Early last year, I remember crying to videos of fellow Italians singing from their balconies in the midst of a national lockdown. I was incredibly grateful whenever friends invited me to a Zoom call, but also inevitably resentful after weeks of online Saturday-night quizzes. And I’ve gone from spikes of hypochondria to a general dull feeling of ‘meh’, which has recently been defined as ‘languishing’ .

Living through a pandemic has meant, among other things, getting used to experiencing the full gamut of emotions, from anxiety and loss to gratitude and connection. Many of us have felt overwhelmed by it all. What’s more, whether we like it or not, we are still in it; the ongoing nature of this health crisis makes it feel like a never-ending challenge. But while there’s a lot which is outside of our control, we do have a few tools at our disposal to try and navigate the storm, to ground us and come back to the present moment when we feel we’re being swept away.

One of these tools sits at the intersection between psychology and language and is called ‘affect labelling’. It means recognising and naming your emotions, as soon as they arise. Studies show that intense emotional responses tend to activate our internal alarm system, situated in a deep region of the brain called ‘amygdala’; when we label our feelings, we allow another area in the prefrontal cortex to intervene and regulate our response. In other words, this simple technique helps our amygdala to calm down, reducing our stress levels.

The two Fridas, 1939 by Frida Kahlo
The two Fridas - 1939 by Frida Kahlo

What is even more intriguing is that knowing and being able to name a diverse range of emotions doesn’t just reduce your stress, it actually allows you to construct your emotions in a more precise way. This skill, known as ‘emotional granularity’, has been studied by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. Her research has taught us that our brain is not a passive observer of events and circumstances; on the contrary, it interprets our experiences as we go. Therefore, the more emotional concepts we acquire during our lives, the easier it will be to interpret our feelings (whether they’re positive or negative), which, in turn, will lead us to respond more skilfully and look for solutions to our problems, rather than be overwhelmed.

Emotional granularity, and the resilience that comes with it, can be developed through life, as we learn new emotional concepts or add new meanings to old ones, based on our changing circumstances. And what has been more life-changing than Covid, over the last year or so? In particular, I have found that three, both old and new, emotional states best describe my experience during this pandemic.

How to label your emotion

Firstly, grief. Up until last year, I never thought that that word was applicable to my life, at all. I have never experienced any significant loss, and with respect to Covid, I am incredibly grateful that all my friends and family have been safe through these critical times. But that’s also prevented me from recognising how I was feeling about other aspects of my life. Attached as I was to old and traditional definitions of grief, I did not see, at least not immediately, that even the loss of normality, of life as we knew it, counts as grief.

It started to manifest as flashbacks to my pre-Covid routines, especially my walks; specifically, when, at the end of a long day studying in the University library, I would walk through Leeds city centre and back home; through the city’s sparkling lights, the traffic, the crowds, all the while listening to my favourite podcasts and not having to worry about someone getting too close or coughing nearby. Naming all those images and feelings as ‘grief’ has helped me put things in perspective. As organisational psychologist Adam Grant would say, ‘it gave me a familiar vocabulary to understand what had felt like an unfamiliar experience’. Most importantly, understanding exactly how I was feeling enabled me to respond to it in a more tailored way, by, for example, giving myself time to process what I had lost and adjust to a ‘new normal’, and starting to take pleasure in the small wins of everyday life.

Memory, the herath, 1937 by Frida Kahlo
Memory, the hearth - 1937 by Frida Kahlo

The second dominant psychological state of the pandemic, still affecting me as I write this, is captured by the Chinese expression “報復性熬夜”, which translates as ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. It’s essentially the feeling of not wanting to go to bed because you don’t feel satisfied with your day; journalist Daphne K. Lee, who tweeted about this expression, explains it as an attempt to ‘regain some sense of freedom during late night hours’. When we’re trapped all day, deprived of the social connections and/or activities that would normally make up our life, we may scramble to find some sense of purpose at night, before we hit the sack.

I have become so skilled at this that I think I could write a book about the infinite ways I can procrastinate my bedtime. Any examples? Washing up late into the night, headphones on, just ‘so I can catch up on my favourite podcasts’ and then, once I finally start getting ready for bed, taking forever to moisturise because ‘my skin needs it, it’s about health, and there’s no escaping from that’. Again, knowing that this tendency has a name, and is recognised by people across the world, has helped a lot: it helped me understand that I was not alone and that what I was feeling was a shared human experience (all emotions usually are).

Finally, gratitude. You may have noticed that I’ve used the word ‘grateful’ a couple of times in this post. That’s because gratitude has also been a defining experience during these challenging times; the feeling of being relatively okay while the entire world is at war with an invisible enemy; being able to talk to family and friends, knowing that they’re also okay. Sometimes, it can be difficult to be grateful. It can almost make us feel guilty. In ‘The gifts of imperfection’, Brené Brown teaches us that feeling joy and gratitude is an exercise in vulnerability, because it means celebrating life in a challenging world. And that’s hard. Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to make a mental list, once or twice a day, of all the things that I’m grateful for; then I put a hand on my heart and I simply say: ‘thank you’. It’s very powerful.

Ludwig’s wrap-up

At the intersection between language and psychology, ‘affect labelling’, the practice of naming our emotions, whether good or bad, reminds us of the healing power of words. Sometimes, that might mean looking at other languages and finding unique expressions that best describe our feelings. “報復性熬夜” (revenge bedtime procrastination) is an example. Another good one is the German ‘Backpfeifengesicht’ ( ‘face that needs to be slapped’), which captures that sense of frustration when someone gets on our nerves. Finally, closer to home, I sometimes think of my grandma’s mantra ‘Eh vabè, u Signure n’aiuta!’ (Sicilian for ‘Oh well, the Lord will help us!’), which is an expression of faith in the natural unfolding of events, a reminder that we can’t control everything and it’s okay to let go, sometimes.

Whatever you’re feeling, there is probably a name for it. Why? Because other people will have felt the exact same way at some point in their lives. We may have many emotions, but they’re all human.

Italians singing together during the 2020 lockdown