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COVID Blues and the Value of Sadness

15 October 2021


The worldwide Pandemic, with the evolution of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, and others, has, at least in the US, now produced numbers of hospitalizations and deaths rivaling the peaks of last winter. We are now headed in the direction of another Pandemic Winter, as the Pandemic rounds the bend of a second year and will head into a third as of March 2022. Current levels of sickness, hospitalization, and death fall most heavily on the unvaccinated, but there are breakthrough infections even in the vaccinated, and infection in children. Optimistically, it may be on the wane, as more and more employers and institutions simply require it, as we now do for most children in public school for a number of diseases, and there are others that all but no longer exist because enough people got vaccinated. Eventually, maybe, science wins, and we win. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be sequelae, both from the dead and the after effects on infected survivors, and of the politically fraught errors that extended much longer than it should have, and the damage to all our psyches of what we missed, and of the suffering that follows.


With the social distancing and isolation, with the difficulties of virtual work and virtual education, and the omnipresence of masked faces in close quarters and interior spaces means we suffer from isolation, from loneliness, and from the difficulties in the sustaining of our social weal normally provided by shared emotion, and its mimetic powers, largely mediated by facial expression.


Many have experienced new economic hardships, difficulties in negotiating now cramped familial and relational lives, and the heavy emotional toll taken by the heavy load of distress in living under the constrictions of a Pandemic. People have irrevocably missed, or at least had to postpone into an unknown future, major life events, as well as seasonal and even daily opportunities. There is an epidemic of sadness and loss, even beneath the grief and death directly caused by COVID-19. There are much higher levels of uncertainty and even anxiety, which take their toll even on normal cognitive function, reducing the perspective necessary for creative decision-making, and even producing lacunae in the functioning of our memory.

We too easily forget, or at least lose sight that the sadness, the distress and anguish of the slings and arrows of normal life that existed before the Pandemic and will exist when it has run its course, and we return to a new normal. I am going through the process of divorcing a partner and wife of a wonderful ten years and negotiating the parallel single-parenting that a beautiful and rambunctious young schoolboy needs. The end of this relationship may have been inevitable, and there were troubling signs even before the pandemic, but it surely hastened the process, and magnified its sadness and anguish. A friends child finished his college career under a virtual education, with none of the pomp and circumstance that it should have entailed. Athletic competitions were delayed or cancelled, and the roar of the crowd was either subdued or absent but for electronic expressions often unshared by more than a few. The separated sister-in-law of an old friend lost her life in a burning home which left her three daughters absent all their possessions and nigh-orphaned. My father-in-law is dying from a cancer that COVID-19 did not cause, but made more difficult to treat, especially with dwindling hospital resources. My cleaning lady had to bury an abusive ex-husband, still the father of her 5-year-old twins, after he shot his father to death with a crossbow, and then took his own life. I missed enough of the decline produced by my brother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s exacerbated by the isolation and reduced social contact of the pandemic, that when I finally was able to travel over the summer to see him, he no longer recognized me. I think he knew and loved both my young son and me by the end of our visit, and we will both cherish the memories that he likely will not retain. The coming holidays may be his last to feel the nest of love with his wife, his now married adult daughters, their delightful and interesting husbands, and his first grandchild, just born at the beginning of September. Good and dear friends have made clear that they are so overwhelmed, desperately swamped or treading water in their work loads and personal responsibilities that they simply have no time or energy for socializing. Friends that have passed the test of time, of crises and difficulties faced and overcome, will return for joyous homecomings, but newer and more fragile ones are as likely as not to die on the vine.



So, I am not alone in my sadness, my distress, or even my anguish. My ex-wife shares some of the same wounds I feel. And the losses of others or other relationships to mishap, to disease and even to deaths unrelated to COVID-19 are marked by sadness, sadness magnified by the COVID Blues we all have, sadness so much more difficult to mitigate unmediated by anywhere near the number of sympathetic faces or the close presence which might otherwise give solace. I’ve heard it called “languishing,” and I think that captures much of it. Shared may be sorrow halved, but we are too often left with the whole portion, and even joys that should be doubled are more hollow.


