Dealing with a high trauma situation means developing apathy to protect yourself, but it spells trouble for your emotional health
Fortunate are those of us who can be aware of our anxiety. Those of us who are not, have to be aware of other things—headaches, backaches, upset stomachs, migraines, lethargy, blankness, zoning out, apathy and feeling low.
Anxiety is a signal—of a threat perceived by our system. In as much as it acts as a warning, it is worth listening to. It creates a physiological urge to move towards action—fight or flight, reacting to overcome or run from a predator. So it is entirely ironic that our expected response to this current threat, of the Corona virus, is to stay home and do nothing.
As a psychotherapist, working with people’s high anxiety levels and intense emotions is my daily work. Even then, it is difficult to help my clients accept that their emotions are evidence of their aliveness. Sadness, joy, anger—all of these are evidence of being alive. Empathy and guilt, the most painful of all emotions—are in fact, signs of our humanity and by extension the most valuable of our feelings toward another person. Yet my clients regularly say, “But I don’t want to feel anything!” or “I want to be numb.” In my book, this means to want to be alive but unfeeling, almost robotic.
It is too easy to become robotic during lockdown, especially as we anticipate it to be longer than we had first been informed. As our hopes of life-returning-to-normal are crushed (though we knew that was hoping against hope), it is expected that many of us will struggle with how to feel alive in lockdown. How to not be Lockdown-robots.
For many of us, the relationships, work, and interactions that fuel our emotional lives may be outside of the house, and unavailable to us in isolation. Work also helps us mute our emotional lives. When we work, we have something to do with our hands and minds. It gives us existential purpose, some meaning in life. Even if only to receive the pay cheque at the end of the month. In lockdown, if work is not available to us, those empty hands and mind make us only too aware of our purposelessness.
Why am I so against Lockdown-robotics? Because it is an extremely difficult mental state to come out of. Grey and expressionless, once installed, it is insidious, it percolates every aspect of life and like the Dementors of Azkaban, sucks the joy out of everything. It is despair, with the heavy chest and gut-wrenching quality. It is death in a moving body.
In my line of work, it is called detachment or Isolation of Affect—where we can speak about an emotion (anger, sadness, anxiety, happiness) but not become aware of its experience in our body. This is a protective mechanism, emerging in childhood, to save ourselves from pain and rage in our closest relationships. It comes about automatically at a stage in life when it is important to preserve a relationship and yet avoid being hurt by the person’s actions/treatment of us, its purpose is emotional survival. Unfortunately, for the same reason, it gets stuck inside us and overstays its usefulness because we don’t know how to turn it off. That is just the human part of our functioning. What we learnt to do in childhood is extremely difficult to undo.
This self-protective mechanism, automatically and unconsciously installed in times of extreme need, such as the times we live in now, leads us to apathy and turning away our gaze from our own suffering and that of others. I am not sure we can afford that as anxious individuals and especially as a society. Our responsiveness is what will save us, not our apathy.
I find myself getting detached at times. Not feeling any emotion when I read about people losing their loved ones, unable to say their final goodbyes; migrant workers without food, walking for hundreds of kilometers only to die before they get to their destination; families being ostracized for their religion. Quickly scrolling away from that piece of news.
And my back hurts. It has, since the first day of lockdown. But then I read about a child of a migrant worker who could not walk any more, or the doctor who could not come home because he was afraid of infecting his family, the pain wells up in me. When the hot tears of rage and grief go down my face, I feel grateful for not being detached, grateful for the lack of efficiency of my emotional defences. I would rather feel, than not.
And my back aches less.
Dr Nupur Dhingra Paiva is a clinical psychologist and author.