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Feeling cranky? Impatient? The pandemic may have ushered in an 'insensitivity epidemic.'

Gabriel C. Pérez
Mask mandates in schools have been one of the points of conflict during the COVID-19 pandemic. Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Bella Rockman says those clashes, coupled with the duration of the pandemic, have stretched to the limit many people's patience and sensitivity toward others.

The outpouring of compassion and assistance some people exhibited in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic may have waned and given way to burnout and even bitterness.

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Bella Rockman calls the phenomenon an "insensitivity epidemic," which she describes as "heightened agitation, irritation, impatience, entitlement."

Early on in the pandemic, Rockman says, clients would report bosses and co-workers as supportive and understanding about a COVID-19 diagnosis, with many offering to bring by food or other supplies.

Now, she says, they're more likely to report being told things at work like "'Well, you look good for COVID19,’ or ‘Can you still come to the Zoom meeting or do the PowerPoint?'"

The ongoing pandemic has stretched many to their limit, Rockman says, and most people do not possess a boundless amount of sensitivity.

"We all have a window of tolerance," she says. "And once we reach that window of tolerance, I do think that the love becomes very conditional."

Rockman says she doesn't believe life will some day return to exactly what it was like pre-pandemic, but she does believe people can replenish their stores of patience and sensitivity by "cognitively and consciously" adapting their behavior.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Rockman about how we can emerge from this "insensitivity pandemic" and her reminder that " we do not get to control the world around us, but we do get to control our reactions."

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT: You say that we are living through an “insensitivity epidemic.” What does that mean? How did we get here?

Bella Rockman: During the pandemic and quarantine, people realized that they needed to have more compassion. We had to start to look into each other's lives, in each other's homes. We had to really stop and pause and take in not only our experience, but the experience of our other fellow human beings, which I think then led to learning that we needed compassion.

But then it led to a compassion fatigue. What happens after compassion fatigue, from a behavioral health care standpoint, is burnout. And then what happens after burnout is some low-level of almost embitterment or bitterness. It's like this heightened agitation, irritation, impatience, entitlement — like, just get to the answer or resolution.

What does this insensitivity epidemic look like? How are you seeing that playing out?

For example, with the patient population I work with, which is very diverse — I work with people from all backgrounds, ages, socioeconomic status, religions, political beliefs, genders — I am noticing a thread. For example, I've had people say that they report [having COVID] to their managers or their higher-ups or their coworkers ... and in the beginning, when people were being quarantined at home from COVID-19, there was like this, "What can we do? Can we leave something at your door?" It was almost like “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” kind of energy around it, like, "Hey, when there's trouble, we need to look for the helpers. We can be the helpers."

And now, after these various waves and the delta variant and all that, I've had patients report to me that their bosses and coworkers are almost like, "Well, you look good for COVID19," or "Can you still come to the Zoom meeting or do the PowerPoint?" It's like this flippant response to people suffering because they're almost all suffered out. It's like, I don't have anything else because there's just been an inundation of tragedy on the collective and the individual level in our communities.

Is it possible to run out of sensitivity or to be so stretched and so challenged that we just can't summon any of it anymore?

We all have a window of tolerance, and once we reach that window of tolerance, I do think that the love becomes very conditional. We use the term unconditional love, but think about how many conditions we put on our love and our regard for people.

In the addiction world when I worked in chemical addictions, we would say avoid "halting": Don't get too hungry, don't get too angry, don't get too lonely or too tired. And I think we've experienced a lot of that halting. There's almost like a love hunger or a hunger to be heard.

And so we do have love, and it is abundant. And I also think that in my experience, when we get into survival mode, we also have the propensity to say, "Look, it's me and mine, and it's me; it's us against the world," whoever that is, and we can become very scarcity based. And I think that's what I'm speaking to.

What do we do now that we're at this point? The pandemic is not over. What can people do given where we are?

We really can't go back into life the way that it was before, and we really need to be OK with that on some level. We have to cognitively and consciously adapt. So the next time you walk into a store, you need to build in more time to be there because it may be understaffed. The next time you travel, you need to build in time for delays or rerouting because we see what has happened recently with some of the major airlines. The next time somebody shares with you something that has happened to them that is painful, we need to pause and say, "My heart goes out to you" or "I'm sorry to hear. How are you today? How can I support [you]? How can I hold space for you?"

We really need to practice that language so that we can create new neurorepetition because the more we feed into the frenzy, the more the frenzy requires from us.

I was just going to ask if sensitivity is something that people can learn and get better at or is it just something in our personality that we're born with or more inclined to do? Some people are more that way, and some people aren't?

It's both. And the reason I say that is it's the nurture versus nature conversation. We are all bio-psychosocial in nature. Some people do have a higher propensity or disposition for emotional intelligence based on our lineage. Trauma is generational, but so is healing. When there's trauma, there is a chemical mark imprinted on our gene expression, and it changes our gene expression so it gives us a higher propensity or higher likelihood for a particular mental health or behavioral health outcomes whether positive or negative.

All of that can be retrained and reshaped through neurorepetition. In the same way that we have to do reps in the gym, you have to do reps. I get the information age, but I also get that the only way that we can actually become this, because the difference between information or knowledge and then wisdom is the application of it.

When I go do work with K-5 or K-12, if someone gets hurt on a playground, I'll say, "OK, this is an opportunity." Or if they're hurt because of another student, for example, I'll say, "Hey, go make a point of contact." So put your hand on their shoulder if you can. Point of contact because that lowers the cortisol, that lowers adrenaline immediately, that physical touch. Look in their eye. Ask them, "Are you OK? I apologize. Is there something I can do to help?" And then after a while, I'll go back to that school and visit and everyone's doing it, and they're used to it. The outpouring of empathy and connection helps them to humanize them.

We do not get to choose our trauma, but we do get to choose our healing. We do not get to control the world around us, but we do get to control our reactions. Ten percent of life is what happens to us; 90% is how we choose to respond to it.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.
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