout, no motivation, and numbness.
  • Languishing is not a mental illness but can be helped by attending therapy, along with other coping techniques.

I feel stuck, in a sort of limbo where essences of life buzz around me, but I can’t access them. Life is at once too overwhelming and not engaging enough. Each task I do requires a search for motivation beyond anything I’ve ever known. I’m tired, burnt out, and not often excited, but also restless, eager to engage, and trying.

What’s more, the seemingly unending waves of pandemic panic only further contribute to my inability to feel fully present in my life. Back in April, we were so sure we’d reached the light at the end of the tunnel, we took off our masks and reunited with family—hope was palpable. Then suddenly over the course of a couple of weeks news of the Delta variant put existential dread back on our emotional plates and it seemed we were back to square one.

And it’s not to say we haven’t made immense progress, millions of people are vaccinated and medical science will ultimately catch up to the mutating virus, this needs to be acknowledged. But it’s this perpetual trajectory of two steps forward, one step back that keeps me in psychological survival mode—always maintaining and upholding what is, attempting to stay afloat while accepting that forward momentum right now is unlikely.

As someone with a previously diagnosed panic disorder, I’ve been aware of and—to an extent—managing mental health issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic I’ve experienced before: panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, and depressive episodes. But, over the past few months, my brain has painfully welcomed the new sensations, and I regularly find myself experiencing something new: languishing.

What Is Languishing?

Sociologist Corey Keyes first coined the term languishing as the antithesis of flourishing. “Languishing is apathy, a sense of restlessness or feeling unsettled or an overall lack of interest in life or the things that typically bring you joy,” says Shemiah Derrick, a licensed professional counselor and certified alcohol and drug counselor.

Person lying in a pool of water

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Unlike a panic disorder or depression, languishing is a series of emotions, not a mental illness. “Languishing encompasses distressing feelings of stagnation, monotony, and emptiness,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Johns Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California’s largest outpatient mental health organization.

I’ve felt most of these emotions in one capacity or another last year as the pandemic raged on but I also—subconsciously on not—put weight into the idea that this was a condition of 2020. The next year must show improvement, right?

Leela Magavi, MD

Individuals with a history of depression and anxiety or who are genetically predisposed to psychiatric conditions are more prone to languishing than others.

— Leela Magavi, MD

Yes, 2021 brought the COVID-19 vaccines and the world is slowly opening up, even in the face of Delta, giving us a glimpse into the future. At the same time, it has emphasized feelings of waiting, of not having control over what the present looks like or what the future will bring.

Identifying Languishing In Yourself

According to Keyes’ research, in 2002, about 12.1% of adults met the criteria for languishing.

One person who understands languishing acutely is Maia. “Mentally, I haven’t necessarily felt good or bad, but I’m definitely not as present as I used to be, and this lack of focus can make every task much more draining than before,” she says.

When the pandemic began, Maia slowed down, giving herself time to relax. Then her school started, work picked up, and suddenly she was back in a busy routine—only with less energy. “I feel as if I’m going through the motions,” says Maia. “Everything blends together when you study, work, eat, and reduce your daily interactions to your computer screen and desk chair. I have the strength to get things done, but I feel like time goes by so fast that I’m not able to really savor my lifestyle in the way that I had before.”

Maia

“Mentally, I haven't necessarily felt good or bad, but I'm definitely not as present as I used to be, and this lack of focus can make every task much more draining than before.

— Maia

Maia sees online classes as a primary cause of these feelings, as they make it more difficult to separate her school and personal life.

Then there’s Aina, whose new normal is alternating between feelings of fatigue and no motivation to quick bursts of energy when starting something new, only to feel unmotivated again soon after. When there’s something she needs to do, no matter how fast it would be, Aina finds herself asking: “Why do I need to do this?” or “What is the point?”

“I feel like I’m either lazy or making up excuses, but it’s just this weird state of stillness and this constant thought of knowing I’m not at my full capacity,” says Aina.

Preexisting Mental Illness and Languishing

Having a known mental illness can make languishing far along into the pandemic all the more surprising.

When the pandemic began, Grace felt capable of managing her preexisting generalized anxiety. Then fall came and one of her family members was diagnosed with a condition leaving them very immunocompromised. She had been highly cautious before, but now the pressure grew, compounded by her better understanding that anyone she encountered could be in a similar position.

Soon the added distress, coupled with winter’s onset, took an added toll. Grace began feeling numb and disinterested. “I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I didn’t feel like I was myself. I’m a very bubbly, energetic, happy person usually, and I felt just neutral.”

In her first job out of college, she expected herself to be ambitious and take on new things, but six months in, it felt like a mundane task that required daily repeating. Grace knew the job was something she liked, but she felt burnt out and unable to care while sitting inside the same apartment every day.

drawing of cuckoo clock with characters around it

Verywell / Josh Seong

“Individuals who are extroverts have struggled considerably with limited socialization, and consequently are prone to languishing. Individuals with a history of depression and anxiety or who are genetically predisposed to psychiatric conditions are more prone to languishing than others,” says Magavi.

Grace initially thought she was depressed but, along with a therapist, determined it didn’t accurately represent her symptoms.

While depression and languishing can present similarly, there are distinct differences between the two. According to Derrick, symptoms of depression include sadness, changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide.

Grace

I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I didn’t feel like I was myself. I’m a very bubbly, energetic, happy person usually, and I felt just neutral.

