Life, Interrupted— Emotions in the 2nd and 3rd week of coronavirus in the USA


Post 1: How People Feel about the Virus, Loss of Lifestyle, and Facing the Scale of the Problem

  • Study Background
  • How People Felt about the Virus
  • Feelings About Loss of Lifestyle
  • Emotions When Facing the Scale of the Problem

I vacillate between, ‘its gonna be OK,’ and ‘I gotta get my go-bag ready and get a mini-glock.’”

I am an introvert, so I’m OK to be at home, but as soon as they say ‘you cant go out,’ you are like, NO I WANT TO GO TO A F*CKING BAR!’”

“Like a ticking bomb. It could be horrible and explode and change life as we know it. Or it could be when you take it apart and nothing happens, it could be diffused if the right people can do what they need to do”

“Like cars had crashed in the snow and the people are bystanders. Because this feels similar, just standing around at a car crash and wanting to help each other, but not having the resources, necessarily.”

“My kid turns one in May, and her birthday will be virtual. We are still decorating, a Baby Shark themed birthday. It is tough because it feels like a loss. Losing that first birthday, I hate that, it sucks”

“I got a verbal offer two weeks ago tomorrow. And this past Monday it was pulled. I am a business person I knew it, I am not naive. I knew that was what was going to happen, but when the email came on Monday it still dropped me to my knees.”

“All I have ever wanted is to be at home with time to work on projects and now I am not doing any of that. I have all this blue sky opportunity that I am not doing anything with. Which is how I feel, zero inspiration at all.”

“The effect the cumulative stress has on your body. The stress caused by this enormous uncertainty makes you tired. I have found myself exhausted in a way disproportionate with how much I am moving. I am tired. We are all tired.”

“Oh god, I feel like I am underwater. I dont know what time it is. At first it was going slowly and now I am like, what time is it? 4:30, I am off at 3:30 what am I doing? I lose track of time. I keep zoning out and thinking about stuff— I am in my head.”

Study Background: Why This Study was Incepted

According to a recent study released by Kaiser Permanente, 45% of people have had ‘negative mental impacts’ from the coronavirus. That is extraordinarily nebulous, just like the recent New York Times article titled “Americans Are Feeling Mad and Sad, Study Finds”— not very helpful in diagnosing the nuance behind the complex subject of emotions. Perhaps more surprising about the Kaiser study: only 45%?! That seems fundamentally unserious when we are addressing the biggest disruption to human life since World War Two, with a rising death toll in the tens of thousands.

As a qualitative researcher, early on in the crisis, I suspected that large surveys would be undertaken to measure the breadth of people’s reactions during this unprecedented time, and simultaneously assumed these studies would be as emotionally deep-as-a- puddle. Thus, I developed the idea for my own qualitative study, which I incepted to diagnose the emotional state of individuals in a more nuanced manner. Then, I would attempt to draw threads between the many different people, stories, and circumstances that I encountered, to try to describe a collective zeitgeist of this time period about 2-3 weeks into most state lockdowns (*though timing did vary from state to state).

It is important to note, the study was undertaken via Zoom conference the week of March 23rd and 30th, generally about 2-3 weeks into most statewide lockdowns. Meaning, it took place at a nexus between the initial shock of sudden change as stay-at-home-orders were being issued, and the ultimate settling-in for a long-term stay at home: a few weeks into confinement and social distancing, as the longer-term aspect of the situation was becoming apparent. Feelings may have evolved since then, though notably, I plan to send follow-up questions to participants in week six.

Also extremely important to note, this was a ‘friends and family’ volunteer sample— meaning, I knew each of the participants, all former acquaintances, colleagues, friends, or distant family members (no immediate family). These 40 individuals included both essential and non-essential workers, those employed and unemployed, married, co-habitating, and single, ranged in age from about 25 to around 60, and stretched across the USA, from rural Missouri to suburban Illinois to population-dense cities like New York City.

