Woman sitting on sofa looking bored and unmotivated
Mental Health

“Languishing” is the dominant emotion of 2021, so what can we do about it?

Languishing is one word that really nails how a lot of us are thinking, feeling and living right now, but what does it mean when applied to our mental health? Stylist spoke to Ben Graham, head of coaching at workplace mental health organisation, Sanctus to find out what’s got us feeling so blah and how we can combat it.

Languishing is the buzzy new term in our mental health lexicon. It’s used to describe feelings of aimlessness, hopelessness and a general lack of drive and motivation, something many can relate to right now. 

Referred to recently by Adam Grant in the New York Times as “the neglected middle child of mental health”, the term was first coined back in 2010 by sociologist Corey Keyes, but it has recently begun to resurface due to the pandemic.

Whether it’s working from home, a lack of socialising, worries about our health, or simply not knowing what the future holds – there are plenty of reasons why we might feel like we’re languishing right now. And with our long-term mental health in mind, it’s important these feelings aren’t ignored or disregarded.

The good news is that there are lots of ways languishing can be addressed. These are some of the easiest things we can do to get back on the road to flourishing.

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Reconnect with your communities      

Lockdowns and social distancing have enormously disrupted our ability to engage in – and feel excited about – shared activities and the communities we create around them. One of the biggest things I discuss with people I’m coaching at the moment is how they feel apathetic and uninterested in group activities which used to excite them.

But feeling part of a community and spending time doing things we enjoy with people we like is hugely important for our mental wellbeing. Likewise, having fun also releases endorphins which are massively important in boosting our moods, reducing stress and combatting languishing.

If you have become disengaged from communities you once enjoyed, now is the time to consider joining them again. It could be an informal community; or it could be something like a book club, team sport or even group meditation sessions. The main thing we yearn for in community is to feel that we belong and are accepted, so think of times, places and groups where you have felt that sense of welcome, and see how you can reintroduce it into your life.

Focus your attention on individuals, not issues      

As we consume news stories or information on social media, we can easily start to feel overwhelmed and worried, and a natural response is to try to withdraw and disconnect from this. While doing so might give us temporary relief, if we don’t find a way of making sense of what is happening in our society, these feelings can remain unresolved and end up being detrimental to our mental health in the long term.

One key strategy for dealing with this is to stop focusing as much on the big, breaking news stories that are often hyperbolised and intended to shock. Instead, look for deeper stories of individuals, their families and communities. By listening to the stories of others, or even telling our own, we can begin to make meaning out of what is happening around us, as well as find inspiration about how to cope, both of which are vital for our sense of mental well being.

Try searching for some podcasts that have been recorded during lockdown – there’s a high chance the pandemic will be discussed at some point throughout, and you’ll get to hear how other people are handling it. 

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Consider volunteering     

During the first lockdown, lots of people felt moved to help others in whatever way they could – the spirit of supporting the most vulnerable in our society was alive. While that feeling of crisis may have now passed, we are still going through a tremendous societal challenge.

Volunteering has been shown to not only improve our sense of mental wellbeing, but also our overall health. So if you are struggling to feel like you are contributing to society, or find you’re lacking a sense of purpose right now, volunteering is a great way to change that. If you know you want to get started but aren’t sure where to offer your time, write a list of five issues or areas you care about in life and there will almost certainly be volunteering opportunities within those fields.

Create purpose     

One of the biggest traits associated with languishing is feeling a lack of purpose and drive. This could be because you feel removed or disconnected from your workplace right now, or perhaps it’s because you haven’t been able to participate in activities that challenge or push you. Whatever the reason, it’s important to remember you can always find new ways to create a sense of purpose in your life.

Goal setting can be really beneficial in supporting your mental health as it gives you something to focus on and work towards. It also helps connect you to things you value, feel passionate about or enjoy. The key with goal setting is to start small and then work your way up to bigger, more ambitious accomplishments.

If you’re not able to get out and about in the same way you used to, write a list of all the things you enjoy that you can do from home or on your own, and establish some goals around them. It could be setting a target number of books you want to read in a month, learning to cook a new recipe each week, or speaking to your boss about setting some new objectives ahead of your next appraisal. 

Practice self-acceptance

This is easy to say, difficult to practice! The pandemic has been an unprecedented crisis that has impacted all of us at a level of survival and safety, as well as our society as a whole. As humans, we have evolved to respond strongly when we feel that we, or people we care about, are in danger. All sorts of things, big and small, can evoke a strong reaction from us right now, be it seeing someone not wearing a mask, a story about government policy, or when the pandemic shines a light on wider societal problems like inequality.

We see these things and have strong emotional responses that take up a lot of our energy and can evoke feelings of anger, upset and distress. Often, when the intensity of these emotional reactions subside, we can then criticise or judge how we responded, which takes up further emotional energy that we could be channeling into something positive.

Try to be welcoming of your own personal reactions. Let yourself recognise the feeling and listen to what it is telling you about what you need or want to do. Perhaps your anxiety needs to hear the soothing voice of a friend, but equally, it could be that your anger is telling you to run for local government! We are living in times of restriction and control, but when we act from our true feelings we can recover a sense of autonomy and ownership over our lives.

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Embrace others     

Whether languishing or flourishing, the quality of our relationships with others determines the quality of our lives, and there’s no denying maintaining good relationships has been hard during lockdown. While the easing of restrictions means reconnecting is becoming easier, lots of us are still struggling with relationships that feel a little distant and flat.

The key here is to remember that in any form of relationship, communication is key. If we would like our relationship with someone we value to develop, we need to let them know. While it can make us feel vulnerable, telling someone that we value them and how we want our relationship with them to grow, can bring greater feelings of trust and intimacy into our lives.

We still don’t know the long-term trajectory of the pandemic in the UK or globally. But we do know that our relationships will be crucial for getting through it in good mental health. You’ll be surprised at how renewed feelings of connection can lead to you feeling more energised, happy, and purposeful too. 

Ben Graham is Head of Coaching at Sanctus, the UK’s leading workplace mental health organisation that works with employers and employees to offer group and one-to-one coaching sessions designed to help improve mental health and wellbeing.

Images: Getty/Delmaine Donson

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