We spoke to a psychologist about the pervasive “bleh” feeling that’s accompanied the pandemic. Plus, tips on how to break out and flourish.
It’s a feeling that we’re all too familiar with now: things are, you know, fine. But not good. Things aren’t bad, necessarily. But they aren’t great either. It’s an overwhelming feeling of bleh.
That feeling of “fine, but not good,” is called languishing. It’s a state of poor mental health that is, according to Dr. Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist and board director of Anxiety Canada, “characterized by lack of positive emotions and reduced interest in life along with suboptimal psychological and social functioning.” Those who are in a state of languishing usually experience feelings of loneliness, a sense of emptiness, apathy, ennui and listlessness. “They are somewhere in the middle between the worst possible mental illness and the best possible mental wellness,” says Badali. “People who are languishing are not flourishing — they are surviving rather than thriving.”
Where did the term “languishing” come from?
While a recent New York Times article popularized the term, languishing has been used by mental health professionals for a while now. According to Badali, the term first appeared on the mental health continuum model constructed by Corey Keyes in 2002.
Basically, continuum models look at mental health and illness on a scale rather than as a dichotomy. Think of it like when a doctor asks you to rate your pain from 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain, and 10 being the worst pain possible. “People who are languishing are not experiencing a mental illness, but they are at the low end of what we would consider the positive mental health continuum,” says Badali.
Why might languishing be helpful for thinking about mental health right now?
Using a continuum model destigmatizes mental health and illness by removing it from a binary well-versus-unwell mindset—there’s more of a grey area. Plus, looking at mental health on a continuum allows experts to target interventions to where people are at. “Someone who has severe mental illness might need medication and psychotherapy,” says Badali. Meanwhile, someone who is noticing that that their mental health isn’t the greatest, “may be okay with some psychological self-help strategies, adding some exercise, or moving to a [different space].”
Badali also notes that mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Many factors, especially what’s going on in our present moment and the social determinants of mental health like prejudice, discrimination, exclusion, systemic barriers and economic disparities, can affect mental health. “Pandemic, discrimination, and financial instability – all of these types of external factors can negatively impact mental health and illness,” she says. “Health is not just about individual management. We need to consider societal factors too – and change things to improve psychological safety and well-being for people. We need to create environments where people can flourish.”
What does languishing look and feel like?
The experience of languishing varies from person to person, but signs that others can see include a reduced interest in life, expressing fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions, and functioning (both at work and socially) below one’s potential. “People may not see anything at all,” says Badali. “That’s the tricky thing about poor mental health and sometimes mental illness – they can be hidden.”
Symptoms of languishing, or how it feels, include a sense of emptiness, stagnation, quiet despair, and hollowness. “While it is healthy to experience a range of emotions, including negative emotions, the balance is off [when you’re languishing],” says Badali. “You may think that people are basically bad, that society is broken, that you are bad at handling your responsibilities, that you don’t have warm and trusting relationships, difficulty finding meaning and direction in life, that your own ideas don’t matter. You will notice that this sounds both like a pretty common response to global pandemic conditions and also like depression.”
How can we out of languishing and work towards flourishing?
If you start to notice a decline in your mental health, there are things you can do. “No matter where you are on the mental health continuum, there are strategies you can try to improve your health,” says Badali. “If one strategy does not work – do not give up. Try something else.”
Here are four ways you can build resilience (AKA adapting well in the face of stress) and enhance your support systems.
1. Foster wellness
This means taking care of yourself like you’d take care of your loved ones. “Take care of your body with healthy food, exercise, sleep and time in nature,” says Badali. Just prioritizing things that make you feel good can go a long way in boosting your mental wellness, but so does avoiding negative outlets like alcohol, drugs and other substances. “They are short term solutions that can become longer term problems.”
2. Embrace healthy thoughts
There are many ways to do this. Keeping things in perspective, accepting change, maintaining a hopeful outlook, learning from your past self and being flexible when things don’t totally work out can help you have a healthier mindset. Going through a bit of a reality check on your thoughts (that is, trying to see a situation for what it really is) can stop you from falling down a rabbit hole of negative thinking. MindShift CBT, a free app developed by Anxiety Canada, can teach users how to do this.
3. Find your purpose
While languishing can make us feel purposeless, focusing on your values and what’s important to you can be an antidote for languishing. Try to develop realistic and manageable goals that are tied to your values and work towards them to pull yourself out of the languish-rut.
4. Strengthen connections
Prioritizing relationships will help strengthen the support network of people you trust to reach out to when you need it, and people that you feel comfortable accepting support from. We’re social creatures, and we need relationships in order to flourish. Being proactive in your relationships can make all the difference.
Now that you know about languishing, here’s what to know about arrival fallacies and why you should reframe your goals.