Some bias was notable in my sample: being a former communications professional, I have an inordinate amount of communications professionals in my network, and thus, a professional bend to most of my connections, a self-admittedly privileged set; my volunteer sample was also largely white. I also noted a skew toward liberal politics and thinking, as I am a lifelong Democrat— I spoke to a Libertarian and moderate Democrats as well as progressive Democrats, but did not speak to any Republicans. I did speak to folks across 14 states with two out-of-country participants (Washington, California, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, Michigan, New York, Arizona, Tennessee, and Buenos Aires, Argentina as well as Ontario, CA).

This study is not meant to be representative of everyone’s experience— it’s simply a snapshot of the threads that united my small, volunteer sample of 40 known subjects as they navigated this crisis. The discussion guide consisted almost entirely of open-ended questions.

How People Felt About The Virus

People described the virus itself like something out of a horror film or disaster film, something terrible that encompassed many elements of our fears, a lurking, unpredictable, terrorizer that put people into a threat state. Unlike the temporary suspense of a horror or disaster movie, this feeling lingered over weeks: sustained dread.

The virus, while not physically impacting the immediate lives of most I spoke to, seemed to be an unseen force that crushed inward nonetheless, and became a constant background stressor, applying pressure that people were both conscious and unconscious of, which could be draining over time.

While people’s feelings about their personal situation were varied, their feelings about the virus itself were fairly consistent; a sustained threat (though notably, the virus was perceived as more of a threat to the immediate safety of the vulnerable or aged than the largely healthy adults I spoke to). That said, the feeling of danger loomed nonetheless, described as the following: an Unseen Threat, an Unpredictable Threat, and an Omnipresent Threat.

Unseen Threat: a silent, creeping, ever-lurking danger

The impact of a threat that cannot be seen was magnified— this virus was invisible in a way that made it feel more threatening, like a silent and unseen stalker lurking in the shadows. This provided the unwelcome suspense of a horror film or disaster film— something silent, creeping, diabolical, and able to strike at the vulnerable.

People used these analogies to describe the threat:

      • “The Invisible Man— it is there, you cant see it, its dangerous. I go to the grocery store and I find myself— a funny feeling— looking around as if, if I turn around quickly enough, I will notice it. And its a virus. And it is stupid, but it is as if I will catch it somehow. Like it will sneak up on you”
      • “A ghost— follows you around, always there. Working, lurking at every corner.”
      • “It feels like an invisible fog, because it is everywhere and feels heavy but you can’t see it. You are trying to avoid it and move through it and not touch it or get it and wash everything and you don’t know where it might be. But also it is present”
      • “Like a ninja— they are sneaky. Ninjas in the popular mind are supposed to be sneaky warriors and do all of this damage and they leave. To the nation, it was this idea that they could believe it is not there because they had never seen it and it was so far away it never felt real. And until it started doing damage. The smoke bomb and the lights go out and you never see them. They never ‘exist’ until you can see the impact”

Unpredictable Threat: out-of-control disaster with no predictable patterns

The other main way that people described the threat of the virus was as a large-scale disaster, raging out-of-control, changing often with no predictable pattern to the devastation— these analogies tended toward natural disasters like wildfires or floods, or a draining person who sucked up energy with little rhyme or reason 

      • “A wildfire— spreading uncontrollably, it has no conscious choice. A wildfire just happens, they go where there are vulnerabilities and this is going where it goes.”
      • “Like lava, it is insidious and there is really nothing you can do to stop it or the path it is taking, but it will only go so far and once it has reached that it will cool down. But it is always there.”
      • “Forest fire— even though you can see a fire, it makes me think of the ones in Australia they could not stop. It was happening all around them and they were doing what they can but it was raging out of control.”
      • “A runaway train— slow-moving train that once it starts slow moving and builds up and goes faster it is hard to stop that train, a lot of people could get hurt or die.”
      • “Wildfire: it’s crazy, nobody knows what is is going to do, we have to stop it. Deadly.”
      • “Waiting in line at the DMV— you do not even know the order of the numbers being called, you do not know if it is 349 or 101, you have a number but they could ask you for any document and you have no idea. The person behind the counter is p*ssed you are there and it is always understaffed and the people waiting around you have a similar mindset but are equally as upset and frantic.”
      • “Living with an alcoholic— so unpredictable, and it is affecting you in ways you cant even see, even if you dont have it.”
      • “An insensitive alcoholic– it does not care, it is going to do what it is going to do, no matter what”

