Nearly three years after COVID-19 swept the world, we’re still left navigating a path to the next normal.
When I think about the future,” Kyana Moghadam, 36, says over plates of lukewarm rigatoni at an overpriced Williamsburg café. “I go blank. There’s just nothing there. It’s a sense of horizonlessness.” She seemed almost surprised by the word.
But I knew exactly what she meant.
A Bay Area-based multimedia journalist and audio producer, Moghadam is a friend I consider successful by any metric. An activist, storyteller, and trained oral historian, she’s social, healthy, smart, stunning, and well-traveled. The sort of woman that seems, at least on social media, to have a thriving life, but there she was, describing herself as just sort of existing.
While she’d never fantasized about the white picket fence life, by her early 30s, she’d hit many of its traditional milestones: longtime boyfriend, close-knit community. She’d even managed to buy a house. But she felt like she was going through the motions. Then, just before the 2020 lockdown, her relationship ended, and she lost her father to suicide.
The domestic underpinnings of her life, however ambivalent she’d been about them, were gone. Originally from Iran, her father had died in the U.S. across the country from where she lived, but she couldn’t gather his remains until last year, or travel to Iran to return them to family. Her aloneness was exacerbated by a West Coast community made up of mostly nuclear families. “One person invited me into their pod,” she says. “And, you know, I sort of thought I’d have some offers.” She laughs. “But all my socials shut off. It was people with their partners and their kids, and their doors just shut. I didn’t even want a partner, but it felt like this is what you need to get through a time like this.”
Now, nearly three years into the pandemic, she’s hit with the sense that not only is her life as she knew it gone, but life as we knew it. “It feels like something that will never exist again in this world,” she says, not only of the domestic stability she’d taken for granted, but stability in any form. “In part, it’s the environment we’re in: climate change, the pandemic. Just how trashed so much stuff is. Because the pandemic took a couple years from us, it’s interesting to feel that way in your mid-30s. It’s too uncertain.”
I talked to others about horizonlessness. Almost everyone who felt it had experienced some personal loss or trauma that either dovetailed with or was exacerbated by the pandemic, and that the litany of concurrent or subsequent events—the ongoing existential threats of climate change, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, mass shootings, racist police killings, natural disasters abroad, and more—had caused them to feel disillusioned and destabilized in a lasting way. To arrive at a sort of nothing place.
Might that nothingness be a collective shield, I wondered, a defense against the overwhelming unknown of what next?
“Absolutely,” says Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, a physician at Harvard Medical School and an expert on stress and resilience. “Many of us were prepared for that short pandemic sprint. But the reason so many are feeling doom and gloom is because we didn’t prepare for the marathon,” she continued. “We went from an acute condition to a chronic one. That takes a cognitive leap that we were not trained to make.” The human brain, Nerurkar explains, is surprisingly resilient when it comes to short bursts of stress. But it needs to recover in between—not just emotionally, but biologically.
While many of us were prepared for the stress of the pandemic, burnout happens when stressful situations mount with little time for our brains to recover.
Many areas of the brain are involved in thinking about the future, but when feeling stressed, we’re governed by the amygdala. “When the amygdala is stuck ‘on,’ that’s when burnout happens. The amygdala is all about survival. About the here and now. It’s our primal instinct,” adds Nerurkar. “Our recovery periods are being cut short because of one crisis after the other.” There’s no energy to imagine the future when we can’t even process the present.
or Sara Ali, 27, a tech recruiter living in Honolulu, the onslaught of the last few years recalled the stress of living through 9/11 as a Muslim girl. Ali, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, was six years old when she came downstairs to see the towers collapse on TV. Her dad had Ali and her brother change into Old Navy T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag while he rushed out to buy more. Living in the States on visitor visas, the family had to return to Pakistan annually. After 9/11, they were constantly held and badgered by TSA and had their luggage searched, which gave Ali extreme nausea around travel. “I developed so much anxiety and fear for my brother and dad,” she says. “I was asked questions and couldn’t comprehend what was happening.”
“I had no hope for the future as a child. I didn’t want to be alive,” she says. Like many late millennials, Ali found refuge online and joy in memes and dark humor. “In my 20s, I’ve been blessed with some of the most incredible experiences of my life: getting married, traveling the world, going to every music festival I could’ve ever dreamed of—everything. But that has always been coupled with this sinking feeling in my gut of nausea or fear or guilt. That’s something that I’m working on eradicating.” In March 2020, she was 25 and life seemed to be on the upswing. She was finally making enough money to travel and go visit her family back in Pakistan. She was, for what felt like the first time, excited about the future.