Our Brains Explain the Season’s Sadness
I’ve been consumed this fall with a melancholy sadness. It’s different from the loneliness that I felt in the early stage of the pandemic, during the lockdown, when I took a picture of my shadow after a neighborhood walk failed to jumpstart exercise endorphins. Eleven months after covid-19 spread globally, and during what would otherwise be a joyous Thanksgiving, my sorrow, and surely the emotion of many others, is more complicated. Studies by health-care professionals show that our emotional challenges, from anxiety and depression to anger and fear, have been deepened by the pandemic. In June, just three months into a historic health crisis, a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that forty per cent of Americans were already struggling with at least one mental-health issue. Among young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, one in four had thought about committing suicide during the previous thirty days. By July, more than half of Americans over the age of eighteen said their mental health had been negatively affected by emotions evoked during the pandemic, the Kaiser Family Foundation found. In October, A.A.R.P. reported that two-thirds of Americans felt increased anxiety.
For Americans, the pandemic’s spring scourge intersected with appalling human tragedies and unprecedented political rancor over the summer: the racial tension and unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, in the Midwest; soaring unemployment, business shutdowns, and hunger nationwide; the raging wildfires in the West and record-setting tropical storms in the South; and a bizarre and bitter Presidential campaign. Each calamity intensified our emotional state. Now, our anxieties are further compounded by holidays without loved ones—at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah, then the New Year—and by the numbing rate of coronavirus infections and the darkening hours of winter.
Cheer up. Just understanding the phenomenon—and the science of the brain that copes with crisis—helps a lot. In an excellent and timely new book, “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live,” Nicholas Christakis writes that epidemics also produce fear and grief that “can themselves be contagious, forming a kind of parallel epidemic.” Christakis, a sociologist and physician who directs the Human Nature Lab, at Yale, described a phenomenon called “the cascades of grief.” He told me, “If the plague is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, then grief is its squire.” Christakis quoted the Greek general and historian Thucydides, who noted during a plague in the fifth century B.C. that “the most terrible feature in the malady” was public despair.
This year’s simultaneous health, social, natural, and political crises have produced psychological phases, almost like seasons, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, told me. “Early on, I saw a lot of solidarity,” she said. It was visible when people took to their balconies or streets during the first phase of the pandemic to bang pots in support of medical workers and first responders.
But over the summer, fatigue and denial set in. Holt-Lunstad explained, “Initially, we all hoped that the pandemic was a short-term pause in life, but it lasted much longer than many anticipated.” Social distancing and other restrictions exhausted patience and increased frustration; some got tired of complying, and others took them as an affront to personal freedoms.
The way our feelings bounce biologically off social networks is primitive and ancient, Christakis told me. “Our emotions have a collective existence. They depend not only on your own genes and experiences. They also depend on the biochemistry, genetics, physiology, thoughts, feelings, and actions of the people to whom we are directly—or even indirectly—connected.” Our emotional state depends on what’s happening around us. “It’s the same with the germ and the same with emotions,” he said. And it’s not limited to humans. Other species experience it as well. “If you map the social networks of elephants, you find that they are structurally the same as among humans—and our last common ancestor is from eighty-five million years ago,” he said. Read on...
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