Omnipresent Threat: pervasive presence smothering the world with few ‘safe’ spaces

The pervasiveness of the virus in thought and conversation made it weighty, people felt a little crushed by the idea of the virus constantly surrounding them, especially as it had snuffed out all else around it— becoming an unwelcome focus point, upsetting any and all life-plans.

      • “Like a blanket— when I worked at PetSmart, you were allowed to bring your dog with you to shop. And if two dogs did not get along there were blankets in the aisle and you could throw them on the two dogs. It would confuse them and make them stop.”
      • “A blanket covering the earth— it is something that has touched everywhere and everybody and when you put a blanket on somebody, you tell them to calm down and stay where you are— a blanket over the earth almost pausing everything.”
      • “Leech, it has come along and attached itself and is sucking the life out of everything. From our lifestyles to people’s actual lives. It is so small and taking up a lot of energy.”
      • “I would be interested to have a conversation where we dont talk about coronavirus and didnt mention it once.”
      • “Being completely unable to turn off that topic. Multiple conversations and virtual chats and part of it is part of being, how are you doing right now? Then we get stuck in a spiral of not talking about anything else —being collectively stuck on a topic”
      • “Like having a sick relative— always in the back of your mind, weighing on you. Or being unemployed.”

Feelings About Loss of Lifestyle (both as it Was, and Would Be in the Future)

Grief For Plans Made and Broken Dominated the First Few Weeks, Especially Milestones

While most admitted it was not world-ending for their best-laid plans to be cancelled, the milestones were the hardest to miss. Significant events had to be put by the wayside, from family funerals to first birthday parties to first-ever trips to Disney World, to first internships away from home, these were events that, by and large, could not be recaptured later. Thus, the sense of loss felt permanent.

      • “I feel sad —one of the things in our family, Italian families, 1st birthdays are HUGE. I could show you the pictures from my first birthday and I have been hearing stories about that first birthday party my whole life.”
      • “OH my god, I don’t know if I can handle it. This would have been prime Lakers playoffs, the Dodgers starting, UCLA, the Masters, all gone. Dreaming. It is hard to dream right now, you want to go on an adventure and have things to look forward to and aspire to, and it is shut down. They are things stolen”
      • “Separated from his friends, plans had been to get a job and internship for the summer. He is not in a great place, dealing with today. Imagine being a college kid, and living out of a small suitcase for three months. With your parents. It is not ideal. The freedom interrupted”
      • “We were doing Disney at the beginning of June. Disney has said they will re-open by then, but our Disney planner is that our cast members say they will not go until June. We have not told them, added onto that, my eldest is on the spectrum, so we have to…. if I told him now, he would perseverate on it until June.”
      • “My cousin’s funeral was two weeks ago, and it was THE weekend, the day the [no gatherings of] 250-or-fewer stipulation came out. And a lot of people couldn’t come. Partially because they did not want to travel, and my dad did not come because of his symptoms. My 89-year-old aunt was there and I was trying to talk to her and being very aware how close I was to her. I did not want to touch or hug people and also everyone was crying, so I wanted to comfort them, it was a funeral”

Life Trajectories Were Changed Permanently for Several Participants

Within the 40 people spoken to, job offers were rescinded, moves to new cities were postponed, school decisions were deferred, contracts not renewed, and jobs lost— for some participants, even if confinement at home were to be lifted, their life plans were permanently and forever changed by the impact of the virus on all institutions 

