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  • Louise Oliver

Pandemic Flux Syndrome and what can we learn from it

Quite a few people I have been speaking to recently have been experiencing different challenges during this stage of the pandemic but are struggling to pinpoint their feelings.

On the face of it, we have our freedoms back and it should feel easier. I notice myself almost saying post-pandemic, but I know we are far from that stage in the UK and definitely not from a global perspective. Apparently pandemics can last five years which I can’t quite wrap my head around in a way that is helpful or constructive.

I listen to BoJo’s latest announcement about winter plans for continuing to navigate the shifting sands with a strange mix of trepidation and numbness. There is a dissonance between the fact the that case numbers are higher than this time last year but of course we have the vaccine now and society has opened up again. Covid is ever present in our daily existence, we're forced to learn to live with it which is an ongoing challenge. It's not quite the roaring 20s resurgence that some people imagined.

There have definitely been some uplifting moments of reunions, gatherings and a sense of renewed freedom over the last few months. But I’ve also been noticing a subtle trend of collective fatigue and lethargy popping-up, whilst not quite able to find the words to articulate this phase we’re in and why. Until I listened to a brilliant podcast with Brené Brown and Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy exploring the situation from a US perspective which is largely relevant to the UK and Europe with a few nuances.

The podcast was based on an article that Amy Cuddy co-wrote for the Washington Post in August entitled Why this phase of the pandemic makes us so anxious. In the article, she explained that we’re collectively experiencing what she calls ‘pandemic flux syndrome’ after being in a state of constant flux for more than 18 months. Her conversation with Brené delves deeper into it and I found these insights super helpful to reflect on both personally and for my clients. So I thought I'd share my three takeaways and reflections from the conversation:

1. There are three phases of crisis – Emergency, Regression & Rebuilding:

Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg the author of “Battle Mind: Performing under pressure” suggests that crisis typically has three phases, although they don’t always come in this neat sequence: emergency, regression and recovery.

Emergency - The first phase of an emergency creates a surge capacity when the threat is acute and we urgently need to act. As a society we often have shared goals in this phase and we are called to be productive and creative. We’re riding on adrenaline to get us through the crisis. Often we can feel surprisingly buoyant and resilient during this period.

Regression – The in-between phase where everything is uncertain and after the emergency efforts we can feel tired and agitated. We tend to seek out and regress towards things that make us feel comfortable and safe. People can feel powerless and less vital during this phase. Because we have the realisation (in the case of Covid) that we have little agency over the greater challenge which can feel demoralising. Of course, not everyone will experience this at the same time but there will be a climate on a societal level. This can mean we feel less able to be our best selves. This may explain why some of us (slightly guiltily) feel nostalgic about the former phase and are seeking out our lockdown rituals and safety. Although that is not to say that we haven’t learned some valuable lessons from this period about what we value most and need in our lives.

Rebuilding – The phase where many of us are motivated and energised to move towards a new optimistic state. Although this is challenging as we underestimated what it might take to rebuild and we’re doing so in an altered reality. There was a sense that it would happen more quickly with vaccine roll-outs etc. With the Delta variant of Covid and other socio-economic and environmental challenges as well as a backdrop of other significant worldwide adversities, it’s proving much harder than we imagined.

Many of us find ourselves stuck between regression and rebuilding phases and there is a sense of ambivalence that will ebb and flow and will likely be very unique to individual circumstances. Some people are craving the opportunities to rebuild and reinvent taking the agency they have to make significant life and work changes. But this is not necessarily matched with the immediate sources of energy to enact these changes.

2. We are not good at predicting how we will feel in the future

This tendency is known as ‘affecting forecasting errors’ which means humans tend not to be very accurate in predicting the intensity and duration of our emotions both positively and negatively for significant life events. The prolonged emotional state caused by the pandemic including monitoring for threats, living in a survival mode and a need for resilience has had an impact on our collective capacity and mental health. Also we tend to be over optimistic about how we will respond as recovery begins, overpredicting the duration of the sense of euphoria that we would experience when we had some sense of normality back.

3. Our nervous systems are depleted

During the last 18 months, we’ve been drawing on all our resources with our ‘surge capacity’ which are a collection of adaptive systems both mental and physical that humans draw on for survival in acutely stressful situations. However we are not supposed to be exposed to this level of stress for long periods of time. All this means that our nervous systems are very depleted and this can manifest in different ways for people in terms of depression, anxiety, inertia and a lack of motivation.

These insights don’t necessarily give us the answers of what we should do because it’s complex and is experienced so uniquely. But I’m a firm believer that awareness, understanding and being able to sit with these are feelings are the first steps to becoming more skillful at navigating these phases. I think reflection, patience, self-compassion and good conversations are the key. Also there is something about this situation that has been a reminder that everything is actually is in flux, I heard a quote recently saying something like "Relax, nothing is under control." So if we can be accepting of life being in flux it could actually help us to be navigate life and be more open to embracing change. I definitely recommend listening to the podcast to hear Brené and Amy talk about these in more depth and much more.

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