Our behaviour and thought-patterns have definitely changed since PM Modi imposed the series of nation-wide lockdowns. Social distancing, wearing masks and sanitising groceries became a part of our daily life to fight the spread of the virus. Apart from these changes in lifestyle, personally, I noticed that I was starting to become more irritable and angry ever since being cooped up in my apartment. My motivation to Zoom call my friends was wearing off, and despite missing them terribly I felt exhausted during our conversations or found it difficult to continue them for long. I had all the time in the world and yet I chose to drift away from my loved ones. I almost felt like I was turning into a jerk.
Another time when I behaved unlike myself was during the beginning of the lockdown when I had visited a pharmacy with my father. As we were standing in line, I saw a man come up too close behind me and it set off a trigger in me. So, I instinctively snapped at him and told him to step back instead of asking him politely. Fortunately, he didn’t create a scene or raise his voice but in hindsight, I feel like I may have overreacted a bit.
I’m not known to be so vocal about my discomfort, in fact, I rarely let myself get into conflicts. The lockdown had lowered my tolerance towards other people’s behaviours and made me bad-tempered. If any of my behaviours during the lockdown resonate, it’s because we are all a little wound up and emotionally all-over-the-place due to the pandemic.
You might be turning into a jerk due to empathy fatigue
Call it empathy fatigue, compassion fatigue or crisis fatigue, the lockdown has taken a toll on us and we’re not able to handle it. What started as an opportunity to spend time home with family, focus on our hobbies and take time off has turned into a drudgery of dragging ourselves through the day. Adding to that, we are now also burdened with several responsibilities - some of us are taking care of the elderly in our household, working stressful jobs, catering to children’s needs or dealing with difficult family situations. Even when we’re relaxing, we doomscroll through un-ending horrific news!
Not to mention, the tremendous mood boost that social interactions gave us has, now, ceased to exist due to social distancing. With so many of us on the edge and constantly feeling triggered, we seem to be losing our ability for compassion or capacity to empathize and losing one’s empathy can make one feel like they are turning into a jerk. That is quite concerning since empathy towards each other is more important now than ever!
Adrienne Heinz, a clinical psychologist in California, talks to the Medium and describes this moment as a “quiet, silent suffering.” She speaks from observations from her own community where she’s witnessed a lot of general exhaustion. “The heart becomes weary,” she says. “It’s not that it doesn’t care. It’s tired, and it’s strained.”
Your survival mode may also be turning you into a jerk
We have limited capacities as human beings for everything, including the ability to empathize. Clearly, everything has taken a turn for the worse and we’re overwhelmed by the suffering, the deaths and the big tragedy 2020 has turned out to be. James Doty, MD, founder of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education tells the Medium that this can make people lose morale leading to uncharacteristic behaviour such as lashing out or having a hard time caring for others. Additionally, people have entered survival mode that means they are instinctively fending for themselves and may show less concern about their behaviour towards others.
“If there are too many situations that demand our empathy, one of our defence mechanisms is to shut down and not care,” explains Eve Ekman, PhD, a contemplative social scientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. The problem is that this is a worldwide phenomenon, and a scenario where millions of people are left apathetic and disconnected can really harm our capacity to work together.
Historically, pandemics have led to a loss of human compassion
This loss in empathy has been recorded during previous pandemics as well, according to Dr Heinz. People have started viewing each other as potential virus carriers rather than fellow humans and it pits us against one another rather than in solidarity. Dr Heinz comments on this saying, “We have to be reminded that fear doesn’t always mean danger.” But it’s hard to put down our guard when the lethality of the virus is so high.
Revisiting history, we see that the 1918 flu pandemic also left a dent on people’s mental health. According to a 1976 dissertation, A Cruel Wind by Dorothy Ann Pettit, the 1918 pandemic created a lethargy in people’s psyche; people emerged from it physically and emotionally fatigued. Pettit writes that the flu had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.
We are not able to practice our self-care routines
Due to the fear of contracting the virus in public spaces, we‘ve been compelled to restrict ourselves from practising our outdoor self-care routines such as hitting the gym, sweating it out in a dance class, going for a coffee, to the bar or just taking a late-night walk on the street. We’re robbed from our usual outlets of frustration and have limited ways to recharge now.
Dr Heinz explains to the Medium the alternatives we can adopt in the lieu of not having our usual self-care activities at our feet. The first one is an all-time favourite - meditation, she says that it can bring us down from panic mode and shift our attention to the present.
She says that while it is responsible to stay informed of current events, overstimulating yourself with negative news can be damaging. She recommends people to stop mulling over catastrophic events and outcomes and rather focus on educating themselves and finding ways to be a part of corrective measures in current crises, whether that be donating relief for the floods in Assam or for healthcare workers or just wearing a mask.
This will give you some sense of control in relation to the events happening around you and increase your awareness when you feel you may be turning into a jerk. But most importantly, give yourself a break and don’t be too critical of your continued exhaustion, whether it’s mental or physical.