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Mental Health

You’re Not Overreacting – You’ve Got Pandemic Flux Syndrome

Last week, while I was in the midst of a breakdown due to my never-ending list of assignments, I came across a post on Instagram by @therapyforwomen which said: “You’re not crazy; this phase of the pandemic is really hard on our brains!” The post came at a time where I was not feeling much like myself. I was battling to stay motivated and positive about my academics, personal life, and future. The post was written by an American therapist who called this phenomenon “pandemic flux syndrome.” Amy Cuddy, PhD, coined this term, which describes the anxiety and stress one might feel from the uncertainty and unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therapist Amanda E. White, LPC, noted that after the Delta variant’s arrival, many people felt numb and depressed from the realisation that there is no sign of an end to this pandemic.

While it is not a clinical term, “pandemic flux syndrome” accurately describes the symptoms we have all been experiencing since the start of the first lockdown, and has a very real, negative effect on our mental health. White explained how difficult the pandemic has been on our brains, because they are not designed to sustain long-term unpredictability. In a study on anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty, it was found that most people would function better in worse conditions while being certain of its time period. However, in better situations, they functioned worse if they did not know how long that situation would last. It is this intolerance of uncertainty that leads us to entertaining “what if?” thinking, and causes us to be even more worried

Some of the symptoms of “pandemic flux syndrome” include worry, abrupt feelings of anxiety and depression, an emotional numbness and the urge to suddenly make a change. Examples of this are switching your degree, moving out or quitting your job. Many students are experiencing burnout right now with the academic year coming to a close. With anxiety and stress-levels high, one might confuse these feelings for regular academic stress, but it is far greater. Living in a global pandemic for almost two years takes a toll on our minds and bodies. Having to constantly adjust to these unprecedented circumstances leaves us fatigued. Many of us have been surviving on our fight-or-flight response, which is what psychologist Ann Masten refers to as “surge capacity.” Surge capacity is the mental and physical systems we use to manage short-term stressful events. However, usually when that capacity runs out, our bodies have time to recharge. Owing to the pandemic, our bodies are now in a constant state of stress and are unable to recharge, which leaves us feeling anxious and fatigued.

Since being vaccinated, and the announcement of lockdown alert level one, I have been waiting to feel like things have gotten back to ‘normal’. However, every time I step out the door to go to the grocery store, or to visit a family member, I have this lump of anxiety in my throat. The truth of the matter is that there most probably won’t be an ‘end’ to this pandemic. It is taxing trying to ‘get over’ the trauma we have experienced from the pandemic, while we’re still ‘under’ it. We usually use our surge capacity when there is a natural disaster, but what is to be done when the disaster is invisible, internal and has no end in sight? How can that be treated?

One way to deal with how you’re feeling is to accept that everything is not okay, and some days will be bad. It is during these uncertain times that we need to practice radical acceptance. This doesn’t mean giving up but rather allowing yourself to assess the situation and think constructively instead of reacting to your anxiety whilst being stuck in the mud. Remember to give yourself a break. Right now we are all functioning on our remaining 10%, without the support systems we used to rely on. We tend to expect more from ourselves, even when we are completely burnt-out. But this is more intense than burnout, because while we feel exhausted, we are also grieving the loss of loved ones, and the prospects we had for our futures. No one would be able to function properly under these conditions, and you shouldn’t put that kind of pressure on yourself either.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, set boundaries with yourself on social media or when watching the news. Sometimes we convince ourselves that taking in all of the latest updates on the pandemic is helping us remain informed, when in reality it is only worsening our anxiety. That means it’s okay to retreat from social media a bit or take a day to prioritise your mental health. We are living in a global pandemic: there has never been a greater reason or time to put yourself first, so do what brings you peace whenever you can.

Part-time social media director, amateur tennis player. I discovered my passion for writing while working for a local NPO called Marimba Jam. I'm a 21-year-old final year student studying media at the University of Cape Town. Some of my hobbies include going for walks with my dogs, trying new foods and photography. "There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish." - Michelle Obama
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