Life

“The coronavirus death toll is devastating – so why am I struggling to feel anything?”

Across the world, people’s lives have been lost or irreversibly changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. So why are so many of us feeling so overwhelmingly… numb?

938 people have died from coronavirus in the UK in the last 24 hours. At the time of writing, at least 7,097 people have died in total – although that number doesn’t include people dying at home, in care facilities, hospices or other locations outside of hospitals. In fact, the latest figures from the ONS suggest that the true death toll could be up to 8% higher than the current number. Globally, it is believed that 88,556 people have lost their lives to the virus as of 9 April.

When we read those numbers – when we see them on the front page of newspapers, watch them scroll by on the bottom of our TV screens and hear them tumble out of the mouths of medical experts – they’re pretty hard to comprehend. Imagining a room of 100 people is difficult enough; the human brain isn’t capable of picturing such massive numbers of people. Imagining that many people… dead? It’s too much to handle.

And yet, despite knowing how terrible and devastating these news stories are, despite reading the heart breaking accounts of people who have lost a loved one to coronavirus on social media, and despite saying “that’s horrific” or “oh god” when I hear the latest numbers, I have yet to feel anything other than overwhelming numbness in response. 

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Sure, I’ve felt anxious about the uncertainty of the future. I’ve panicked about getting coronavirus myself – or one of my loved ones falling ill. I’ve had a little cry when things all felt a bit too much. But when it comes to the death toll, I’ve only ever felt empty.

The thing is, I want to feel sad. In fact, I want to feel terribly sad. I want to have a good old cry – I want to grieve and mourn those whose lives have been lost or irreversibly changed. I want to feel angry at this horrific virus, and I want to show empathy for all those who have lost loved ones.

Instead, I just feel guilty. Guilty that I’m not responding to these numbers in an empathetic, human way. That I’m somehow disrespecting those who have lost their lives by failing to mourn. That, by feeling somewhat OK, I’m not ‘normal’. 

A woman scrolling through the news on her phone
Despite knowing how devastating the coronavirus death toll is, many of us are struggling to emotionally respond.

I’m not the only one who’s been feeling this way. On our team at Stylist, many of us have found ourselves consumed by a feeling of emptiness whenever we try to comprehend these figures. We’re not asking to burst out in tears every time we hear the latest news report or update to the death toll – we just want to feel something that tells us we’ve connected with what’s happening right now. So why aren’t we experiencing that?

“It’s not uncommon for people to start to feel numb and find it hard to connect with widescale tragedies. This can make us feel a sense of shame, guilt and that we are somehow emotionally cold or abnormal, but this is far from the truth,” explains Dr Meg Arroll, Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist and author at Ten Harley Street.

According to Dr Arroll, even though we may berate ourselves for not feeling the ‘right’ way in response to a tragedy like the current pandemic, the numbness we’re feeling is actually a subconscious protective mechanism which stops us becoming emotionally burnt out.

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“If we grieved for each and every individual who, tragically, succumbs to Covid-19, we would become overwhelmed with compassion fatigue,” Dr Arroll explains. “Compassion fatigue is often found in people who work in caring industries such as healthcare where employees see daily human suffering and pain – but increasingly, due to the constant stream of news reports and grim headlines, everyone may experience this phenomenon.

“Compassion fatigue results in a form of burnout, and is associated with a number of signs and symptoms including sleep disturbance, loss of concentration, feeling overwhelmed and helpless, resulting in poor self-care, alcohol and drug misuse, comfort eating and repressed emotions.

“Intuitively, this is something we want to avoid, so becoming blunted to daily death tolls may be an adaptive way of coping with the current situation.”

A woman feeling sad and empty
“Becoming blunted to daily death tolls may be an adaptive way of coping with the current situation.”

In this way, Arroll points out, feeling numb – and experiencing a feeling of disconnect between our emotions and the information we’re consuming – is actually quite a healthy way to feel.

However, feeling numb now doesn’t mean we’re not at danger of developing compassion fatigue in the long run – especially if we spend a lot of time reading and consuming stories that focus on all the pain and suffering that’s occurring as a result of the current pandemic. With this in mind, Dr Arroll explains, there are a number of measures we can take to protect ourselves.

“Ways to avoid compassion fatigue include limiting the amount of news you consume each day, practicing gratitude (a diary can help with this), working to accept that disease, illness and human suffering are a fact of life which we cannot control and, most importantly, allowing a deep sense of compassion for yourself by knowing you cannot absorb the world’s pain.” 

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So next time you go to berate yourself for not feeling the ‘right’ kind of emotions or experience a pang of guilt for feeling calm and collected, remind yourself that there’s no right way to feel at the moment.

The world is a place filled with tragedy and upset at the moment – and however much we feel like we should be feeling sad and angry right now, we need to remind ourselves that it’s OK not to feel the weight of the world’s devastation on our shoulders.

We’re living through an incredibly trying period right now, so it’s about time we all stepped back and stopped giving ourselves a hard time for how we’re coping. If ever we needed to show ourselves a bit of self-compassion, it’s now.

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If you’re struggling to find an emotional connection with friends, family or things you were previously interested in, you may be dealing with a more serious mental health problem such as depression. In this case, please speak to a trusted contact or professional. 

If you’re struggling with your mental health, Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Images: Getty/Unsplash

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