Advice From the Trenches

COVID Crazy: One reader wonders what to do about her lack of motivation

Dear C and Dr. B;

I know everyone is depressed with this epidemic dragging on. With these short winter days, more restrictions, political dysfunction, etc, we are all down in the dumps. But I feel like I am more depressed than everyone else. I’m not suicidal or anything like that, but I feel such a heavy weight, a lack of motivation, like I am walking through Jell-o. But my mind is racing, I don’t sleep, I’m distracted, I can’t seem to concentrate to get anything done. I feel hopeless. If you listen to the news, things ARE hopeless. Now what? –  Lola Lost

Dr. B says: The human right brain is like a radio receiver. It is meant to pick up on others’ emotions – this is what we call empathy. When people’s empathy receivers are set too high, it can result in depression. We aren’t meant to get the whole impact of others’ emotions, just enough to be able to react to them. The right brain is 12X faster than the left brain for survival reasons. Your hairs prick up at a general sense of threat – you might not know exactly what is creeping you out or why, you just get the sense of “get out, now!” People who ignore these signals can get in trouble. Love at first sight works the same way – another impulse that can turn out badly.  

You may have a highly sensitive right brain, which makes you pick up on everyone’s else’s stuff and wrongly make it your own. There are mindfulness and therapy techniques that can help you move from subjective suffering to objective neutrality. This can help change your sensitivity from a negative to a positive thing – that’s how antidepressants work. They give you that sense of neutrality by toning down empathy just enough to be objective. They cause a little distance from emotions, which is a good thing – too much empathy functions as a delusion. You can feel you know what someone else is thinking and feeling and assume you know what is best for them. This way of thinking is behind co-dependent and dysfunctional relationships. Too much antidepressant can numb you out, but that isn’t the goal. The idea is to give just enough distance to allow your left brain to catch up and gain understanding. That way, your empathy is grounded in reality. A mix of therapy, yoga, mindfulness and medication, if needed, works best.  You are not alone – the empathetic among us are all suffering right now.

C says: I don’t see empathy as being the culprit here, Lola. If anything, you seemed overly focused on your own suffering: “I am more depressed than anyone else.” But I’m not judging you – this is what the isolation of COVID has done to all of us. We depend on each other far more than we realize for feedback, and for a sense of purpose. Social distancing, as necessary as it is, is taking a very deep emotional toll, and the rising suicide rate and increasing incidences of domestic violence illustrate all too well the extent of the damage. 

Your exhaustion and scattered thoughts have a real source. Our entire way of life has been altered, and no one knows when or if it will ever come back. We have been pushed to “fight or flight” mode – but there’s nothing to actually fight, and there’s nowhere to flee to. So our thoughts keep racing and our energy is drained to no purpose. It is exactly as you described.

Before this pandemic, there was a sense of routine and familiarity to our days, whether good or bad. We had responsibilities that gave us motivation to move – but nothing is certain anymore. Teachers are caught between virtual and in-person learning, performers have had entire years of bookings cancelled. Many businesses have slowed, stalled or sunk. Like you said: “Now what?”

Well, here’s what, Lola – it is up to you now. Yoga and meditation can help, but they won’t get you out of your own head. You need a purpose for your energy, and a place for those thoughts to go. If you just keep thinking about yourself, you are going to lose your freakin’ mind.

Set a goal, Lola. It almost doesn’t matter what, except it has to be something you can control, put an effort into, and see a result. Connect to others – instead of talking about yourself, ask them how they feel, what they are going through. Take an interest in the world and interact in any way you can. This is how you figure out what to do next.

Sometimes you just have to ignore your feelings, haul your ass out of the chair and MOVE. Don’t let your emotions run your life right now, they will take you down a black hole. If nothing else motivates you, think about this – your stuff isn’t going to pay for itself. Get going.

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