Delta stressed us – the Atlantic
“How are we feeling out there tonight?” Bo Burnham asks an imaginary audience in his comedy special Withinthat he filmed himself from a single room over the course of a year. “Heh, haha, yahhhh,” he says to himself. “I do not feel good.”
After the special was released last May, TikTok users pounced on the clip. The sound has been used in more than 71,000 videos and has accumulated millions and millions of plays. Everyday users and creators alike can be found lip-synchronic – sometimes they gesticulate to a certain stressor in their life, sometimes they just convey a general feeling of malaise. It’s a pretty apt time capsule for this moment in American life.
As Bo said, we don’t feel that good. And even after all this time, you can still blame the coronavirus.
You can tell from the numbers. In a recent national survey from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, half of US households surveyed said someone in the house had serious problems with depression, anxiety, or stress – or trouble sleeping. You can tell by the recent spate of bad behavior in airports and other public places. And you can tell by the growing interest in self-help books on trauma and anxiety.
The recent wave of coronavirus cases is finally receding, and we can feel some relief. But last summer’s false hope has given way to an uncomfortable feeling of whiplash and discomfort, especially as winter approaches. People don’t like ambiguity, experts warned me, and we’re deep in that right now.
“That twitching around is very, very stressful,” said Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, “because it’s full of uncertainty.” Some people tolerate ambiguity better than others, but Americans in particular don’t tolerate it well, Boss explained. “We are a masterful company. We like to put a helicopter on Mars, ”she said. “And suddenly we get this virus that can’t be controlled and that hasn’t been around for so long.”
In case you didn’t notice, 2020 was a banner year of uncertainty. We have seen constant downtime, fluctuating daily forecasts, and unpredictable surges. But by spring 2021 we had regained a bit of control: vaccines offered answers and an exit ramp. Then Delta stormed in with even more uncertainty – you know, just to be safe. The variant not only messed up the summer plans, it also sunk a lot of our hard-earned knowledge about the coronavirus and made us rethink our personal risk calculation. Every bit of certainty that we could regain with this virus in the course of a year was gone.
All of these can have real ramifications for a person’s psyche. “It’s called the burden of accumulated adversity,” said Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who wrote a book on the psychology of pandemics in 2019. Although outbreaks affect different people in different ways, “the more stress you put people on, the greater their risk of developing mental health problems”. (And the pressures are mounting: the NPR survey also documented financial hardship, fears of back schooling, and worries about being attacked or threatened because of race and ethnicity.) Taylor expects people’s sentiment to rise as this pandemic worsens continue to deteriorate, especially if we see further setbacks. These moods can manifest as irritability or more serious psychological problems.
As of April 2020, the Census Bureau has been tracking the estimated number of Americans reporting signs of anxiety or depression with its bi-weekly household pulse survey. In the first half of 2021, the survey reflected an overall optimism: the number of people who reported such symptoms was generally declining. It fell from its high of 41 percent at the end of January in 2021 to 29 percent by July 4. Since then, however, the number has risen again and was around 32 percent in the last reporting periods.
Think of it this way: Around every third person in the country currently feels somehow fragile. Two of the experts I spoke to were concerned that increased stress is responsible for the outbursts of anger we see in public places. Kenneth Carter, who teaches psychology at Oxford College, Emory University, describes himself as an optimist. But even he worries that some of us “may be at the bottom of our compassion” after so much loss and suffering. That could make us feel numb or unable to show up for those in pain – even if we feel guilty about it, he says. This “compassionate fatigue” – combined with the type of people who create messy, angry scenes in public – “doesn’t make the world feel like the warm hug we want.”
The good news is that people are resilient. Boss believes that some of us have “increased our tolerance of ambiguity” in the past year and a half. And ultimately that time will pass. Some people will continue to struggle, but most will recover. “It’s a breeze,” said Taylor, pointing out that humanity has survived two dozen pandemics in the past two centuries. “That’s what people do.”
Until then, either familiarize yourself with the uncertainty – or outsource the job to TikTok. Recently, users have fallen in love with a 13 year old pug named Noodle who has a penchant for prediction. Each morning, the dog’s owner carefully lifts the sleepy puppy to a sitting position and then tests to see if he will stay upright or fall back into dog sleep. Marmot day meets horoscope meets pandemic blues: if the pug finds its bones, it’s a good day; If he doesn’t, you are encouraged to call in sick and wear soft pants. The dog’s daily predictions may not be as scientifically accurate, but if you’re having a bad day, you can always blame Noodle. Or, you know, the growing uncertainty of the one-time pandemic that you’re, yes, somehow still going through.
Thank You For Reading!