I want to talk about what we all share in this sadness, this sorrow exacerbated, both in our bodies and in our experience, both to better recognize and understand it, but also to learn what it can teach us about what it is we value. Maybe in doing so I can help to gain the perspective on what it is we want to focus on, to better prioritize, and to better cherish the things that we value more. We need to let more of the chaff of our lives to be threshed away, so the grains we value can be a bigger part of our emotional diet. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. I think that’s Biblical. I also like a Navajo proverb: “The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.”


Maybe it is in part that I am a depressive, a “melancholic,” but I have never shied from expressing negative, even painful emotion, as part of a passionate and fully lived life. I have any number of friends who well know that a conversation with me, at least one of any depth, is likely to include my coming to tears at some point or another. One friend even has called it being “Teskefied.” My father used tears well in his sermons, and I think that an openness to vulnerability, and even tears, made me a more engaging professor, even if I was sometimes a bit too intense for some. Why sing the Blues? Because the expressions are ones we all share, what Son House once defined as “you love somebody and they don’t love you back.” The Blues are one of my favorite musical genres (the Blues had a baby, and its name was Rock and Roll). I think there is deep beauty in the expression of sadness and sorrow, to say nothing of the depths at which it connects us to each other, in empathy and compassion. And that is the kind of connection which, in these divisive times, we could all stand to have more.


Sadness is one of at least six basic emotions found cross-culturally, including happiness, surprise, anger, fear, and disgust. Such a species-wide biological inheritance suggests that sadness and its expression, particularly in the complex musculature of the naked human face, designed for social broadcasting, has significant adaptive significance. So it is probably not something to be avoided or downplayed, even if it may sometimes be in our interest to conceal it. Different cultures can hypo-or hyper-cognize different emotions differently, and probably so can families, but the feelings are still there. Blind people show the basic biological programming for expressing these emotions (as well as the pout, and the eyebrow raise of recognition). The recognition and happy responses of others to our presence is one of those aspects of the social glue that holds us together, much attenuated by masking and social distance, certainly no small contribution to the COVID Blues. These facial expressions are also recognized cross-culturally, with happiness by and away the most recognized, followed by surprise, but sadness is number three. In real life, this recognition may be magnified by a host of other cues. Expressions are not static. One student of mine even did some research on the recognition of emotional expressions in robot face and found higher levels of recognition when subjects could see the expression forming. There are also contributions from eye-blinks, trembling, the slope of a shoulder, head turns, and directions of gaze. Happiness and anger are often directed at their targets, but in sadness we gaze downward and to the side, and sad people cry. Tone of voice also contributes to recognition. We readily recognize the vocal tones of anger, sadness, happiness, fear, and tenderness even in foreign languages.



In periods of calm, things can still be happening, but they are not augmented by affective intensity. Distress is produced by constant, higher than optimal stimulation, whether from cold, hunger, loneliness. The corers of the mouth are pulled down, the eyebrows arched upward, and we may come to cry with tears and rhythmic sobbing. Think of the face of a child just beginning to cry, and how the mimesis of our own faces can make us empathize. The expression itself is a constant density experience that can produce its own intensity-increasing feedback. Any constant and unpleasant stimulus can produce the constant and unpleasant affect of distress. Moreover, distress affects those around us, and like a room full of newborns, there is a contagion to crying. The mood associated with distress is grief, produced by long periods of distress from the expression of personal loss, whether that loss is in death, in the breakup of a relationship, in the loss of expected opportunities, and even at the end of otherwise positive experiences now concluded. Distress and anguish are equivalent to mourning and melancholy.


