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Opinion – The pandemic has dampened our zeal for life

Those of us who somehow avoided falling victim to the mental health crisis induced by years of on-off isolation have found ourselves emotionally coasting, a defence mechanism we developed to protect us from becoming overwhelmed that’s resulted in us feeling very little.

In the aftermath of Covid and the mental health crisis it unsurprisingly induced, those of us still scrambling to pick up the pieces and make sense of it all have found ourselves hard-pressed to identify how exactly we’ve been affected.

I say this because, as often as I’ve been reassured by friends, family, and the media that life has indeed returned to ‘normal,’ I haven’t quite been able to accept that this is truly the case.

Not because I’m restricted from leaving the house or feel anxious about catching the virus when socialising (a luxury I am unquestionably grateful for), but because – often subconsciously – I haven’t yet let my guard down.

During years of on-off isolation, apprehension became commonplace. A means of protecting ourselves from both the overwhelming state of the world and the inevitability that whatever we were looking forward to could suddenly disappear without warning.

For this reason, my belief that I had somehow avoided falling victim to the various psychological problems rife among young people post-pandemic is not entirely accurate.

However it wasn’t until recently that I came to this realisation, after reading Harry Styles’ (of all people) interview with Better Homes and Gardens in which he refers to ‘emotional coasting,’ essentially a combination of underlying panic and total detachment.

Chart: Pandemic sinks UK youth mental health to new low | Statista

‘Therapy has allowed [Styles] to “open up rooms in himself” that he didn’t know existed, to feel things more honestly, where before he had tended to “emotionally coast”,’ it reads.

‘He said, “I think that accepting living, being happy, hurting in the extremes, that is the most alive you can be. Losing it crying, losing it laughing – there’s no way, I don’t think, to feel more alive than that.’

Now, if you’ve never come across the term before, I’d like to preface by asserting that emotional coasting is a defence mechanism we’ve been adopting since before reports of an outbreak even began to flood our news feeds.

Though there’s no way to tell just how long us highly-sensitive people have been developing this sort of numbness, what I can say for certain is that the pandemic did nothing to bring us out of our apathetic haze.

If anything, it pushed us further down, exacerbating our overstimulation until we had no choice but to start deliberately ignoring the things we don’t feel capable of dealing with.

Paired with the compassion fatigue we’re experiencing towards the appalling events taking place across the globe every day and the seemingly never-ending influx of personal stresses or pressures to add to our lists such as the rising cost-of-living, more and more of us are choosing to tap out.

Emotional coasting: what are the signs and causes?

‘With everything that has happened over the last few years it’s not surprising a lot of people are emotionally coasting,’ says therapist Bobbi Banks.

‘The pandemic, war, and shootings (to name a few) are all incredibly difficult and heavy events to process individually, let alone having to navigate through all of them at once. People’s mental health has been affected significantly, so in such cases emotional coasting can serve as a much-needed self-protective mechanism.’

Unfortunately, this has followed me well into 2022 and as hard as I try, I cannot shake a sense of malaise and the notion that I’ve lost my zeal for life.

In striving to simply ‘get by’ free from disappointment, I’ve distanced myself significantly from feeling a lot, 24/7, and only now is it inherently clear to me how little I’m feeling as a result.

Ironic, perhaps, in the eyes of those who emerged from Covid with an improved appreciation of our fleeting time on Earth, but while I of course acknowledge the importance of this, I remain clouded by a growing failure to maintain my usual effort, drive, or interest in what’s around me.

‘Emotional coasting means going through life without stopping to fully acknowledge and process difficult feelings or experiences, or in some cases even positive ones,’ adds Banks.

‘This can be a form of defence mechanism protecting us from becoming overwhelmed or facing feelings we don’t know how to deal with, in other words helping us ‘push through’.

As she explains, unless this is done purposefully and with intention by setting boundaries and allowing ourselves to focus on our needs, it’s doing us no good when it defines how we exist.

Emotional regulation, according to Banks, is something we must hold onto, and it’s a sentiment echoed by Styles’ proclamation that life is about embracing the ups and downs.

So, as we proceed with our mission to understand the repercussions of the pandemic on society and, in particular, our mental health, let’s remember that expression is far better than suppression and that emotional coasting is an inherently natural response to all that has happened.

Though it isn’t until we collectively work to recognise these feelings, so we can relate to each other and openly discuss our shared struggles, that we’ll be able to overcome them.


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