On most days, I feel like I have one foot in and one foot out of the pandemic.
It’s been a while since I felt the solitude and fear that imbued COVID’s early days. Yet we’re still living with the threat of the virus. It was only in August that the latest swell of Omicron cases crested and gave way to calmer waters, and it will probably happen again. I’ve gotten part of my pre-pandemic life back -- being in crowds, seeing and hugging friends -- but not all of it. Now that I know from experience that global calamity could be just around the corner, it feels unsafe to fully let go and be carried by the tide of what life has to offer -- the joy, the sorrow, the bittersweet.
That’s why this week’s question, from a reader who asked to remain confidential, felt important to answer: How can one get past the feeling of being out of control with little real hope and with no purpose? This attitude was brought on, for me, by the last two years of COVID. I have some interests, family, friends, but I still feel so disconnected - that is, I feel I am always waiting for the ‘other shoe to drop’. Are there small steps I can take to revive my former self?
The first thing that came to mind when I sat with her question was a term coined by social researcher Brené Brown: foreboding joy. It’s when something genuinely good takes place in your life, and just as you begin to feel the warmth of joy, worry and dread take over. You feel like something bad is going to happen. Or in other words, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience,” Brown has said. “And if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress-rehearsing tragedy.”
I’ll bet that many more people are prone to foreboding joy after living through this pandemic. You know your happiness and equanimity can be taken away abruptly because it’s happened before: the postponed weddings, the canceled concerts, the lonely birthdays. For many of us, we watched a seemingly healthy loved one suffer from COVID-19 -- or worse, not be allowed to be there in their final moments at a hospital. Now, we don’t dare trust moments of joy. It’s too vulnerable.
Let’s explore a bit more about where that fear, and lack of purpose and hope, might be coming from.
Table of Contents
On the lookout
Without knowing the details of our reader’s life, it already makes sense to me that she is feeling out of control. Any semblance of certainty we had over our health, careers, routines and social networks was unceremoniously ripped from us during the pandemic.
It was so jarring that many of us are still alert, ready to respond to any potential threats to our wellbeing. In psychology this is called vigilance, and it has everything to do with how our bodies protect us.
Our autonomic nervous system takes care of involuntary functions like digestion, breathing and blood pressure, said Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist at Yale University and host of the “Happiness Lab” podcast. But say you’re reading this newsletter and the ground beneath you starts shaking violently (a real possibility here in California). Your body would unconsciously and immediately switch gears to its sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that activates your “fight-or-flight” response. Energy is channeled to areas that will help us get to safety, like our hearts, which start beating faster, and our eyes, which dilate so that our vision is improved.
While our fight-or-flight system plays a vital role, it should only run for short spurts of time, Santos told me. But the drawn-out, chronic stress of the pandemic means that a lot of us are activating this system long-term, and that’s not good for us. It drains our body of energy and sleep, and it moves us away from social connection and toward impatience, confrontation, and avoidance. Digestion, sexual health and mental health are likely to take a hit. And yes -- it keeps us on edge, waiting for another earthquake to upend our lives, for the proverbial shoe to drop.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a happiness researcher at the University of California, Riverside, pointed to famous experiments conducted by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier in the 1960s. The pair found that when they exposed dogs to repeated shocks that they could not control, the animals did nothing when they were actually able to escape the shocks. When Seligman and Maier tried this experiment with human beings (replacing the shocks with loud noises) they found that people had a similar reaction.
The research led to a deeper understanding of trauma and the term “learned helplessness,” otherwise known as the “freeze” stress response. When learned helplessness takes over, you’re not confident in your ability to handle challenges because you don’t believe — in your mind or in your body — that anything you do will make a difference. “You’re just waiting for the next shock to come,” Lyubomirsky said.
Our reader also mentioned a lack of purpose and connection in the pandemic’s wake. Humans are meaning-making creatures, and the No. 1 way we create meaning in our lives is through our relationships. Studies show that we feel the greatest sense of meaning when our needs for relatedness are met and when we feel we belong in the world.
But along with our sense of safety, COVID also threatened our relationships, shrinking our social circles and opportunities for face-to-face interactions. Widespread relational disconnect during the pandemic undoubtedly contributed to the high rates of anxiety and depression, experts said.
So what can we do?
The interwoven mishmash of personal, systemic and global problems really does feel like too much all at once, all the time. But this wouldn’t be a Group Therapy newsletter if I just left it there.
Here are some tools you can turn to when everything feels out of control. I don’t offer these as a way to bypass the larger societal ills that have caused us to feel so powerless. Instead, they’re mechanisms through which we can access our least-overwhelmed selves. In that mindset, we’re much more likely to be able to help solve these larger crises.
- Breathe: Taking deep, slow belly breaths is a conscious hack you can use to shut off your fight-or-flight system, Santos said. That’s because deep breathing stimulates our vagus nerve, the longest nerve in our bodies, which regulates our stress response. Some breathing techniques I’ve found helpful are box breathing and the 4-7-8 method. Singing and laughing also stimulate the vagus nerve, one reason doing those things feels so good.
- Gratitude: Humans evolved to have a negativity bias. Our brains want to make sure we notice the tiger rushing at us quicker than we notice the flowers and rainbows. But research shows that if we train ourselves to count our blessings, it can help us sleep better, reduce stress and improve our relationships. One way to do this is by keeping a gratitude journal, which is really just as simple as writing a weekly list of whatever you’re grateful for at the moment, big or small. I know it sounds hokey but it works for a lot of people!
- Connect: Anything you can do to feel more connected with others will boost your sense of well-being and purpose, Lyubomirsky said. This could mean investing more in your closest relationships or creating new ones. Get involved with a community group, attend a place of worship, join a support group -- or all three, if you have the time and capacity.
These are not easy times, and suffering is part of life. But we can suffer less. That begins with taking time to tap into what we are feeling, something most of us don’t do often enough.
As always, thanks for coming along for the ride this week, and keep sending us your questions.
Until next time,
If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email [email protected] gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.
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More perspectives on today’s topic & other resources
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If you’re feeling out of sorts, one of the best ways to boost your mood is to help someone else. Here’s a list of 50 acts of generosity you can incorporate into your everyday life, from writer Alexandra Franzen.
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Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.