What is most interesting is that the experience of any affect is independent of its source and can accumulate. Emotions don’t come labeled with their source. The arousal you felt at a horror movie, or on a roller coaster might have contributed to the higher arousal you feel in the back seat of your car with your paramour, but we tend to attribute feelings to the most salient and immediate source. Sobbing does not tell us whether it is from hunger or loneliness. All of us can handle a certain number of minor annoyances, but when the ache or the pain gets large enough, we feel like crying. How much more readily and rapidly is this likely to occur when the uncertainties and anxieties, the constructions and limitations imposed by an adaptive response to COVID’s dangers, add to the overall accumulation of life’s normal slings and arrows. We are “stressed out” when we experience enough distress, maybe spiced by the arousal produced in fear. We feel the corners of our mouth down and the wrinkling and trembling of the upper lip, the “stiff upper lip” we employ to avoid crying in public. Nevertheless, tearing is itself independent of facial displays of distress, so we can experience the tears of joy at weddings and other happy events. According to Donald Nathanson, in the best book on emotion I ever read, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, love itself is an accumulation of memories beginning in childhood of a cycle of need and fulfillment, a drama that is never static and needs to be re-enacted in even the most stable and long-term of loves, however confident we become in the outcomes: loneliness and coming together (“at last I’ve found you”), love lost and redeemed (“you came back to me”), social failures and healing successes (“we’re good”). Sadness, even and maybe especially if unresolved, is the emotion we experience that mark as important the aspects of our lives, the endings, the losses, the missed opportunities, which generated the sadness in the first place.


It is important to distinguish between sadness, even extreme sadness and its clinical manifestation in depression. Melancholy and mourning are not, of course, dissimilar. In mourning a death we can be sad for weeks or even months, and such sadness, especially when severely prolonged and intense, may be diagnosed as depression. So, too may severe losses, such as losing a job or career which has been important to one’s identity, or the breakup of a relationship, can also produce such prolongation. So, sadness and depression may have many features in common, but one of the more important hypotheses about depression is the reward insensitivity hypothesis, that the clinical manifestation is not so much in sadness as in a lack of pleasure. Depressed people have the same responses to sad faces, but show less amusement in viewing comedy, and less of a response to pleasant pictures. They recall fewer pleasant words, but no fewer of the unpleasant ones. This is also shown neurologically as a less active “reward” circuit, with decreases in dopamine, not because the anticipation of a reward is different (mediated by the nucleus accumbens) but because there is perception of greater risk (mediated by the anterior cingulate gyrus). You may want an anticipated consummation as much but experience the likelihood of obtaining it being lower. By the way, the production of dopamine in this circuit tails off rather rapidly during consummation, so it may be more accurately be called the “longing circuit” than th “reward circuit,” reward being accompanied by the chemistry of endorphins and oxytocin.

What is not well understood is that the diagnostic criteria for depression can include depressed mood and/or the lack of pleasure most of the days of the week, weight gain or loss, sleeping too much or too little, and psychomotor retardation or deregulation. So, while individual cases may have more complicated combinations of symptoms, two different types of depression are recognized by the Diagnostic Manual. Type A (or “Atypical Depression”) includes deficiencies in dopamine and norepinephrine, “reward insensitivity,” increases appetite and weight gain, sleeping too much, and psychomotor retardation, and a sense of personal failure accompanied by fatigue and pessimism. Type B (called “Typical or Melancholic Depression”), is the one more likely to include deficiencies in serotonin, intense feelings of sadness, decreased appetite and weight loss, insomnia, and psychomotor agitation. While the latter is the one better treated by the SSRIs, serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the former may be better treated with Bupropion, which increases levels of both dopamine and norepinephrine. Now, there can be overlaps, and both may develop pessimistic explanatory styles which can be brought on by “learned helplessness.” Like sadness, mild levels of depression may produce more realistic a evaluations than does a happy optimism, but this may mainly be due to negativity producing greater accuracy with difficult questions. Depressed patients ask more questions and collect more information before a decision, before narrowing down the options, but are no more satisfied with their outcomes, suggesting that the additional information did not improve the quality of the decision. Depressed patients may be more indecisive, but this does not entail greater rationality. Maximizing decisional styles (as opposed to “satisficing”) also produce more post-decisional dissonance.


