Uncomfortably Numb: From COVID to Ukraine, Dealing With Crisis Fatigue

Kathleen Doheny

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 Ukraine, inflation, or nuclear threats, to name a few.

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 contacted by Medscape Medical News say some have become so ''done" with COVID that they're "emotionally numb" to it, refusing to discuss or think about it anymore and not reacting anymore to the millions felled by the virus.

Yet, those directly affected by COVID — including those pushing for more help for those with ''long COVID" — point out that ignoring COVID is a privilege denied to them.

Can Emotional Numbing Be Protective?

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

But that's hard to do, she says. And lately, as we all know, there has been ongoing stress from many sources — COVID, Ukraine, inflation, gas prices, just to name a few. We're all facing crisis fatigue.

In a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the APA, rising prices, supply chain issues, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the potential of nuclear threats were often cited by respondents as top stressors — along with COVID — as the pandemic passes the 2-year mark.

In that survey, conducted in early February, more than half of the 3012 adults who responded said they could have used more emotional support than they received since the pandemic began.

Dr Lynn Bufka

"It's hard not to feel the stress about the war in Ukraine," Bufka said. "It's hard to see women with small children fleeing with nothing." Likewise it's difficult for many, especially healthcare professionals, who have spent the last 2 years watching COVID 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 [also understand] that it becomes problematic when it becomes pervasive." When people become so emotionally numb that they stop engaging in life and interacting with loved ones, it's harmful, she said.

But emotional numbness is a different reaction than feeling "down" or blue, Bufka said. "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.

"If it becomes so overwhelming we can't respond, we can't do what is necessary to contribute in a regular way, [then] that has a negative effect on us," she said.

Psychic Numbing

Robert Jay Lifton, MD, emeritus professor of psychiatry and psychology at City University of New York (CUNY), prefers the term ''psychic numbing" to ''emotional numbing." He is credited with coining the term years ago while interviewing survivors of Hiroshima and wrote "Death and Life: Survivors of Hiroshima," among his many books.

Within minutes of the bomb going off, survivors told him, "My emotions went dead." Some could be involved in handling dead bodies, Lifton recalled, and told him they felt nothing.

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

Dr Robert Lifton

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 said.

He said the degree of numbing someone is experiencing 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. That is a dangerous form of psychic numbing because there can no longer be a complete denial of the pandemic [due to evidence and numbers]."

A "Stepping Stone" to Healing

''Emotional numbing has a negative connotation, like we have failed," said 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 in how to react, she said. Fear took over, with adrenaline pumped up.

"There is a reduction of circulation in the prefrontal cortex, so the decision-making was affected; people were not as good at making decisions." In those early stages, emotional numbing helped people cope, Kavanagh said.

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."

When the stress is too overwhelming to handle, people ''tend to withdraw into themselves," she said.

Dr Emma Kavanagh

That's often called burnout, but Kavanagh said 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." During this time, to expect people to maintain their usual level of activity and interaction is not reasonable.

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

"Yet PTSD is all we talk about," she said. In her book, "How To Be Broken: The Advantages of Falling Apart," Kavanagh explains how numbing or burnout can be a transient psychological adaptation and help 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 individuals to respond to the overwhelming number of people affected by a serious emergency such as COVID "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 said, and point it out, observing that "You don't seem like yourself" or similar statements.

''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 said.

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."

Always look to your support system. "I think we've all realized how valuable support systems are" during the pandemic, Bufka said. 

Get good rest, regular activity and spend time outdoors to ''reset." "Actively seek out what's enjoyable to you," she recommended.

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, grassroots nonprofit organization that advocates for a national memorial day for COVID each year, and other actions.

Kristin Urquiza

"Emotional numbness to the pandemic is a privilege and another manifestation of the two radically different Americas in which we live," she said in a statement to Medscape Medical News.

So far, Urquiza calls the response to the request to set up a national COVID 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. US 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 response plan and recognition that many are still dealing with COVID and its aftereffects.

Like Urquiza, many people build on their pain and 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 said.

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