      • “This all hit at a very interesting time. I was getting ready to go back to work and I had interviewed at a job on the Wednesday before this all shut down, and was expecting to be hired by Friday and obviously that has not happened. I have been going through a lot of feelings. First it was, ‘am I ready to go back? I have a toddler.’ And then I was ready to go back and I was like, ‘tight, I can do this,’ and here we are— this happened.”
      • “I am not gonna put my kids in a situation. I dont want to put a health at risk. She is staying home [instead of going to school]. Gotta make the decision now, gotta pay the money to the school.”
      • “I was supposed to move across the country in two weeks. What a thing to happen. My house is packed up and then I stopped. I don’t even know when I am leaving. I technically have a plane ticket for April”
      • “I knew it would take awhile [to find a job]. I now, no longer have any idea when that will happen and that is terrifying. Terrifying.”
      • “I will definitely be looking at jobs abroad, which is weird, because I spent so much time into talking myself to make the decision I want to stay [in the States]. Am I going to settle?And something like this happens. Potentially huge”

Feelings About the Epic Scale of the Problem

1.  Sheer Vastness of the Problem Leads to Emotional Overload, Exhaustion, Inadequacy

Emotional Overload Tended to Deplete Energy

Because thoughts and (especially) feelings about the virus were so omni-present, stress and anxiety seemed to hang on people, weighing them down— this overwhelming spate of feelings depleted and arrested their energy, making them feel fatigued or listless, as their safety seemed tenuous

      • “Living in a bunker— it reminds me of a WW2 bunker situation. Hunkered down, listening to the radio. You might be fine, but someone else is not somewhere else. You know somewhere else it is not, even though you are physically fine”
      • “I have been thinking and wondering: hey, is Australia still on fire? Last month, that was the end of the world. Is that even still happening? Is this life now? One major social disaster after another after another?”
      • “Normally, I have positivity and endless optimism and I am super resilient, and I haven’t been able to cultivate that resilience. Everyone is talking about sticking it out and pivoting, but I am not there. I feel broken, feel like my whole life has been broken— a danger metaphor, feels like there is so much danger. I keep saying it is like a chandelier dropping, and people are figuring out a new chandelier. I have cuts, am trying to sweep it up. I dont want to build a new chandelier.”
      • “Like living in a war zone— duck and cover, take cover”
      • “Like a game of the floor is lava— when you are a kid, the safe spot is the couch and you have to be careful about where you step and go. Every time you leave your house which is your safe spot, I have to be careful, I dont want to touch that doorknob because it might kill me”

Their energy was so sapped that working, home upkeep, taking up laid-aside hobbies, and learning new things seemed more daunting than appealing. This resulted in people feeling they were not really using their free time to achieve what they had hoped to be able to, given enough downtime— making them feel a little guilty for using their time insufficiently, in addition to their already overwhelming flood of emotions. Comparisons to others in social media added volume to this feeling…

