The Post-Inaugural Letdown Effect

The Republic stands, but I slump

Image by joduma from Pixabay

I didn’t give much thought to how I’d feel after the Inauguration

I mean, how could I? There was just so much going on. Every single day since at least Halloween has been a white-knuckler: the run-up to the presidential election, with all the hysteria over mail-in ballots and the sudden, engineered unreliability of the Postal Service adding to the angst; the election itself and the whipsaw days following until the results were announced; every single day after that in which those results were denied and disputed; the minute-by-minute suspense of the Georgia runoff elections; and the gut-wrenching spectacle of the Capitol swarmed by hate-crazed, heavily armed domestic terrorists.  

By the time January 20 dawned, I was unconsciously holding my breath. Would another spasm of violence destroy a 200-plus-year history of peaceful transfers of power? Would this be a day to celebrate or another ghastly national nightmare? Like everyone, I’d seen photos of the thousands of National Guard troops deployed all over D.C. and I’d read about the security precautions. I was pretty sure it would be okay — but only pretty sure. 

I’ve been around long enough to see a number of presidents come and go, and I certainly haven’t been enthusiastic about all of them, most especially #45. But the undercurrent of dread I kept fighting down was something I’d never experienced on Inauguration Day.

Everything went off without a hitch, and I was giddy — for 24 hours

I was glued to screens and news feeds every minute I could cadge away from work, like a lot of us. My coworkers and I replayed Kamala Harris’s swearing-in three times. The orderliness and goodwill, the respect for those who have lost so much this past year, the hope and inspiration for the future, the invitations to unity — the speeches, the poetry, the songs, all performed against a backdrop hauntingly empty of the customary crowds, lending the proceedings even more dignity and poignancy — let’s just say my tear ducts worked overtime. 

By the time I went to bed that night, I was suffused with gratitude. I was limp with relief. The adults were back in the room. Competence and rational thinking had returned. Normalcy sluiced over the land like a benign tsunami. I could sleep again.

The next day, I felt like a three-day-old helium balloon

Still aloft, but a bit deflated. I was still grateful and relieved, but my reservoir of nervous energy had run low. I was surprised, distantly — shouldn’t I be full of vim and vigor, brimming with ebullience now that what I’d worked and prayed for had at last unfolded in the way I’d hardly dared to hope? 

Instead, I drifted through my workday with the exuberance of a three-toed sloth. By that evening, on a Zoom meeting with my writers’ critique group, I felt like the oatmeal I’d eaten for breakfast had replaced my brain. I wasn’t the only one — everyone else in the group, all smart, talented, driven, and habitually articulate, struggled as much as I did to string cogent sentences together. 

It was reassuring to learn I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Together we figured it out: when I ran through a litany of stressors we’d been through in the past several months (see the first paragraph), one colleague said, “Yep, all that. And wildfires.” We all live in Napa or Sonoma counties. Of the five of us, three had to evacuate, two repeatedly, and one lost her home completely — the second house she’s lost to wildfire in four years. 

“And then there’s COVID,” someone said. 

Oh, yeah. There’s that. 

Welcome to the Letdown Effect

It’s generally associated with illness or a flare-up of a chronic condition, not during a stressful life situation, but following soon after. As WebMD explains it, 

In the immediate aftermath of stressful times — perhaps following an anxiety-producing project at work or a major family crisis — when you finally have time to take a deep breath and unwind, that’s when illness can unexpectedly strike.

The term was coined by Marc Shoen, M.D., an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine who focuses on resilience and boosting performance under pressure. He noticed that in med school he could make it through the grueling weeks of finals in good shape — until they were over and he could relax. That’s when he’d get hit with a cold or the flu. 

Schoen says the letdown effect “has been associated with conditions such as upper respiratory infections, the flu, migraine headaches, dermatitis, arthritis pain, and depression.” 

It’s happened to you, right? You gut it out through an intense couple of months at work, grinding away under deadline after deadline until you finally make it to your long-awaited vacation — and you come down with the crud the minute you deplane. The stress hormones that got you through the crises at work have fizzled out, leaving you vulnerable to whatever opportunistic bug may drift your way.

And this is after the normal run of life stressors, none of which have disappeared in the past year (except maybe the pressure associated with giving dinner parties). What are we to expect from our battered bodies, our isolated psyches, or our fatigued adrenals after what we’ve all come through? If you’re not operating at peak capacity right now, it’s no mystery.

It’s not you, it’s life

Maybe it helps you to know that. It does me. As long as I don’t fall into the error of comparing my little old self to superheroic types (like many of the members of the new administration and their resolute staffs), I can remember to cut myself some slack. I’m really and truly thrilled that there is solid reason to hope that the end of the pandemic will unfold before another year is out, that we’ll see positive action on immigration reform and climate change and racial justice, that we can expect meaningful support for those whose lives and careers and financial security have been upended by COVID. 

But it’s all been . . . a lot. And there are months still to get through before the light at the end of the tunnel penetrates the darkness. We hope we can get our vaccine shots before any new coronavirus strain overwhelms our health care systems yet again. We hope we can see our friends and family. We hope we can go somewhere, and have fun — remember fun? At this juncture, just as things begin to look up from the depths, those hopes feel tantalizing, almost cruel. We just about literally cannot wait for this bleeping pandemic to be over.

Marc Shoen writes on his website, “Our best chance for beating the Let Down Effect is to relax in a way that keeps the immune system on alert.” I suspect this is as true on a societal level right now as it is on an individual level. In our relief that the tide may be about to turn, in our weariness and our deep desire for life to fill out again, we can’t give in to the temptation to relax our vigilance. We’re sick of masks and social distancing and isolation, but if we quit now we may never make it to the finish line.

At the same time, we need to extend ourselves and others all the kindness and compassion we can muster. We’ve made it this far, and that’s something to celebrate. Quietly and gently. 

4 Replies to “The Post-Inaugural Letdown Effect”

  1. Laurie

    I felt the letdown effect every time I ran a marathon. For months, I trained hard, running tons of miles while working 60-plus-hour weeks. It never failed. By the time the taper began (the time right before the race when you reduce your mileage so you arrive at the race rested), I came down with some illness. If I was lucky, it was a head cold. Several times, it was bronchitis. Or pneumonia. Or the Swine flu. I like the advice you present “Our best chance for beating the Let Down Effect is to relax in a way that keeps the immune system on alert.” But I don’t know how to do it!

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      I think we’ve all experienced it in one form or another. I used to get sick after the big run-up to the holidays when my kids were young, for instance. As for how to keep the immune system on alert, I’m in the dark on that too. Guess I’ll have to read Dr. Shoen’s book 🙂

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