Languishing – The 2021 Dominant Emotion.

By Dr Natalie Flatt Ph.D

As the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath grumbles on, the pre-covid “normal” lives are feeling like a distant memory. With the constant change of rules and restrictions from, our future is out of balance and many people remain stuck; living in limbo while we hold our breathe that the vaccine will roll out as promised. At time, we don’t know what to do, we don’t how to feel and we don’t know where to look. And then the mix of emotions sets in with a consequence of ‘blah’ usually following. And we call this languishing.


What is languishing?

Languishing has been described as the neglected middle child of mental health. Languishing is apathy, a sense of restlessness or feeling unsettled or monotonous or an overall lack of interest in life or the things that typically bring you joy.


Is this a mental health diagnosis?

No – rather than being classified as a mental diagnosis, languishing is more a series of emotions. Mental health can be described as a spectrum that covers a wide range of experiences and symptoms. On one end of that spectrum is depression, characterized by feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. An on the other end is flourishing: a sense of connection, purpose, and meaning. And in the middle of this is where we find ourselves the new word of 2020 and 2021 ‘languishing’ – So technically you don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you don’t feel or look the picture of mental health either; more just getting by.


Is there a correlation between languishing and depression?

Research shows that Individuals with a history of depression and anxiety or who are genetically predisposed to psychiatric conditions are more prone to languishing than others. Additionally, new pandemic research is finding that certain front-line workers who were languishing in 2020 were on average three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.


Why are so many of us feeling this at the moment?

2021 has been a very unusual year – we are excited and hopeful that a vaccine has been rolling out over the world but 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. So there is still that lingering feeling of fear and dread due to the unknown with no clear finishing line in sight. It’s because of this we are keeping our bodies in a ‘fight or fight’ adrenal state which has caused us to become worn down. Our adrenal response is supposed to be used in short, sharp burst to get ourselves out of situations. Unfortunately, due to media, restrictions and rolling lockdowns, we have stayed ‘poised’ for threat and has worn down our adrenals. This has caused us to feel the compounding fatigue and basically feel like there is not much left in our fuel tank.


What are some signs we may be “languishing?”

In 2020, we named it the ‘corona coaster’; the high feelings of energy and which can quickly drop into the lows of apathy. As the days and number of lockdowns have trudged on, we have found we have tackled the days with less energy which makes the tasks more draining than before. We hit the re-set button with a little less gusto each time. It’s like we know we are not at our full capacity, and we may feel we are just getting by. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus and make clear quick decisions, and triples the likelihood that you’ll cut back on work. We may hold apathy towards things that used to bring us joy; like exercise, socialising, hobbies.


How can we move from languishing to flourishing?

Self-check in

Self check-ins are one of the most important things you can do for your mental, emotional, and physical health to get an accurate reading of how you feel. Your body often sends physical cues about how you’re feeling, long before your emotions fully register. Regularly pausing to acknowledge the full spectrum of your feelings has a host of science-backed payoffs. Take a moment each day to notice any tension in your body, such as tight shoulders, chest, or jaw. Use descriptive words to capture how you feel. Brainstorm what might be contributing to those emotions.


Appreciate an event or activity in the moment and savour the experience using all your senses. Go simple – take stock of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch and also feel (bath, walk, funny movie, laugh with a friend) and then reflect on this experience as a post victory.

Celebrate the small wins

Especially when we feel so stagnant and restrained right now, it’s important to recognise that we are still moving in the right direction. Appreciation can sometimes be played down in life, and we often forget to appreciate what we’ve done and what we have. Appreciating our small wins and the small steps we take can be the difference between failing and succeeding. Reflecting on those ‘small wins’ in the day can make you feel accomplished and provide you with validation and purpose. This might even be ‘I put a load of washing on’ or ‘made my body move outside’.

Random Acts of Kindness

An easy endorphin and serotonin booster and a way to also reduce blood pressure.

“five-minute favour,” like introducing two people who could benefit from knowing each other or sending an article or podcast link to a friend, saying you were thinking of them. This is a great one to also do in the office (both in person or virtually).

Opposite Action

Opposite Action is a new technique in Dialectal Behaviour Therapy that involves choosing to do exactly the opposite of what your emotions tell you to do. For example- lethargy- when we can’t be bothered trying, we most likely will avoid the things that will get us out of this state (exercise, healthy eating etc) which then keeps us held within this emotion. Try making a list of things that you can do. Ideally, these should be things that can be realistically attained in the short-term. For example, despite a feeling of lethargy, you can do small things like washing the dishes, doing laundry, or tidying up. These are all behaviours that directly go against the feeling of lethargy, which can create an opposite emotional experience.

Change of scenery

It’s incredible how much changing a physical view can be refreshing. From changing your workspace at home to taking your computer outside, a s=chance of scenery can bring a lift of endorphins and a literal change of perspective.


Self-compassion is treating yourself with kindness and fairness, the way you would a good friend, when facing adversity, like a setback, disappointment or other trying time. When experiencing a setback or when situations don’t go as planned, she suggests using a different self-talk voice such as “this is temporary”; “I will get through this”; and “I can try again next time.” “Self-compassion is saying, ‘I’m not perfect. I’m more than this one negative moment or mistake.’ Create a self-compassion tool box which reminds you of these statements and some activities you can do to help you take time out of the situation and self-regulate and create strength to try again another day.


Most of all be connected.  We can’t forget that Well-being is such an incredible resource and one which needs to be always at the forefront of our minds. Social connection to others, whether it be family, friends, colleagues, neighbours to talk, debrief, laugh, cry, be angry; that’s important.


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