What this all suggests is that there may be two different sorts of precursors to depression, one a reward insensitivity, a slowing fatigue and pessimism, experienced as personal failure, the other a more agitated condition, with more crying and feelings of sadness, as in asocial loss. While mere sadness may help slow and help with perspective more than the levels of arousal in fear and anger, the accumulations and magnifications of distress which are accompanying 18 months under pandemic conditions, can clearly lead to much worse. And here, sadly, we may find quite different patterns that may be the products of physiological differences (probably less genetic than epigenetic, the product of developmental differences produced by family, circumstances, and culture). It is troubling that there really is evidence for a link between anxiety proneness and political beliefs. Douglas Oxley and his colleagues published a study in Science in 2008, which identified two groups of people with opposite political views. One group favored the death penalty, efforts to block immigration, and availability of guns; they were also willing to sacrifice personal liberties (like privacy) to fight terrorists. The second group showed the opposite views. The first group showed greater startle response to loud noise, and slower habituation. People responding more strongly to fear stimuli may see the world as a more dangerous place. People conditioned from a young age in environments that are more dangerous, or that include more fear and threat, tend to have political views supporting a strong military, gun ownership, and strong law-enforcement. In general, the appraisal of hostile intent magnifies anger, and discomfort, aggressiveness. Under a world-wide pandemic, the world really is a more dangerous place. One hopes we will soon return to a “new normal” and that the young, our children, exposed to the more dangerous world of a pandemic, and magnified by the political strife and animosity of people who are more reactive to danger in the first place, may be brought gently to the level of care in which their familial, social, and institutional settings are less conducive to developing the very physiologies that may exacerbate hostility and discomfort. Learning more ourselves and educating our children to what science tells us about our emotional lives, is one of the paths which may help us both better understand, and better alleviate even our own fear, hostility, distress, and anguish. I think that understanding and respecting our endemic sadness will help.

I found it extremely valuable, even healing, and certainly a moment to “teach our children well,” as Crosby, Stills, and Nash once put it, in a favored song which often runs through my head, to watch and talk with my young son about a Pixar movie called “Inside Out.” It is an interesting, if over-simplified account of our interior life, our memories, our sense of ourselves, and our emotional lives. It tells the story of her emotions, with cartoon characters playing the basic emotions, in the interior life of a young girl, adapting to her new life as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and she copes with all that she misses, and all that is new and difficult. My son and I watched the movie and then toured the “memory temple” of my bedroom, once a far less tidy bedroom in which my ex-wife no longer sleeps. I have panels of pictures for friends, for family, for places I have been and, for a while, of his mother in happier days. We have the most amicable of divorces, happily sharing custody and even regular “family events,” so our son (and we) can still retain a sense of the family we still are, however binuclear. Our son, of course, spends equal time with each of us, and has become confident enough in this new arrangement, and flexibility that living nearby provides, that the cycles of desperate missing of one when with the other, has given way to the confident expectations of multiple households in which he knows he is loved, both by who is there, and who is not. But aside from our “family events” and the occasional tete-a-tetes over a lunch or a kitchen table, and the contemporary patterns of electronic communication, I don’t get to spend much time with the woman who may have given me the best decade of my life. She also healed a broken man with her love and turned my heart from that of a sparrow to that of a lion. I feel immense gratitude for, and the grace of what we shared.


I cherish the image of a male lion with his cub sitting on his paws, and Lion King is one of my son’s and my favorite movies, particularly in Simba’s return to Pride Rock and taking up his father’s mantle, as he finally remembers who he is, Mufasa’s son, and in the father who still lives within him. My son knows I miss his mother, and has a five-year old’s grasp, explaining to anyone, sometimes by way of introduction (he’s outgoing), “My mommy and daddy are ‘vorced. They still love each other, but mommy wants to have more babies and daddy is too old.” An oversimplification to be sure, as there is much more to the future of which my ex-wife dreamed, that I could, or would, never give her, but not bad for a five-year old. But after watching “Inside Out” which makes clear the importance of each of the basic emotions in the ecology of our interior lives, I could explain why my sadness over missing his mother wasn’t a bad thing. We talked about why the sadness over loss, or of missing somebody is so important. Why the personification of Sadness played such an important, maybe central role, in Inside Out’s story of Riley, a young girl struggling through her parent’s uprooting her from the Minnesota world of friends and activities which she so desperately missed. Why sadness, a calmer emotion than fear or anger, might have helped Riley when she was going to sleep, or when the agitation of anxiety or panic might otherwise overcome her. Why Sadness sitting next to Bing-Bong, a clownish character representing childish silliness, might make him feel better, and why his willing sacrifice was so important to Riley’s development. One of Riley’s favorite memories was also a favorite of Sadness, when Riley had missed a shot for her hockey team, and they lost the championship game. Sadness, to be sure, more than halved by being shared, as her parents and her team came to her under an old tree and she felt the love and acceptance of everyone, far more important than any victory, and all that more powerful after a loss. Finally, it is sadness over missing those that she loved, which got Riley to abort her angry attempt to run away and brought her back to the family she loved and to coping with the new life she could build, including hockey and new friendships, in the new home her parents were trying to build.

