Why Do I Feel So Detached From 2021?

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
At the start of 2021 the US historian Susan Crane published a book called Nothing Happened. It was her attempt, in part, to understand why we perceive certain periods as uneventful. "Nothing," she observed, is a word often used to describe "long stretches of time in which noteworthy events were scarce… and then something happened that was worth noticing."
Crane’s book came out on 19th January. Even then it was clear that historians wouldn’t remember 2021 as a year in which nothing happened. Thirteen days earlier, a mob of Trump supporters had stormed the US Capitol; in the UK, a record COVID-19 death toll had been set three times over since New Year’s Day. Over the last 12 months we’ve been buffeted by major events both good and bad – from the demands for action to prevent male violence against women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder to the COVID vaccine rollout and the chaotic withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
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Zoom into your personal life and it’s likely that 2021 wasn’t a year in which nothing happened, either. While some clinically vulnerable people have continued to shield, millions of others have returned to something vaguely approximating 'real life'. We’ve gathered inside our favourite restaurants, visited clubs and festivals, even travelled abroad in search of sun. This year I’ve experienced things that would have seemed almost psychedelically intense from the vantage point of 2020: dancing until 6am in a cobbled square in Sicily; starting to date again after the biggest breakup of my life; quitting my stable job to go freelance. I’ve done things this year. I’ve felt things.

Identify moments when you haven't felt detached, then factor more of them into your life – whether it's going for a run or playing with a pet. There will be things that light you up.

Lara Waycot
Yet as the new year approaches, I can’t shake the sense that not much has happened to me at all in 2021. I can summon almost no emotion when I look back at this year: no pride, no regrets, no early-onset nostalgia. If I scroll through my Instagram I can see evidence of joy in the last 12 months but the images and captions seem unreal and distant, like snapshots from a stranger’s life. Last December the prospect of being in isolation over Christmas made me cry; this year, as the threat of the Omicron variant became apparent, the flat lake of my mood hardly rippled. As 2021 comes to an end, I’m drawing a profound emotional blank.
I’m not the only one feeling eerily detached from this year. Jo Norton, 31, who runs an accessories business in West Sussex, tells me it has felt like a "screensaver year" in which she’s simply kept trudging along, not fully living.
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Ellie Austin-Williams, a 29-year-old financial coach from London, says she’s "totally confused about what I’ve done all year. I’m not sure I’ll remember anything, other than my wedding, which now feels weirdly surreal."
When lockdown restrictions were lifted in England in July, Ellie’s life went "on full speed" until Omicron arrived in the UK. "But there’s always been an underlying sense of uncertainty so I’ve never fully relaxed," she says. "It’s been a bit of a 'nothing' year."

Music and physical movement can help ground you in reality. They make the world around you more impressive than what's going on inside you.

Emma JacK
Ellie’s comments echo those of Kyle Chayka, who wrote in The New Yorker recently that 2021 seems "as though it does and does not exist, a hangover from the depths of terror in 2020 that provides a significant improvement and yet remains vacuous and unstable". Why are some of us experiencing this unnerving emotional disconnect from 2021? Why does it feel like nothing happened, as though it’s been an amorphous mirage rather than a 'real' year?
When we consider the mental strain of living in a world still devastated by COVID, it’s not surprising. Feeling emotionally detached can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression, all conditions that have surged in prevalence at various points throughout the pandemic, according to multiple reports. Numbness can also be a temporary response to extreme situations or trauma, a psychological mechanism that allows us to keep going through tough times.
"We emotionally detach to protect ourselves," says Lara Waycot, a therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). When we’ve suffered setback after setback – as we have throughout the pandemic – allowing ourselves to truly feel or hope may seem risky to the point of stupidity. "We resist fully immersing ourselves in the world or being present in the moment because we can’t face being let down again," she continues.
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Even though we’ve been able to do more in 2021 than in 2020, the year has been underpinned by deep, sustained uncertainty. Humans hate uncertainty: some psychologists think it’s the key ingredient in all forms of anxiety. "The human mind likes to be able to categorise experiences and emotions," says Waycot. "But we haven’t been able to do that this year. We’re not out of the pandemic but we’re not in lockdown either. That limbo state is incredibly stressful."
There’s also an element of cognitive dissonance at play – the mental conflict that occurs when we can’t align our beliefs with our behaviours. "We feel lonely, we desperately want to have fun, but we know COVID hasn’t gone away; certain situations may be unsafe," says Waycot. After a while, she explains, we may "numb out" to protect ourselves from the psychological discomfort of those internal battles.
Emotional detachment can also be a sign of dissociation, described by the NHS as "a way the mind copes with too much stress". When we dissociate, we may feel like we’re observing our bodies and moods from a distance (known as depersonalisation). The world around us, meanwhile, might seem flat, lifeless or foggy, a phenomenon called derealisation. So far, so end-of-2021 vibes – for me, at least.

Don't ignore it – accept that you're feeling detached and disconnected. Acknowledging your lack of emotion may help you feel more in control of the situation.

LARA WAYCOT
"As a response to the pandemic, slight depersonalisation or derealisation makes sense," says Emma Jack, a consultant psychotherapist and supervisor at the Clinic for Dissociative Studies (CDS).
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She observes that many people will occasionally dissociate for short periods without having a dissociative disorder – just like being profoundly sad sometimes is part of the human condition, not an automatic sign of clinical depression. "The world is still not how it was [before the pandemic]. And if you’re not fully in the world, you can keep pedalling on without having to reckon with that too deeply."
In their influential 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality, sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann argued that for everyday life to retain "its accent of reality", humans need time to be structured in a coherent way. But time has taken on a blurred, slippery quality in 2021; I had to construct a timeline of COVID restrictions to write this piece, so unsure was I of what happened in what order. When the days, weeks and months aren’t progressing as we’d expect – when it seems like we could slide back to January 2021 at any moment – it makes sense that we’d feel disconnected from the 'real world'.
Berger and Luckmann also believed that spending time with others is an essential part of being grounded in the 'real world' – something Jack agrees with.
"Experiencing 'ourselves as ourselves' relies on face-to-face contact with other people," she says. "Zoom isn’t the same." As Omicron fears push many of us back into our COVID cocoons, our feelings of detachment – from our own identities and the wider world – may deepen.
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It can be frightening to feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you.
We all deserve to be truly present and rooted in our surroundings, to inhabit our bodies and emotions deeply and feel like we’re the drivers of our lives, not glassy-eyed passengers.
Fortunately, for the vast majority of people, feelings of detachment or dissociation will pass, just as the pandemic will eventually end. Time will stop seeming like a long stretch of nothing and start feeling filled again. Life, in all its colour and richness, will open up. We just have to be patient – and prepared to hope.

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