— Grace

Then there’s Alex, whose anxiety disorder often presents as an aversion to germs and fear of illness. Living in a “medically fragile” household means she has not been in another building for a year and only eats food prepared in the house. “My family has been 100% quarantined for the past year, meaning we’ve seen nobody and gone nowhere,” she says.

Alex is balancing a full-time job, freelancing, graduate school, and family responsibilities. As she explains, “Doing all that from the same spot on my couch, laptop balanced on my lap, because I have nowhere else to work for a year? It’s too much.” On top of this stress, Alex has lost a close friend, grandma, aunt, and others. Her long-term relationship also ended.

In the past few months, Alex has often come back to the phrase: “I have nothing left to give.” At the beginning of the pandemic, she hoped to push through any grief or anxiety experienced. “The mental effort feels like I’ve been sprinting for a solid year,” says Alex.

“As someone who’s always been ambitious personally and professionally, it’s been hard to get to the point where I know I’m doing my best, and it still isn’t anywhere near what I had to offer 14 months ago.” She emphasizes that she still feels privileged to have consistent work.

How to Cope With Languishing

While you can’t snap your fingers and bring the pandemic’s end, there are some actionable ways to cope with languishing.

Take Time Off When Possible

The past few weeks, Aina has stopped herself from doing any work over the weekend. Giving herself “proper free time” to relax has helped her feel more effective when working and less overwhelmed.

“It can feel counterintuitive and counterproductive but once burnout or lack of motivation sets in, it’s time to stop and take a real break. This might mean several days off or disconnecting from most things for a weekend if that’s all you have,” says Derrick. 

Earlier in the month, I took a week off for the first time in months. It felt almost silly to schedule time away when I wouldn’t be “away,” but I knew I needed a break. After a week of doing little but watching The Nanny reruns and playing with my dog, I came back to work feeling a bit refreshed for the first time in over a year.

Alex

I’ve been allowing myself to fully invest in the things I love doing.

— Alex

As Derrick says, “The brain is like a machine, and when we hit burnout, it’s overheating. To ‘fix’ it, we have to shut it off, take some time and get a plan for the best way to restart it, so it doesn’t get overloaded again.”

Time off is, unfortunately, still a luxury. Without paid time off, the week I spent recuperating meant lost income.

Give Yourself Permission To Enjoy

Instead of focusing on what “should” make you happy or not trying to find it at all, lean into anything that brings you enjoyment. As long as it’s not dangerous, it’s worth exploring.

“I’ve been allowing myself to fully invest in the things I love doing,” says Alex. This often comes in the form of TV and makeup. “I find myself doing a full face even on days when I don’t have meetings because I find it so fun and even meditative,” she adds.

For Maia, enjoyment comes from exploring interests outside of her computer—allowing for a needed technology break. “While I still indulge in the occasional Netflix binge session, finding activities that can relax me without involving some sort of screen has proven to be more satisfying,” she says.

Personally, that’s included painting (lasted about a week), reading rom-coms (on-and-off), and taking my dog for socially distanced walks in the park (always helps).

Change Your Scenery

Speaking of the park, it’s incredible how much changing my physical view can be refreshing. I’m not alone: Maia and Grace have both taken to going on walks to create needed space. “Partaking in a mindful walk or engaging in some form of physical activity could release endorphins and bolster mood. This could help release endorphins and improve mood and motivation,” says Magavi.

When possible, create a designated space to work separate from where you relax. Maia credits a different area for being “on” with helping her manage negative emotions. “Those moments where you’re able to step out of your digital ‘cave’ and stimulate your senses or move around help me get back into my flow mentally and physically,” she says.

Look Into Therapy

When available, therapy can be a tremendous tool for navigating new and scary feelings, such as those associated with languishing. Grace started therapy earlier in the year after experiencing anger around friends taking trips and meeting up while she took precautions and worried about loved ones. The sessions have helped her in recent weeks.

As Magavi explains, cognitive behavioral therapy can help people reframe their negative thinking while exploring healthy coping behaviors. When necessary, this may also include taking medication. While I haven’t attended therapy during the pandemic, I know my daily 10 mg of Lexapro has helped my well-being tremendously.

For Alex, restarting therapy at the beginning of the pandemic was key to holding herself together. “My therapist has helped me cope with some of the more acute things, like deaths in the family, and we’ve been working on tools to manage my emotional and mental reactions to the more long-term things,” she says. It also led Alex to an ADHD diagnosis recently, which has helped her better understand how her brain functions.

Get Vaccinated

Not only does each person vaccinated bring us closer to the pandemic ending, but it’s incredible the internal relief it brings. In the past few weeks, Grace has noticed a significant improvement in her well-being. In addition to therapy, she credits it to getting vaccinated along with her family members.

“When I got the vaccine myself, it was the first time I’ve ever been able to think about the future,” says Grace.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

What This Means For You

If it sounds like you're languishing, you are far from alone. It is a product of the uncertainty and limits brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and has specific coping mechanisms. "I recommend my patients to list things they are thankful for physically, emotionally, and spiritually every morning and evening, especially when lonely or sad," says Magavi. Little by little, the pandemic will end and the added distress it brought will disperse with it.

1 Source
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  1. Keyes CLM. The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life. J Health Soc Behav. 2002;43(2):207. doi:10.2307/3090197