Missing Your Motivation?
Moving from surviving to thriving in our current world.
Nineteen in a series.
If ever there was an image that captures how many of us are feeling at this point in the pandemic it’s that of a splooting squirrel. Squirrels lay spread eagle—or sploot—on a cool surface to lower their body temperature.
Annie Stewart, LCSW, PMH-C, a clinical therapist in Cook Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), caught a glimpse of a splooting squirrel on her way into work recently. She snapped a photo of it, knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words.
“He looked like I felt,” Stewart wrote in a letter to her NICU team. “Indifferent to what was happening around him. Not his usual playful self. The picture of ‘meh.’”
Over the past few months we’ve worked to shed light on the mental and emotional health issues plaguing our youth, be them pandemic related or not. Suicide among children, for example, is at an all-time high. But not everyone is in crisis. Many kids, and adults for that matter, fall somewhere in between. They’re not drowning in despair, but they aren’t thriving either.
Like that splooting squirrel so vividly illustrates, they’re languishing.
Stagnant. Indifferent. Not depressed, but lacking motivation. Not happy, but not sad. Easily overwhelmed. Ambition and passions replaced with mediocre motivation. Little to no enthusiasm for things that once generated excitement and anticipation, like the start of a new school year.
“Languishing is typically thought of as the opposite of flourishing,” said Steve Chennankara D.O., a psychiatrist on the medical staff at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “It can be viewed as a temporary defense mechanism after a major loss or in the context of returning to normal after a major catastrophic event in one’s life. In any case, it is worth recognizing it, talking about it and seeking help if prolonged.”
It’s not hard to see why some are languishing right now. After all, it’s been 15 months since the World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic. That’s about 70 weeks of daily COVID crisis news. More or less 500 days of normal life interrupted by masks and social distancing. For kids and teachers going back to school, it’s like Groundhog’s Day with yet another academic year punctuated by the pandemic. Health-care workers feel like they’re riding a never ending roller coaster as COVID surges wax and wane.
It’s exhausting, and we’re feeling it.
What we’re experiencing is life in a chronic survival state, according to Susanne Malone, LCSW, clinical director of My Health My Resources (MHMR) Tarrant County. She explained that our brains and bodies are designed to have a fight or flight response to crisis, but they aren’t designed to live in that state forever. When a disaster lasts weeks, months and years, we tire, run out of motivation and find it easier to disengage than to continue to embrace the challenge.
That disengagement can take its toll at home, work and school.
“This never ending feeling of angst many in the workforce are feeling manifests itself in two extremes,” said Leah King, president and CEO of United Way of Tarrant County. “It either leads to minimal engagement in one’s work, or hypersensitivity to normal challenges that one may encounter throughout the course of their workday. Many of us have lost the ability to process at a normal speed and at the appropriate level to manage emotions. So people may be a little bit more short with their colleagues than they ordinarily would.”
Beyond decreased motivation, indifference and uncharacteristic behavior, the problem with languishing is its potential to extinguish hope and lead to depression. In a time of crisis, hope is essential. It’s what gives those in despair a fighting chance.
“We don’t always know that we’re languishing,” said Dawn Hood-Patterson, Ph.D., MDiv, program manager for The Center for Children’s Health at Cook Children’s. “The danger is that languishing incapacitates our ability to hope for other things. We are muddling through to the point that we don’t even know that we have a problem or we don’t recognize that things are not the way that we want them to be.”
So how do we turn the tide when we can’t muster the motivation to do anything more than sploot like a squirrel? We asked a few community mental health experts and leaders within the workforce for their tips for moving from merely surviving to thriving.
Focus on health. Sleep, nutrition and movement are often the first healthy habits to go when you are under pressure, but they are the most important defense you have against the physical and mental effects of chronic stress. Make health a priority by getting enough sleep, eating healthy and moving your body.
“Health is literally our biggest warrior,” Malone said. “Research has proven that if we pay attention to sleep, movement and nutrition it helps us be more resilient.”
Go all in. Like that splooting squirrel that commits every part of himself to lowering his body temperature, we can do the same to lower our stress and revive our energy. Not literally, of course. But we can power down the distractions and go all in on an activity we enjoy. Immersing yourself in a single activity for a period of time can renew, revive and re-engage your focus and creativity.
