Don’t beat yourself up just yet.
Have you seen that Vanessa Hudgens clip where she says “People will die. And it’s sad, but inevitable!” I could never be like that, I understand COVID is still out there, and it sounds so horrible, but…you know?
In an Instagram voice message, my friend expresses frustration: then guilt. We miss eachother. We want to meet up. We know we can’t.
We’ve both been working, eating, sleeping and studying in our bedrooms with very little human contact for 7 months.
I do know.
Increasingly this autumn, the phrase “pandemic fatigue” has been bandied around. Pandemic fatigue isn’t referring to a COVID-19 symptom, but a psychological one. Its a feeling faced by everyone living through a pandemic, which is all of us: exhaustion. Some days, apathy.
Prevalence of pandemic fatigue — being mentally “over it” and mutinous to continued social distancing, despite the risks — is now estimated at 60% of the population. In Europe, the World Health Organisation express concern: willingness to comply with lockdown restrictions has fallen dramatically.
My friend who said the above is one of the kindest, most empathic people I’ve ever met. How, in October, can we shrug and “c’est la vie” at death tolls that stunned us in March?
The answer lies in our brains, and how they protect us from trauma.
Humans are constantly trying to make sense of the world.
In this endeavour, we are often successful: even a little sweet. We can understand the atom. We can make up stories and patterns about stars millions of miles away, to turn them into * constellations *.
We constantly look for faces and human traits in inanimate objects, because we’re hardwired to do so.
When it comes to rationalising why bad things happen, though, our brains tend to make a mess of things.
- We call lightning strikes and disasters “God’s will”.
- We decide women who have been raped were “asking for it”.
- We say he wouldn’t have been shot if he “co-operated.”
- We declare we “never wanted the job” we applied for.
Seeking explanations is normally good. When we make up our own, or leap to the wrong ones — sometimes, because there are none — it turns dangerous.
Rationalisation is a defence mechanism to protect us from negative feelings: often guilt and shame.
How have our brains defended themselves from the negative feelings generated by 7 months of a pandemic?
By literally calling it “the new normal”. By starting to slip in the ways we think. Suddenly, a COVID-19 death toll of 247 isn’t so bad, because “it could be worse”. “People die all the time anyway.” Its “only” the elderly. Maybe coronavirus is “Mother Nature fighting back / cleansing the earth.”
We don’t want this situation to be happening: it still is. Our brains pretend like it is okay. Then, they make up stories for why.
Rationalisation is quite an extreme example. Maybe we know old people dying is still terrible. We don’t think it is the work of God, or fair.
Though we know this rationally, we still, in October, simply… don’t feel anything at the news of another death.
“The phenomenon of becoming desensitized to ongoing traumas, such as death tolls, is well-documented in disaster psychology.” — Nicole Spector, Sept. 10 2020
When I first read this, I was confused. “Disaster psychology”. Surely that’s a little dramatic to apply to our situation. I mean, 2020 isn’t peachy, but does all this really qualify as a disaster?
…then I realised that reaction was, in itself, desensitization. Oops.
Desensitization is adapting to the overexposure of something — often initially traumatising or shocking — to the point it is normalised. It no longer affects you.
It can happen with anything. Graphic violence. Porn. Clown images.
Even babies adapt to become less interested if shown the same shape repeatedly. We actually use a form of desensitization to cure people’s phobias, by gradually accustoming them to their object of fear: like spiders. Or public speaking.
By the end of this you might be densitized to the word desensitized: sorry! It’s exactly that feeling when you repeat a word for so long it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Desensitized, desensitized, desensitized.
Knowing this, let’s look at how the World Health Organisation (WHO) describes pandemic fatigue in their report:
“A natural and expected reaction to sustained adversity in people’s lives.” — The WHO Report on Pandemic Fatigue, 2020
AKA “Yeah, this has been going on forever so everyone’s desensitized as hell.”
Desensitization, noun: the process of causing someone to experience something, usually an emotion or a pain, less strongly than before. — Cambridge Dictionary
In our case, we are experiencing fear of COVID-19 less strongly because we have been continually exposed to fear of it.
At the start of this pandemic, did you think you would be this capable of handling it? Seriously. Present you: meet January 2020 you.
Can January-you take all the Zoom meetings, remembering facemasks, and furloughed wages in their stride?
Wouldn’t they see the leader of their country getting incapacitated in hospital, or 247 people dying of a new illness on the news today, as kinda completely, impossibly and terrifyingly wild?
I’m desensitized, you’re desensitized, we’re all desensitized.
This is completely natural, as the WHO said, expected, and not necessarily a bad thing.
Much like adjusting to getting a certain level of caffeine, or memorising the layout of a new house in the dark, our brains have adapted to taking an ongoing pandemic for granted.
Don’t beat yourself up for caring less about the death toll than you did in March.
It’s grim, but it’s natural. Your brain, quite simply, isn’t built to experience continued shocks at the same strength.
You don’t have to be debilitatingly upset all the time to prove a moral point. Guilt for feeling less shows we do still care. We’re just surviving. Feel good wherever you can.
Here are some simple ways to let your brain protect you, while staying grounded:
- Acknowledge that it’s normal to feel frustrated, tired, and even apathetic in 2020. We’re all Going Through It. Be kind to yourself the way you would to a mate.
- Let yourself express this another way. Maybe you can’t hug your family right now: but you can hug a friend. Personally, I’ve been frustrated with Lockdown 2.0. I miss getting that out at the gym: so I go for daily runs instead. There’s always a way.
- Pay attention to how you rationalise. Be aware of your own thought processes. Catch yourself when you jump to a “because”, and stop to wonder if it’s fair: or just a way for you to avoid feeling guilty.
- Schedule good things each week. Don’t let lockdown turn into more of a Groundhog Day than it needs to. Hold a disco in your living room. Start drawing art and sticking it on the walls. Zoom your friend to watch your Netflix show together on Friday. Little plans are sweeter than none!
Let me know your experience with pandemic fatigue in the comment section: or any suggestions for future brain articles! I always like hearing them.
And as ever, but with more winter feeling: take care.