      • “I can’t say I am being super productive. I guess I have just been scattered, like I cant focus. There is a lot happening. A lot happening. I am not feeling things are unsafe for me, but feel like I am trying to keep my eye on too many balls. Like I should be doing certain things and should be using the time better but I cant focus.”
      • “I cant watch another person doing a plank challenge. Making me feel like, ‘I am sorry I am sitting here watching the news and not planking at the same time.’ Can I just sit for a minute? Does everything need to be a competition of how useful I am being during this time? I feel very there are times I feel very inadequate because I am not being active enough at home, and I dont like that. It is being turned into this competition. This competition of the schedule for when kids will do things: when did you get a teaching degree? I believe it is coming from peoples stress. Cant control what is happening out there so need to control my environment. And I am like, ‘Am I supposed to be doing that too?’”
      • “All these things I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to spend a day doing this free online content and learning?’— I don’t have the attention span for it right now, being pulled in these directions. Opera– they did a live-stream and I thought ‘That is neat,’ but when it came time to watch I was like ‘NOPE.’ It is fun for interesting to learn about a new thing mostly because you will have a follow-up conversation with someone about it. ‘Oh, hey, this is interesting,’ but now we are all doing radically different things, with no conversation partner. For me to sit in my apartment and watch that would just be to stare at a glowing screen for longer. I am just watching Glowing Screen. So NO, I am not interested in anything now’”
      • “I wish I was more motivated to make things tidy and do home improvements or make stuff around the house. I notice the molding on the floor is very dusty but I don’t want to do that. I can’t do the YouTube yoga— I haven’t done any of that shit. I am working so much. My job has made me be in crisis mode for so long I am emotionally weary. So it’s just every task— I can do the bare minimum for myself.”
      • “I feel stupid. Like I have been trying to read, I cant. Too hard.”
      • “Now that I am home all the time, I find myself having a lot of trouble focusing. I have one more class to finish and I have not been productive at work. Work feels trivial right now, so it can feel better to message someone on Instagram if it made them happy it is better to respond. So I am constantly distracted. I also think that this is heavy. And it is hard to sit with it. and all we have to do is sit now”
      • “It is like those terrible things in the gym, the balance ball, in the gym where you are trying to balance, because you know what you want to be doing, but it is just not happening”
      • “I get a little down on myself for drinking and smoking and lack of exercise. I feel like I should be getting in apocalypse-style shape but I think, ‘Maybe tomorrow.’”
      • “Wish I was doing more creating— writing. I have been looking for time to write my book. Right! I did something today that has been on my to-do list forever and I was so impressed with myself. My brain is not up to par. It is only capable of functioning in spurts. I can do 15-minutes or 20 and that is a long time.”

2.   People Felt Inadequate to Do More to Help in the Face of Massive Crisis

While most people inherently understood that staying home and sheltering was in-fact, helpful to slowing the spread of the virus, many expressed feeling helpless as an individual or family unit to meaningfully aide in a problem of such magnitude. Some felt they should be doing more, to either directly aide either healthcare workers or individuals who needed economic support, or to bring change to the current systems of the country in a way that could protect individuals in the future, via political action or activism (note: this had a Democratic lean in my non-random sample)

      • “I know I have been feeling daunted by the amount of things that need to be supported and figured out. How far-reaching it goes and this very deep exhaustion when I think about that. And I dont know if that is new, that is the idea of recognizing— I am a person who wants to support other people and engage in changing broken and f*cked up systems and do I have any energy to do that, or am I just bullshitting?”
      • “Maybe powerless— not much I can do. I have no stockpiles of ventilators or can donate to science, not much I can offer in this situation. Now it feels like the smartest people are not totally sure what to do— the only way to stop something is to do nothing. Its draconian”
      • “I feel unsure— on many levels, emotional, physical, intellectual. I feel clunky, with communication, it is unsure about when to talk and when to leave them alone. Especially when do you talk to the friend who has no job and offer to help with bills.”
      • “Who you choose to be in a crisis is sometimes enlightening to who you think you are. Right or wrong, I am not leaving the house to go deliver eggs to people or something. I don’t know. Maybe I am not a hero, but I am doing what I think I can do — and what I feel comfortable with.”
      • “I feel a little helpless– all of these people this having a massive impact on. What happens when this hits refugee camps and African countries? It will be catastrophic. BEYOND giving people money, what can I do to help? Nothing.”

Thanks so much for reading Post 1 of “Life, Interrupted”— in Post 2, I’ll cover the emotional churn people have been feeling, both in their internal experience and about their work experience— click here to read it.

A heartfelt thanks to the people who generously gave their time for this study, expressing difficult emotions about sensitive subjects, to further understanding of what people are experiencing at this unprecedented time.

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