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The pandemic still makes us feel terrible

“How do we feel there tonight?” Bo Burnham asks an imaginary audience during his comedy special Inside, which he himself filmed from a single room over the course of a year. “Heh, haha, yeahhhhh,” he says to himself. “I am not feeling well.”

After the release of the special last May, TikTok users jumped on the clip. The sound has been used in over 71,000 videos, with millions upon millions of plays. Everyday users and creators alike can find lip syncing — sometimes gesturing at a specific stressor in their lives, other times just conveying a general sense of malaise. It’s quite a fitting time capsule of this moment in American life.

As Bo said, we don’t feel very well. And even after all this time, you can still blame the coronavirus.

You can tell by the numbers. In a recent national poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, half of US households surveyed said someone in the home had serious problems with depression, anxiety or stress, or difficulty sleeping. You can tell by the recent spate of bad behavior in airports and other public areas. And you can tell by the enormous interest in self-help books about trauma and anxiety.

The latest wave of coronavirus cases is finally abating and we may be feeling a little relief. But last summer’s false beginnings of hope have given way to an eerie sense of whiplash and unease, especially as winter approaches. People generally don’t like ambiguity, experts warned me, and we’re deep in it now.

“That moving around is very, very stressful,” said Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, “because it’s full of uncertainty.” Some individuals tolerate ambiguity better than others, but Americans especially don’t tolerate it well, Boss explained. “We are a mastery-oriented society. We’d like to put a helicopter on Mars,” she said. “And all of a sudden we get this virus that is out of control and that hasn’t existed for so long.”

In case you didn’t notice, 2020 was a banner year for uncertainty. We’ve had to deal with ever-increasing shutdowns, fluctuating daily guidance, and unpredictable spikes. But by the spring of 2021, we had regained a little bit of control: vaccines provided answers and an exit. Then Delta dived in with more uncertainty — you know, for the record. Not only did the variant disrupt summer plans, it sank much of our hard-earned knowledge about the coronavirus and made us rethink our personal risk assessment. All the bits of certainty that we had been able to regain with this virus over the course of a year had evaporated.

All of this can have real consequences for a person’s psyche. “It’s called the burden of accumulated adversity,” Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who wrote a 2019 book on the psychology of pandemics, told me. Although outbreaks affect different people in different ways, “the more stress you put on people, the greater their risk of developing psychological problems.” (And tensions are mounting: The NPR survey also documented financial distress, fears of children falling behind in school, and concerns about being attacked or threatened because of race and ethnicity.) Taylor expects that as this pandemic continues, the moods will rise. people will change will continue to deteriorate, especially as we experience more 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 using its biweekly Household Pulse Survey. In the first half of 2021, the survey reflected a general sense of optimism: the number of people reporting such symptoms was generally declining. It fell from its peak of 41 percent in 2021, around the end of January, to 29 percent on July 4. But since then, the number has started to rise again, hovering around 32 percent in the most recent reporting periods.

Think of it this way: About one in three people in the country feel vulnerable in some way or another right now. Two of the experts I spoke to feared that increasing stress is responsible for the angry outbursts we see in public places. Kenneth Carter, who teaches psychology at Oxford College at Emory University, describes himself as an optimist. But even he worries that some of us, after so much loss and suffering, “might be almost at the bottom of our well of compassion.” That can translate into feeling numb or not being able to show up for people in pain, even when we feel guilty about it, he says. This “compassion fatigue” — combined with the kind of people who make messy, angry scenes in public — “isn’t making the world feel like the warm hug we want it to be.”

The good news is that humans are resilient. Boss believes some of us have “increased our tolerance” for ambiguity over the past year and a half. And eventually this period will pass. Some people will continue to struggle, but most will bounce back. “It’s a good idea,” Taylor said, pointing out that humanity has survived two dozen pandemics in the past two centuries. “That’s what people do.”

Until then, you can either feel comfortable with uncertainty or outsource the work to TikTok. Recently, users have become enamored with a 13-year-old pug named Noodle with a penchant for prediction. Each morning, the dog owner gently lifts the sleepy pup into a sitting position and then tests to see if he stays upright or falls back into doggy sleep. It’s Groundhog Day meets horoscopes meets pandemic blues: If the pug finds his 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 that scientifically accurate, but if you’re having a bad day, you can always blame Noodle. Or, you know, the mounting uncertainty of the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that, yes, you are somehow still living through.

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