I also got to explain to my son, why I thought the Blues was such an important musical genre, and why “singing the Blues” is so important, especially in a world, and in lives, where relationships end, and where heartbreak and loss can be so endemic. And why it can be so much fun to sing it all out. So we went back downstairs to my new couch, after my ex-wife moved the old one to her new place, the couch on which she spent weeks recovering from her emergency C-section and our son’s premature birth, until she recovered enough strength and musculature to ascend the stairs. I played our son one of my favorite Blues artists, Chicago’s Magic Sam, in a recording of “Looking Good” which he also played again as an encore, live at the Ann Arbor Blues/Jazz Festival, which I attended with friends, the year after Woodstock, at age 16. Like his mother and I, Byron loves to dance, and he just went nuts.


That the COVID Blues have contributed to our sadness has a silver lining. We are all that much more aware of what is important to us, and what really doesn’t matter, that we can even happily do without. We think about things more carefully when we are sad, and we treat people with more consideration. The more I am in touch with my own pain, the nicer of a person I tend to become. After watching a sad movie, research subjects are more sophisticated in their principled explanations of a moral dilemma. Happy people are more impulsive, more likely to rely on first impressions and stereotypes. People in good moods can be incredibly inconsiderate. In sadness we pay more attention because we have greater uncertainty. When we are happy, we are relaxed, feel certain, and are more confident; we are also likely to make quick decisions based on weak evidence.


There is a greater intensity to negative emotions in general, which is why tragedy is so much more memorable, and makes for much more moving drama than does comedy. Put them together and you have tragicomedy. Positive emotions don’t tend to have the same intensity, but a positive outcome is always strengthened when it follows the catharsis of a negative one (and inherits the intensity, the arousal that doesn’t come marked with its source), or better yet, resolves it. Sadness is in between. It focuses us, but doesn’t inhibit our capacity to deliberate, to consider different possibilities. Heart rates are higher during sadness than the positive emotions, but lower than the cognitively debilitating arousal of fear or anger.


The value of positive emotions is not that they produce much arousal, but that they don’t. They are what brings us back faster from negative feelings. They also bring us to the place where we can “chill,” where we can have more perspective, where we have the time to be playful, to consider creative solutions. We cannot resolve problems very well when fear or anger have raised our arousal to the point that our attentional focus narrows to what is directly in front of us, or even to the vanishing point of, say, the black hole of freezing up before an exam, or of the frozen hypoarousal of the traumatized when faced with something so overwhelming that it is futile. Fear and anger are the high intensity, high-arousal emotions that, while the arousal can fuel fleeing or fighting, tends to substantially narrow our attention, and our ability to generate creative solutions to threats our bodies are telling us need to be faced immediately. Why married couples headed for divorce have the same fights repeatedly is that their reciprocating arousal makes it difficult to do anything else. Good advice for fights in relationships? Stop and chill anytime your heart rate goes more than ten beats per minute above normal, or you are going to “go there” again. One clinical rule of thumb is that anger almost always hides a fear, and if you can identify and deal with that fear, the anger will subside. One of the problems with this, as we all know, is that males tend to arouse faster than females, which means they also more quickly reach a point where it becomes unbearable, and their shutting down, walking out, slamming the door or bursting into violence is the woman’s worst moment. So take a break before this happens and say “Dude, you need to chill out.” Men have a harder time de-escalating, as all of us do when our fear and anger have fed on each other and our arousal is beyond the point of considered action. We tend to do what we have done the most frequently. Or what we have been drilled and trained to do. Why many of the muskets found on Civil War battlefields were loaded with multiple minie balls. What you have drilled the most is what you will do when your arousal is at its highest. A Minuteman was one who could reload his musket in less than a minute.