America Has Pandemic Senioritis

Being so close (and yet so far) is a stress all its own.

A man sits in a pool, looking bored
Bonnie Jo Mount / Getty

On February 25, I got my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine bright and early, picked up a breakfast burrito on the walk home, and spent the rest of the day sitting in my desk chair, doing what can only be described as vibing. I felt a little bit stoned, like I had taken a low-grade edible instead of being shot up with cutting-edge technology that would help end a year-long global disaster. This acute, mildly high feeling—“brain fog,” a known side effect of the vaccines—lasted about two days. As potential side effects go, it was rad.

More durable, though, was the strange feeling that began when I made my appointment. In the hours after scheduling my shot, I blew a deadline and was late to meet up with friends for a very cold outdoor hang. I was overcome with relief, everything felt slightly unreal, and the time-dependent obligations of my life faded to the periphery of my consciousness. In the two months since, the delirium has settled into something duller, less frantic—the keys are in the ignition, but my mind simply will not turn over.

Unlike all the other distinct ways in which my brain has felt and functioned like canned tuna at various stages of the pandemic—the dread, the confusion, the period in which I was constantly dropping things—this one is unique in that it isn’t exactly bad. My mood has been mostly fine, at least relative to much of the previous year. But I am occupied by meandering thoughts of what the next few months might be like. Do I want to go on a vacation? Maybe I just want a dinner reservation—what’s available a couple of weeks from now? Do I want to move out of the apartment I’ve been sitting in for nearly every waking moment of the past 13 months? What’s everyone doing this weekend?

In the meantime, I have done virtually nothing that I’m supposed to be doing in order to get myself through this pandemic, which is definitely not over yet. I have had an impossible time not just completing work tasks, but cooking for myself, working out, running errands, reading books, and even finishing shows I’ve started on Netflix. My executive function, feeble in the best of times, is apparently never coming back from war. I couldn’t even think of a name for this phenomenon until a co-worker invoked an old high-school trope to explain why she was feeling similarly. As soon as she did, it made perfect sense: We’ve got pandemic senioritis.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept—or who were simply more committed students than I ever was—senioritis is a psychological affliction both totally made up and very real. More a mood than a diagnosis, you can find many students afflicted by it in their last semester of high school or college. Senioritis comes from reaching the end stages of the lengthy work necessary to achieve a difficult—and often not altogether voluntary—goal. (Sound familiar?) It’s an abrupt bout of laziness, or flakiness, or riskiness. It is sudden-onset farting around, and maybe breaking a few rules in the process.

This might be hitting a little close to home for you right now. Taking a nation’s behavioral temperature can be a bit tricky, but data are beginning to show that even people who have stuck to safety protocols for much of the pandemic are getting antsy and letting things slip. In a March poll, Gallup found that only 46 percent of unvaccinated Americans who intended to get a shot were still mostly or completely isolating. That was a 12-point drop from January—a much larger change in activity than even that of the newly vaccinated. This shift comes as COVID-19 cases have once again begun to rise in many places in the United States; even as the country vaccinates millions of people a day, the danger of the pandemic has not yet subsided for the majority of people. Nonetheless, more Americans are traveling, salons and spas have started to book up, and many restaurants are desperate to rehire workers to meet increased demand.

I was among the very first of my friends to get a vaccine, and seeing it become a reality for a few of us seemed to poke the pandemic soft spots on the whole group’s skulls. Some of my friends became the people from the Gallup poll who were still anticipating their own jab but started to cut some corners anyway, after almost a year of toeing the line. Maybe we could sit in one of those weird, unventilated dining huts that have sprouted on city sidewalks. Maybe we could all pile into one of our apartments after an evening getting before-times drunk outdoors at a series of bars. My colleague Katherine J. Wu refers to this type of rule-bending as “vaccine cheat days,” and as she predicted recently, they are indeed adding up.

That all these activities aren’t necessarily safe just yet appears not to matter to some of the same people who have held out for more than a year. Some of them are reaching the limits of their resiliency, which is not, as it turns out, an infinitely renewable resource. Part of this different behavior comes down to people’s need for “autonomy and freedom and independence—the ability to follow their impulses,” Darcia Narvaez, a psychology professor emerita at the University of Notre Dame, told me. “That’s been curtailed for so long that you just kind of run out of the capacity to hold back.” Especially for those who have returned to in-person work—which the Gallup poll indicates is now the majority of people, and more than at any previous point in the pandemic—forgoing other joyful in-person activities might not feel logical anymore, or like it’s worth the sacrifice.

Even if you’re abstaining from new risks, you still might be having a hard time channeling your energy toward anything but fantasizing about the summer ahead. To explain that, Narvaez pointed to the concept of anticipatory euphoria. That’s what people are experiencing when they cover their house in Christmas decorations as soon as Thanksgiving is over, or why buying a wedding dress can be so emotionally affecting a year before the big day. These moments might not make the desired event come any faster, but they give people access to some of the joy they expect those occasions will bring. Whether you’re browsing future vacation destinations or plotting your post-pandemic wardrobe, Narvaez said, it’s easy to let an obsession with arriving at a particular goal distract you from the things that need to be done in order to get there. That’s true even if those things are the rote tasks of living your life, staying safe, and keeping your job until your brain returns to its regularly scheduled programming.

For people who aren’t overjoyed about returning to pre-pandemic life, the darker side of senioritis might feel more applicable. Adolescence is, after all, a traumatic time for many, and the process of transitioning out of it can spur grief and a search for closure. With a return to some sort of normalcy in sight, the acutely painful parts of the past year might be catching up to some people, and their brain might be hitting the brakes as a result. “It could be that you have unresolved emotional things to deal with,” Narvaez said. “You need to stop and take time to feel your grief or sadness.” Many people who have lost loved ones in the past year still haven’t been able to hold a funeral, and few people have had the time to stand still and take in the enormity of the pandemic’s tragedy—not just the dead, but the loss of the year people had planned for themselves, and everything that meant.

My own recent affliction seems like some combination of the two. I’m so excited for what’s to come—to see my parents for the first time since 2019, to go on vacation, to sit in a crowded bar in the middle of the night. But the horror of what we have been expected to live through, and what we are now expected to leave behind, seems too enormous to conceptualize. Between those two poles, my brain is stuck in neutral, unable to wait for the future or trudge through what’s left of the present. Senior skip day never sounded so good.