Living in a constant state of uncertainty takes a toll — now there’s a term for it.
For many, the 2021 Fourth of July weekend kicked off a celebration of a new kind of independence — freedom from the various pandemic-related restrictions that loomed for over a year, thanks (in large part) to vaccinations becoming more widespread. According to a Gallup survey, at that summer juncture, 59.2 percent of Americans classified themselves as “thriving” — the highest score in 13 years.
But as summer rolled on, that sense of relief waned. The Delta variant of the coronavirus began sweeping the country, spiking cases and quickly becoming the dominant strain of COVID-19, fueling feelings of anxiety, disappointment and anger. That emotional whiplash spurred social psychologist Amy Cuddy, PhD to coin the term “Pandemic Flux Syndrome,” which she discussed on a recent episode of Dare to Lead, a podcast from author and researcher Brene Brown.
“People thought that [summer] would be the turning point, and it wasn’t. They didn’t feel as euphoric as they thought they would,” explains Cuddy. In other words, it forced us to reckon with the truth that we are not out of the woods yet. “Clearly demarcated fresh starts give us renewed motivation and help us pursue important goals. But for most of us, that clear fresh start hasn’t materialized,” Katy Milkman, a Wharton Business School professor and author of the new book How to Change told Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley in a recent article they co-wrote for The Washington Post.
“Our nervous systems seek certainty, so this prolonged limbo is grating on us as individuals and as a group. We keep reaching for understanding and continue to get crushed by the waves of a fluctuating reality,” explains Lia Avellino, LCSW, Director of Head and Heart for THE WELL.
Increased sadness or anxiety — along with an urge to dramatically change something about your life — are all markers of this syndrome.
This range of moods may also be due to what psychologists call “affective forecasting error” — a phrase used to describe how, as humans, we are not very good at accurately predicting how we will feel about future events. Cuddy offered this example in her conversation with Brown: "If your favorite sports team wins an important game, you may expect to feel much happier for much longer than you actually do." As life returned (somewhat) to normal this summer, many of us expected to feel more relief and joy than we actually did, which increased feelings of anxiety (or even guilt) when those expectations didn’t meet reality.
On top of that, Cuddy also attributes the extreme fatigue many of us are feeling to our body’s depleted surge capacity — an adaptive survival response to help us get through times of heightened stress. While helpful for short spurts, surge capacity is not meant to become our home base. Living in a constant state of stress — like 18 months of a pandemic — drains our surge capacity, and without adequate time to rest and recover, our bodies can’t keep up. Think of it like sprinting a marathon with no predetermined finish line — your body just can’t maintain that pace before something has to give.
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If you’re feeling exhausted from the perpetual uncertainty of the times, know this: You are not alone and despite the discomfort, those feelings are normal. Increased sadness or anxiety — along with an urge to dramatically change something about your life — are all markers of this syndrome and many people are experiencing these tensions, as Cuddy and Riley explained in The Washington Post piece, writing: “Although human beings are more resilient than we generally appreciate, it will take time for many of us to stably recover, to reflect and recalibrate.”
A final piece of advice from Avellino: “Anxiety and depression are both ways that our nervous system is trying to cope with a difficult reality,” explains Avellino. Instead of reaching for coping mechanisms, we must focus on “building our creative resources, the ones that serve us better — such as fostering community, advocating for our needs to better live in this strange reality, making time for movement and more — which may give us a greater sense of confidence, calm and mastery, what we ultimately want to feel.”