One of the critical impacts on behaviour and psychological health during the pandemic occurred at the level of the animal body. Lassitude, the gradual decline of motivation into lethargy and indifference, arises when our bodies experience a prolonged state of inactivity and a lack of external stimuli.
Lassitude takes hold slowly, draining motivation by infinitesimal degrees – until our ability and desire to perform basic tasks, including brushing one’s teeth, changing clothes, doing the dishes, taking a shower, or cleaning the house drop away.
Once normal daily activities become a chore – and while we may have forced ourself to do that Zoom exercise class, we didn’t shower afterward.
While we worried about the ‘important’ things – those Zoom exercise classes, the ‘pandemic weight gain,’ monitoring children’s screen time, finally reading the book that has been staring at us for two years – we lost touch with the basic elements of mammal functioning that make our complex lives possible at all.
Lassitude drains away time. The day starts with a solid intention to be productive. But the morning passes in minutes and by 2:00pm at the latest, our bodies decide the day is over and our motivation melts away.
The day seems both impossibly long and extremely short. We feel the day is over before we’ve even gotten a handle on what to do it. We fall into the contraction of time, and our bodies suspend elements of primal functioning.
We must learn to be mammals again, before we can jump back into full pre-pandemic functioning. As we face sudden exposure to external stimuli and crowds of people, sensory overload quickly becomes distressing as the necessary reduction in human contact during the pandemic unnaturally pruned our social pathways.
Extroverts manage it better than introverts. However, most people feel overwhelmed to a degree as they edge back out into life. A 16-year-old patient recently told me that her ‘people battery was dead.’ Every one of my patients expresses levels of anxiety and extreme exhaustion due to sudden increased social interaction.
Lassitude is one of the reasons that the ‘re-entry’ engenders such levels of exhaustion. Forced to limit our movement and social interaction, our bodies began to lose the basic elements of functioning – the ability to be a mammal.
Human beings are mammals. We must fulfill all primal mammalian functioning before we can successfully embody more complex and demanding levels of functioning.
All mammals fulfill the following 5 elements of basic functioning – or they do not survive.
All Mammals Eat and Drink.
The individual must eat and drink to survive. Once the individual stops eating and drinking to a level that impairs their health and functioning, the sex drive automatically declines.
As the individual is unlikely to survive, the 2nd primal instinct for the survival of the species through sexual reproduction becomes irrelevant. The individual who cannot fulfill the basic function of eating and drinking for their survival reduces their chance of contributing to the collective gene pool of the species.
All Mammals Sleep.
While some mammals are nocturnal, human beings are diurnal – we sleep at night and are awake during the day.
The disruption of working and school hours during the pandemic impacted the sleep patterns of people of all ages. Teenagers and young adults in particular quickly fell into abnormal sleep patterns – staying up until 3:00am or 4:00am and sleeping into the middle of the afternoon.
During the winter, this disruption of the natural diurnal rhythm deprived many people of sunlight and Vitamin D, increasing the level of lassitude.
We must gradually adjust our sleep patterns. Trying to jump from going to sleep at 4:00am back to 11:00pm in one night simply won’t work. We end up lying in bed, restless and frustrated, anxious about feeling even more tired the next day.
Each night, go to bed half an hour earlier and then wake up half an hour earlier. Give yourself 2 nights for each half hour adjustment, so that your body naturally comes back into alignment with its diurnal rhythms.
All Mammals Wash Themselves
From the mouse cleaning its face to gorillas grooming each other to dogs cleaning their tongues on rough material, all mammals clean themselves.
Although historically the level of cleanliness of human beings has varied, we have always cleaned ourselves according to our mammalian instincts. In the industrialized world, bathing or showering every day was commonplace before the pandemic.
People of all ages let go of the myriad ways in which we clean ourselves: showers or baths fell to the wayside, pajamas and sweat pants became a uniform picked up from the floor and put on again, brushing our teeth became a chore and flossing abandoned, we spruced up our shirts and sat through Zoom meetings and classes in shorts or even underwear.
All Mammals Tidy Their Nests
The social isolation made the mammalian function of cleaning oneself largely irrelevant. Human beings associate cleaning themselves with respectability and presentability – with no one to watch or monitor us, why bother?Human beings associate a clean home with respectability and presentability – to show others that we are upstanding, responsible people.
During the pandemic, the home no one visited descended into disarray: rinsing a plate became the same as washing it, dust accumulated in corners and under furniture where once the vacuum hunted it down, the white kitchen floor turned gray without notice, and the creeping mold in the shower continued to creep.
With no one to witness it, we no longer felt that the cleanliness or tidiness of our home held inherent value. We forgot that the value belonged to us – that we need to tidy our nest if we are to maintain our basic level of functioning.
All Mammals Move Their Bodies.
I did not say exercise! I said all mammals move their bodies. An unseen trap lurks in equating exercise with movement.
Whales swim, elephants walk, monkeys climb, prairie dogs turn their heads and bodies constantly on alert, and all mammals move their bodies to fulfill the 1st mammalian function – to search out food and drink.
Human beings are migratory mammals. The Agricultural Revolution is a blink in planetary time. We walked forward to hunt and gather for millennia. Our bodies and minds evolved while walking forward.
We process information and emotion as we walk forward. Without forward motion, the body sinks into lassitude and our psychological state declines. As the pandemic deprived many of the ability to walk forward, our anxiety, depression, fear, and emotional overload increased.
Dogs evolved from the wolves that followed human tribes. While the accepted narrative blames lack of exercise, it is not the lack of exercise that creates anxiety and distress in dogs. If dogs do not walk forward, they experience distress as their emotional and physiological regulation depends on walking forward. Just like human beings.
Before you head back to the gym, walk forward for 30 minutes a day. You will feel an immediate alleviation of psychological and emotional distress.
Be A Mammal.
Don’t underestimate the impact of the decline in basic functioning – if you do, you may find yourself in greater distress as you berate yourself for struggling to meet the pre-pandemic social and performance demands.
Be A Mammal.