yes, the pandemic is making you more irritable

It’s not just you. We’re all nearing our wits’ end this year, and that’s going to make the pandemic and what comes after it worse.
screaming hulk

I have an embarrassing confession to make. When this pandemic started, I worried about the people who wouldn’t take it seriously in the United States and what will happen to them and their families. I hoped that given a real crisis that was killing people left and right, they could hear the voices of reason and heed advice of medical and epidemiological experts, as most have ultimately done. But as anti-mask activists and ever more unhinged conspiracy theorists continue to assail social media and lash out at retail workers in viral videos, all while the death tolls keeps stubbornly rising, my empathy has completely run out. At this point, it seems as if they deserve whatever happens to them.

From a moral standpoint, I understand that this stance is far from compassionate and humane, but my rational side asks how realistic it would be to help someone who doesn’t just refuse to help themselves but is actively self-destructing, and my emotional side is just exhausted. This experience is far from unique. The seemingly endless clusterfuck that is 2020 is wearing all of us out. We’re tired of Zoom meetings. We’re tired of the news. We’re fed up with work. And we’re physically and emotionally spent from being in constant crisis mode as we lurch from natural disasters to ones of our own making and back again.

Just like our physical strength and endurance, our empathy and mental health are finite. You can train yourself to run ultramarathons and lift enormous weights, and you can develop the mental fortitude to keep going through crises and disasters that may drive others insane. But at some point, you can’t run anymore, or lift another weight because your energy is all gone and every motion burns as if your muscles are on fire. Keep going beyond that point and you start inflicting permanent damage to your body. The same principle applies to your mind. No matter how mentally strong you are or how much bad stuff you’ve experienced, at some point, you’ll snap and incur psychological scars.

We simply haven’t evolved to deal with an endless stream of pandemics, scandals, and general awfulness, nor an information system that shoves them in our face at all hours of the day and night. So, as a result, we shut down. We stop caring and listening. We get angrier. We close in on ourselves. It’s a defense mechanism from overstimulation and being pushed far beyond our limits. For those who score highly on the Dark Tetrad, traits which result in harmful and amoral behaviors, this is a dream come true, and watching civilized society squirm is discomfort brings them downright orgasmic joy. (Maybe even literally.) But the rest of us are stuck in a nightmare from which we can’t seem to wake up.

So, what can we do about this? The first step to solving any problem is admitting that we have one and let ourselves accept that we may be getting meaner and meaner towards each other. The second step is understanding that if we devolve to simply sniping at each other, we’re not going to solve today’s pressing problems because we don’t care what happens to those around us, leaving tens of millions in the dust and even more enraged. The third is to realize just how many of our problems come from being divided by idiot politicians, doom-scrolling, and falling prey to conspiracy theories and misinformation.

While it would be much better for all of us to wake up asking how we can fix a pressing problem rather than wondering what else went wrong while we slept, one of the biggest issues we need to figure out is how to change public discourse to be productive, otherwise our helping hands will be spit on and slapped away. The reason why this year is so awful is because the bill for letting sociopaths and their incompetent friends and enablers into positions of power across the world has finally come due. To pay it off, we need to start jettisoning them and enabling actual experts to do their jobs while putting people who at least want to do the right things into positions to actually do them.

Our world will never be perfect. There will always be bad people in power somewhere because even if we try our best to get rid of them, they will lie and cheat their way in. But what we can do is make it as hard as possible for them get into those positions and stay there. All the yoga, meditation, and self-care in the world can’t offer us more than a brief reprieve, and eventually, we’ll hit a point of diminishing returns with them. We have to roll up our sleeves and tackle these problems head on, otherwise we’ll keep feeling powerless and stressed out until we run out of things for these constant crises to wreck, after which new ones will arise in their place.

# science // crisis / mental health / psychology


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