“For me, this happened planning meet-the-teacher night for my kids’ school,” Stewart explained. “I know chairing a major PTA event is not enjoyable for many, but in doing so, I found flow. I found myself eagerly turning on my laptop after the kids were in bed to create flyers. I lost track of time as I made props for a back-to-school photo booth. I stayed up late to send emails and create QR codes. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed it. I moved from languishing to flourishing and it carried over to my personal and professional life.”
Celebrate the small things. What got you out of bed this morning? Was it a barking dog ready for their morning walk? Perhaps it was a crying baby, or kids that needed your help getting ready for school. Maybe it was that looming work deadline or fear of missing the school bus. Something compelled you to take that first step, get out of bed and push through. That’s a win. Put one foot in front of the other and build on that. Celebrate the wins, no matter how small.
“There may be something in your life that prompts you to take a course of action that you don’t necessarily want to, but you do it,” Hood-Patterson said. “I think that is undervalued and it needs to be praised. That may seem small to you, the fact that you got out of bed, but that shows your capacity to change your course of action.”
As students return to the classroom, Fort Worth ISD is celebrating the wins, be them big or small, while embracing the losses as teaching moments. They’re encouraging parents to do the same.
“We’re giving parents homework,” said Barbara Reynolds-Brown, LPC, clinical coordinator for FWISD Family Resource Center at Forest Oak. “We're asking them to help their kids set goals for the year. We’re asking parents to be involved in rewarding and to always give their kids some good, specific, credible and genuine feedback. We’re asking them to refrain from constantly pointing out their kid’s mistakes and understand that kids are going to make mistakes. Talk about the mistakes and the opportunities we have to learn from them.”
Let kids be kids. Play is a powerful part of a child’s development. Through play, kids can learn to relate, communicate and problem solve.
Over the course of the pandemic children have missed out on two things they crave most—engagement and consistency, according to Reynolds-Brown.
“Kids have become detached because, in school, teachers were right there with them, always engaging them during the day,” Reynolds-Brown explained. “They need that feeling of belonging. They need that engagement. They need their peers, and a lot of that is what they have been missing.”
That’s why it’s important to let kids be kids, and join them in play or an activity they love. It’s a good time to connect, restore some childhood normalcy and build hope for the future.
“We don't want to take that edge off of them still being children,” Reynolds-Brown said. “They lost a lot. They lost the prom. They've lost camaraderie. They lost the football games and the baseball games. Right now that's our normal, but it won't always be our normal. I don't want them to ever think that there's not something better beyond this. It may not be the same, but it's going to be something better. So keep them positive.”
Take a break. Leah King makes a point to model the importance of taking time away from work to rest, relax and regroup. She announces her days off to her United Way staff and reminds them to take their vacation.
“Even if you feel like you can’t safely leave your home, you still need time to step away from the computer just to refresh your mind,” she said.
Connection is key. Don’t be afraid to connect with others and share what you are experiencing.
“More than ever before, we have got to make it part of our regular conversation to check with people and see how they’re doing,” Malone said.
One way to build connections and improve your mood is to help someone else. Research shows that helping others takes your mind off of your own circumstances, increases feel-good hormones, feeds the part of your brain associated with reward and reframes your perspective.
Above all else, hold on to hope. It may seem like we’re riding a hamster’s wheel of perpetual pandemic, and that normalcy is just out of reach. But the sun still rises and sets. That alone is evidence of hope. Not a surety that another sunrise will illuminate the same circumstances as yesterday, but the blessing of a new day and a new opportunity to pursue and foster hope for yourself and others.
About the Joy Campaign
Cook Children's Joy Campaign is a communication initiative that aims to encourage hope and resilience among children and teens.
Joy stands for: Just breathe. Open up. You matter.
The number of children and teens suffering from anxiety, stress and depression is skyrocketing. Sadly, Cook Children's has seen a record number of patients attempting suicide in the past year. The Joy Campaign is a suicide prevention communication initiative led by Cook Children's to bring hope and needed resources to children and families facing struggles and dark times in their lives.
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