Ambivalent about lockdown ending? It might be ‘Pandemic Flux Syndrome’

“This overwhelming set of stimuli activates a sort of primitive desire to shut down or to escape – to get away from the chaos and to regain a sense of control.”

When we asked readers to let us know how they were feeling about restrictions easing and lockdown lifting, the flood of responses ranged the full spectrum.

Some were excited and felt it couldn’t come soon enough: “Get me to a restaurant,” said one; “I need a haircut and my partner needs to see his kid who is in Byron,” said another.

Others expressed frustration that anyone would feel anything other than elated, but the vast majority felt mixed.

They wanted a promise we won’t be thrust into yet another lockdown; there was social anxiety after so little contact for so long and people worried about being forced to return to the office full-time. They feared the health care system would be overwhelmed; with so many cases still in the community, they felt hesitant about the safety of going to restaurants and other public places; they worried about fractures among family and friends with different views on vaccination or behaviours (To hug or not hug, that is the question?); and, despite feeling relief an end is in sight, they wondered how new variants would affect burgeoning freedoms.

Emma Hodgson, 36, is a mum of three and captured the mood of many parents we heard from. Any excitement she feels is being overshadowed by her concerns. “I’m feeling petrified about my 8-year-old son returning to school,” she said, explaining that she’s worried he will catch COVID and bring it home to her 3-month-old baby.

Cuddy says there is nothing surprising about the responses people are having. Our nervous systems are depleted. “Surge capacity”, which gives us the energy to get through short-term crises, helped many of us initially but is not designed for crises that last for nearly two years. “We need downtime to recharge that surge capacity, but we’re not getting it,” she explains.

Positives discovered in lockdown have also led to ambivalence about reopening. We might have spent more quality time with family, saved money, exercised or worked in a way that better suited us or simply enjoyed slowing down.

Hodgson says her family have “been moving in a nice little bubble for the past few months” and, she adds, “my son actually enjoys home-schooling.”

But any enjoyment at a time of great loss and suffering means many people feel guilty as well as mixed about what it will be like when the wheels of life start spinning faster again.

“Although we thought we’d be almost euphoric to go out to dinner with friends, spend time with family, go to concerts and so on, most of us were not as euphoric as we’d expected to be,” she says.

So if we’re not as euphoric as we hoped about life after lockdown, it’s OK. It’s to be expected, given the circumstances. But it doesn’t mean we won’t feel elation again, Cuddy assures. We will.

Amy Cuddy’s five suggestions for managing pandemic flux

  1.  Take a break from the overwhelming stimuli – whether that’s the news, combative people, too many Zoom meetings… whatever it is, take a break from it. She also urges compassion towards those around us who are also depleted right now.
  2. Recognising and accepting that humans are prone to overestimating how good or bad they will feel about positive or negative life events gives those feelings less weight. “In other words: we may think that we’ll never recover from this pandemic, but the reality is that we have strong psychological immune systems and we will.”
  3. If we feel unmotivated or that we have lost our sense of control, remind ourselves we still have access to our personal power which is internal, not external. “It’s more important than ever to tap into that, by carrying yourself with self-respect – open, expansive posture; deep, slow breathing; slowing down (temporal expansion); moving with purpose and expansiveness.” Also, focus on the aspects of our lives that we can control, even if they’re small and choose a “fresh start moment”. For Cuddy, it was the moment her favourite band (The Grateful Dead) played a particular song at a live concert. “As soon as the first few notes of the song were played, I felt overcome by this intense wave of emotion and liberation. I felt that I was allowed to move forward, emotionally.”
  4.  See this as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how you want to live your life. “What did you notice about what did and didn’t work well for you in your work life and your personal life? Based on what you learn, are there things about your lifestyle, routines, etc. that you can change when we return to something closer to ‘normal’?”
  5. Acknowledge that we are grieving. Industries have been decimated and people have lost livelihoods, freedoms and, in some cases, loved ones to COVID. “We are traumatised and grieving, yet it’s very difficult to process trauma when the threat is still present, as it is now,” Cuddy says. “Each one of us has experienced loss. And we must recognise that – in ourselves and each other. And realise that grieving is natural and necessary if we are to progress toward rebuilding.”

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