Warning: The following article deals with the topic of mental health and may be triggering for some.
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Raise your hand if the words “meh” or “bleugh” sum up how you feel right now.
Raise your hand if you feel stuck in some sort of limbo where you see life passing by but you feel invisible.
Raise your hand if the mere thought of engaging in any task mentally tires you out.
It’s not anxiety; Google is telling you it feels heavier than the symptoms of burnout, and yet it’s definitely not clinically serious enough to be depression. So, what is it?
A few more clicks through Google and you come across the term ‘languishing’. Restlessness? Tick. Absence of interest in life or things that typically bring you joy? Tick. Lack of focus? Tick. Your self-diagnosis is telling you it’s nothing a few meditation sessions and essential oils can’t fix, right?
But rewind a few sentences back to the part where old mate Google became involved – that’s where the problem begins.
While it’s positive to see mental health stigmas broken down through greater education and open conversations recently, terms like languishing, anxiety, burnout and stress are starting to be thrown around colloquially. For example, some might impulsively assume their stress and pounding headache is burnout, and others will casually label their insomnia and feelings of lethargy as languishing, completely overlooking the need to see a healthcare professional.
In fact, a recent study conducted by Australia’s leading video telehealth solution Coviu, found 32 per cent of Aussies across all ages have missed or cancelled GP appointments because of work or social commitments, time restraints or they felt too unwell to attend. What they’ve done instead is turned to Google to diagnose their symptoms and crossed their fingers a slug of celery juice and a good night’s sleep will do the trick.
But the fact of the matter is that these symptoms aren’t something that should be brushed off or taken lightly. What if it’s something more serious? After all, there are hundreds and thousands of health issues out there, meaning symptoms of one condition will most often overlap the symptoms of another. Exhibit A: your self-diagnosed languishing could actually be your body signalling that you’re iron deficient – something Guardian Australia associate news editor Josephine Tovey, pointed out in a recent tweet.
“Have been feeling really bleugh for a while and wondered … is this millennial burnout? Am I … ‘languishing’?”, Tovey tweeted. “Maybe! But it also turns out I have a serious iron deficiency. So yeah just a reminder to talk to your doctor and not to normalise feeling like shit.”
Countless women replied to the tweet, explaining they experienced the same thing.
“This was me in Nov! I had totally convinced myself I was just a shit person not coping with life and it wasn’t till I started fainting that I let myself believe it might be something physical,” one person commented.
Others noted their symptoms were a sign of vitamin D deficiency and hypothyroidism.
Whatever the diagnosis, the overarching lesson learned was that a doctor should have been the first port of call when they initially started experiencing symptoms.
However, it’s easier said than done and it can be difficult to acknowledge that your experience could be more than just a result of the current state of the world. What can help is reassurance on how to identify the difference between a mental health issue and something more serious, so we turned to the experts for advice to help make the process a little less intimidating.
To start, what is ‘languishing’?
Sociologist Corey Keyes first coined the term as the antithesis of flourishing, but it was recently brought to the forefront by organisational psychologist Adam Grant, who referred to it in The New York Times as “the dominant emotion of 2021”.
“Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health,” Grant wrote. “It’s the void between depression and flourishing – the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity.”
It’s a common feeling for many people during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno explains.
“It’s likely due to the fear of uncertainty and not knowing if things will actually work out. Decision-making has become difficult and many people are hesitant to make changes in their lives for fear of things turning upside down again.
“They might feel like their life isn’t moving forward or may even lack any motivation to do things with their lives.”
While there is no concrete evidence, there are suspicions around languishing being more prevalent among females. “Many women can be prone to languishing because they do feel stuck in a certain phase of their life, often due to juggling motherhood and a career,” Sokarno points out.
Despite languishing being more common – and at times a bigger risk factor for mental illness – than major depression, Dr Izzy Smith, Endocrinology Doctor and mental health advocate, notes people who are caught in this “limbo phase of life” are often dismissed as their symptoms “don’t meet specific criteria for depression and thus from a healthcare perspective, can often fall between the cracks”.
No, languishing is not the same as burnout
Record numbers of people reported burnout, depression and anxiety during the pandemic, but languishing is not the same.
“While languishing and burnout can both be tricky to define, the key difference between the two is the level of interest and enthusiasm towards life and goals,” Sokarno explains.
“Someone that is experiencing burnout will likely still be enthusiastic about their ambitions and feel motivated to achieve them or make changes, whereas someone experiencing languishing might not have the drive.
“Someone experiencing burnout will feel as though they’ve constantly been pushing forward in their life without a moment to take a breath, whereas someone experiencing languishing will feel as though they haven’t moved forward.”
What to do if you think you’re languishing
First thing’s first: if you’re not feeling like your normal self, make an appointment with your local GP and do not – we repeat, do not – cancel it, even if you think you’re being trivial.
“Remember that you deserve to prioritise your own wellbeing and leaving things can often result in bigger problems down the track, regardless of whether it’s a mental or physical health problem,” Smith says.
“Prevention is always better than the cure and picking up things early can save your life.”
A good technique to combat languishing is breaking your big goals into little tasks and writing them down.
“This will help you feel less overwhelmed by any daunting change and then you can methodically tick off the little tasks from your list,” Sokarno suggests. “Have the perspective that making a change is better than making no change. Yes, sometimes things just don’t work out, but living a life thinking ‘what if’ and feeling miserable at the same time isn’t necessarily a better alternative.”
If ticking off goals doesn’t excite you, try to find meaning in your life again by doing things that used to bring you enjoyment. “This might mean going for a walk to your favourite coffee shop each day, having a bath, watching your favourite movie or making plans with friends and family.”
But remember, it could be something more serious
There are certainly some general symptoms of languishing however, as Tovey’s tweet pointed out, there is a high possibility of you missing something that could be signalling a more serious health concern.
“There are plenty of potential medical diagnoses that can mimic languishing like low thyroid function, obstructive sleep apnoea, iron deficiency, diabetes, celiac disease and B12 deficiency,” Smith warns.
Not to scare you, but in extreme cases, this could even be a sign of something life-threatening.
Smith says there are a few red flags to look out for. “Warning signs of something more sinister could include weight loss, change in bowel habits, heart palpitations and shortness of breath from exercise that previously didn’t affect you.
“Mental illness in itself is a potentially sinister condition and thoughts of suicide, unproductiveness, purposeful social withdrawal and loss of appetite are all signs of significant mental health disruption that need immediate medical care.”
Bottom line: Skip the self-diagnosis and head to the GP
If we learned anything from the mental health repercussions of 2020 (onwards), it’s that we need to start prioritising ourselves sans any guilt, we need more open and honest conversations about our feelings, we need to stop feeling ashamed for seeking professional help with a mental health issue, and we need to stop self-diagnosing with popular buzzwords like languishing.
At the end of the day, we’re all humans who have feelings and struggle sometimes. It’s important to feel comfortable with expressing when you’re not okay and that you reach out for support when needed. Just because languishing isn’t a clinical term yet, it doesn’t mean the experience of it is any less real or doesn’t justify a trip to the GP.
Juna Xu is a writer and podcast co-host. Follow her on Instagram @juna.xu.