Uncomfortably Numb: With COVID & Ukraine, Crisis Fatigue Thrives

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March 15, 2022 — In casual conversation these days, you’re likely to hear: “I’m just done with COVID.”

The problem is the virus isn’t done with us yet. Nor is the war in Ukraine, inflation, or gas prices, among other concerns.

The statistics 2 years into the pandemic are sobering, or should be. Deaths from COVID-19 in the United States are approaching 1 million. Globally, more than 6 million have died from it. In 2020, COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the US, topped only by heart disease and cancer.

Still, in many areas, there’s an eagerness to put the whole thing behind us and get back to normal, dropping mask mandates and vaccine verification requirements along the way.

Therapists say some have become so “done” with the pandemic that they’re “emotionally numb” to it, refusing to discuss or think about it anymore. And they aren’t moved anymore by the millions the virus has killed.

Yet, those directly affected by COVID-19 — including those pushing for more help for long COVID patients — point out that ignoring the disease is a privilege denied to them.

Can Emotional Numbing Protect You?

“When there is lots and lots of stress, it is sort of self-protective to try to not emotionally feel a response to everything,” says Lynn Bufka, PhD, a psychologist and spokesperson for the American Psychological Association.

But that’s hard to do, she says. And lately, with the ongoing stress from many sources, we’re all facing crisis fatigue.

In a Harris Poll done on behalf of the American Psychological Association, rising prices, supply chain issues, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the potential of nuclear threats were top stressors, along with COVID-19.

In that poll, done in early February, more than half of the 3,012 adults surveyed said they could have used more emotional support since the pandemic began.

“It’s hard not to feel the stress about the war in Ukraine,” Bufka says. “It’s hard to see women with small children fleeing with nothing.”

Likewise, it’s difficult for many, especially health care professionals, who have spent the last 2 years watching COVID-19 patients die, often alone.

“There is a self-protection to try to distance ourselves emotionally from things. So I think it’s important for people to understand why we do that, but that it becomes problematic when it becomes pervasive,” Bufka says.

When people become so emotionally numb that they stop engaging in life and interacting with loved ones, it’s harmful, she says.

But emotional numbness is a different reaction than feeling “down” or blue, Bufka says. “Numbing is more about not feeling,” and not having the usual reactions to experiences that are generally pleasurable, such as seeing a loved one or doing some activity we like.

Psychic Numbing

Robert Jay Lifton, MD, a professor emeritus of psychiatry and psychology at City University of New York, prefers the term “psychic numbing.” He is credited with coining the term years ago, while interviewing survivors of the nuclear bombing in Hiroshima, and wrote Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, among his many books.

Within minutes of the bomb going off, survivors told him, “My emotions went dead.” Some had handled dead bodies, Lifton says, and told him they felt nothing.

Experiencing such disasters, including COVID-19, makes us all vulnerable to death anxiety, and numbing is a way to tamp that down. In some ways, psychic numbing overlaps with other defense mechanisms, he says, such as denial.

Numbing affects people differently.

“You and I may undergo a significant amount of numbing by something we feel threatened by, but go about our everyday life. Others reject the full impact of the pandemic, really sometimes reject at times its existence, and their numbing is more demanding and more extreme,” Lifton says.

He says the degree of numbing that someone has explains “why for some the very presence of a mask or the practice of distancing can be a sort of great agitation because these precautions are a suggestion [or reminder] of the death anxiety associated with the pandemic.”

A Steppingstone to Healing

“Emotional numbing has a negative connotation, like we have failed,” says Emma Kavanagh, PhD, a psychologist and author in Wales. She has a different view. “I think the brain is adapting. I think we need to focus on the possibility that it is healing.

“It allows us to take care of survival mechanisms.”

In the early phases of the pandemic, nothing in our environment made sense, and there was no mental model of how to react, she says. Fear took over, with adrenaline pumped up.

“There is a reduction of circulation in the prefrontal cortex [of the brain], so the decision-making was affected; people were not as good at making decisions,” she says.

In those early stages, emotional numbing helped people cope.

Now, 2 years in, some have entered a phase where they say, “‘I am going to pretend that this isn’t happening.’ I think at this point, a lot of people have processed a lot of stress, survival-level stress. We are not built to do that over a long period of time,” Kavanagh says.

That’s often called burnout, but Kavanagh says it is more accurate to say it’s just the brain’s way of dialing down the outside world.

“A period of internal focus or withdrawal can allow time to heal,” she says.

While many focus on posttraumatic stress disorder as an effect of dealing with nonstop trauma, she says people are more likely to have posttraumatic growth — moving on in their lives successfully — than posttraumatic stress.

In her book How to Be Broken: The Advantages of Falling Apart, Kavanagh explains how numbing or burnout can be a temporary psychological tool that helps people eventually become a stronger version of themselves.

At some point, research suggests, the concern about the pandemic and its many victims is bound to decrease. Researchers call the inability of some people to respond to the ongoing and overwhelming number of people affected by a serious emergency such as COVID-19 “compassion fade,” with some research showing one person in danger may evoke concern, but two in danger won’t necessarily double that concern.

Recognizing Emotional Numbness

Often, people around those who have gone emotionally numb are the ones who recognize it, Bufka says.

“Once you recognize that this is happening, rather than jumping back in [totally],” she recommends focusing on relationships you want to tend to first.

Give yourself permission not to follow the topics stressing you the most.

“We don’t have to be up to our eyeballs in it all day long,” she says.

Slow down to savor small experiences.

“The dogs are bugging you because they want to play ball. Go play ball. Focus on the fact that the dog is super excited to play ball,” Bufka says.

And always look to your support system.

“I think we’ve all realized how valuable support systems are” during the pandemic, Bufka says.

Also, get good rest, regular activity, and time outdoors to “reset.” “Actively seek out what’s enjoyable to you,” she says.

For Some, Numbness Is a Privilege Denied

Kristin Urquiza is one of many, though, who hasn’t had a chance to reset. After her father, Mark, 65, died of COVID, she co-founded Marked By COVID, a national, nonprofit group that advocates for a national memorial day for COVID-19 each year.

“Emotional numbness to the pandemic is a privilege and another manifestation of the two radically different Americas in which we live,” she says.

So far, Urquiza calls the response to the request to set up a national COVID-19 Memorial Day “tepid,” although she sees the request as “a free, simple, no-strings- attached way to acknowledge the pain and suffering of millions.”

About 152 mayors have taken action to proclaim the first Monday in March COVID Memorial Day, according to the group. U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-AZ, introduced a resolution in 2021 in the House of Representatives expressing support for the annual memorial day.

Marked By COVID also advocates for a coordinated, national, data-driven COVID-19 response plan and recognition that many are still dealing with COVID-19 and its effects.

Like Urquiza, many people embark on what Lifton calls a “survivor mission,” in which they build public awareness, raise funds, or contribute to research.

“Survivors in general are much more important to society than we have previously recognized,” he says.

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