Coping with post-pandemic numbness: Why less is more?

Why are people feeling numb at the new stage of the pandemic?

The covid-19 pandemic has been going on for two years now and people are more than exhausted about the impact that the pandemic has had on their lives. People have lost so much over that last two years. Some have lost loved ones, others have lost health, life opportunities, jobs, times with loved ones – most importantly, we have all lost a sense of predictability over what we envisaged our lives to be. We have lost a sense of control of what we can do and cannot do in our lives and have become ‘herds’ to literally acquire immunity against this dreadful virus and its variants. Collectively, we have all been through a social trauma (and we are still in it) and, as such, it is understandable that in trying to cope with the imposed changes in our daily ways of living, many of us end up feeling emotionally numb, as one tries to keep going day by day. We have witnessed a significant change in the way people work and home working has been detrimental for many people who have working ridiculous long hours as people continue to struggle with lack of boundaries between professional demands of the jobs and family life. Not surprisingly, many people have started to take steps to consider their well-being and take steps for a better-balanced life – see the USA with record number of people quitting their jobs a couple of months ago.

What is psychological numbness about?

To feel numb is really about to take ourselves outside of the experience, indeed, the etymology of the word suggest ‘taken’ or seized’. Psychologically speaking, when one finds himself/herself in situations of chronic psychological pain, it is adaptive to cope with the situation by taking oneself out of the situation. We see this often with people who have survived trauma, grief and we see that too when one experiences enduring depressions and/or anxiety.

Emotional numbness can therefore arise gradually over time – for instance, after a period of overworking, such as when reaching burnout. Other times, people can unconsciously seek numbness from painful situations – this is the case when, after a long arduous working day, one may seek refuge into drinking which can shut down the experience of feeling one’s emotions. Culturally, this is deeply engrained in our society, and illustrated in many dramas. For instance, the popular BBC series Faith, is a great example of that and in every episode, you can see Faith reaching for wine in face her daily challenges.

In both cases, this psychological process, although it protects the individual from experiencing greater stress as it functions as shutting the emotions away – it also blocks the individual to experience pleasurable emotions, keeping laughter, light-hearted fun and happiness away. This makes this psychological process maladaptive and hence, one that ideally over time one seeks to address. It is common that relationship difficulties can arise as people when frequently feeling numb may come across as cold, uninterested in others and absent minded and, as a result, conflict may arise as this may be perceived as one not enjoying the company of the other. In turn, the conflicts that may arise may further accentuate emotional numbness, and the person may feel stuck in a negative cycle of experiences.

What can we do to cope with psychological numbness?

Often people experiencing emotional numbness can be misunderstood (as described above). In addition, people experiencing numbness may not be aware of this, so it is key as a first step to raise awareness that this process of shutting oneself off is going on. People in this situation may feel that there is something wrong about themselves, in particular that they don’t seem able to enjoy anything much which can further accentuate feelings of depression and low self-esteem. So, it is important in a first step that if one suspects that a friend, colleague, partner, or relative if going through this, that we can understand what is going on and validate that this is a natural emotional response to unpleasant situations.

When one is feeling emotional numb, something in their life is out of balance, so it is really important to make space for taking steps to bring vitality to the fore and encourage the individual to experience life in a richer and meaningful way. This is when less is more, as often we require do do less so that we can feel more, we can feel less numb and more alive.

On an individual level, if someone experiences emotional numbness and is feeling unwell or unfulfilled, it is advisable that one slows down their current activities to make space for reflection and understanding of what may help. For instance, if you feel in each day that you cannot way for the day to be over, then something is not right. I believe that, more often than not, each person knows what they need if they make space to tune in to themselves and really listen. Sometimes we do not wish to confront ourselves with the need for change, because change is about accepting the uncertainty of what may unfold which can be scary. We are all different and for each of us, different approaches may help, depending on the causes for that numbness. This takes courage to accept. Realistically, it also requires financial means for one to be able to stop work, if work was the key cause of this unbalance. Many people may feel that they do not have this option due to financial constraints. Reaching for help, either from trusted friends and relatives or from a professional such the GP will be really helpful in giving us different perspectives as well as validation and support which may be available.

A holistic approach to well-being is key to reduce emotional numbness and to promote vitality and enriching lives. This may include speaking about one’s feelings with a clinical psychologist, counsellor, psychiatrist, and other mental health professional. However, to help someone to feel less numb and hence more ‘alive’ and more able to give himself/herself to the present moment, a range of other practices can also be transformative which focus both on mind and body. Practices such as Meditation, Movement Medicine, Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Martial Arts, Shiatsu are some examples. The reason why these practices can be helpful is because they aim to instil in us a greater self awareness of breath, body and mind. This is a key skill if one wishes to understand oneself better. Practicing sports, singing, dancing, listening to music and socialising may also helpful to you if this is something that you may enjoy. I teacher I had recommends the we seek out three types of activities: one that we enjoyed as a child, one that is good for our sense of well-being and one that challenges ourselves. For me, these currently are: dancing, Pilates, and I am still trying to find out what activity will challenge myself! (Although as I write this, I may try joining a class of body pump – which if you know me, it is really not my scene).

Being in connection with others is really key here, particularly when are together with others who share our values. As such, I would encourage everyone to seek to be in spaces where they can feel part of something larger than oneself – a small community. This can be one’s swimming class, one’s NHS walk for well-being group, one’s church or anything that allows one the opportunity to be in communion with others. As we do this, we start to see the impact our presence is for others, we may say something that is well received by another person and this will rebound to us and make us feel better. This give and take nature of social interactions is key to well-being. It is also important to be able to be out in nature, no matter the weather as well as making sure that we are looking after our basic needs of good healthy food and a good nights’ sleep are essential. In summary, we need to ‘no matter what happens’ in the day to ensure that we eat well, go to sleep at good times, take part in activities that nurture our body and mind, and that connect us with others. If we do that ‘no matter what happens’ in each day, we are in the path for living life in a fuller way with more purpose and pleasure.

On a societal level, we would like to see a shift from a culture of individual ‘successes’ and competition for prestigious jobs and money seeking towards a culture of ‘living with purpose’, in collaboration and within community. This would require a change in our economy from mass-production and waste towards a sustainable model of economy which is so much needed if we are true in saying that we care about our planet. This also would require a change in our Education systems which educate thousands of graduates each year on developing their thinking and going out there and seeking ‘good jobs’ and sadly do not teach them how to live life sustainably and how to develop their emotional skills, which is really what they need to know for living in harmony with themselves, others and the planet. Ideally, one would work no more than 15 hours a week, precisely for making space for cultivating the mind as well as the body, so that one is physically healthy and also has time for connecting socially with others and be creative.

Warm and serene wishes,