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Mental Health in Flux

Examining ‘pandemic flux syndrome’ and tips to help navigate challenges

Since the early days of COVID-19 we’ve been experiencing periods of change that happen quickly, sometimes without warning, and impact us in huge ways.

In behavioral health and human services, this change affected personnel and people served across the board. In the beginning, clinicians transitioned into telehealth modalities, direct care workers donned PPE as they continued to provide care, and program participants received services virtually or after applying their own PPE.

In the summer of 2020, things generally seemed to improve slightly: cases dropped, many people were able to reunite safely with social distancing outdoors. While we were not out of the woods, the sense of togetherness had a positive impact on the mental health of many. Not long after, cold weather returned to the northeast, and so did a rise in cases. Following close behind, though, were the COVID-19 vaccines for healthcare workers—and a glimmer of hope—before more and more people in the general public were ultimately able to access their own shot.

Fast forward to the following summer. In June 2021, public life seemed to be returning to ‘normal.’ Restrictions were lessening. Many who had previously been working remotely began to one again return to work in-person or in hybrid formats. As such, hope began to develop once again. According to a Gallup survey captured in mid-to-late June 2021, an estimated 58% of U.S. workers were considered to be ‘thriving,’ as opposed to the survey’s two other classifications, ‘struggling’ and ‘suffering.’ It was, by Gallup’s data, a record high.

And then, as this pattern can predict, the flow began to ebb once again as the delta variant brought about a return for mask mandates and other restrictions—and, of course, fear, anxiety and depression.

All of these are not facts that are surprising to us. After all, we’ve lived through each of these moments. But compiled they illustrate the discernable and repeated changes to our everyday lives, which have been dramatic over the last 18 months. As such, the less visible impact of these changes, such as the impact on mental health, have also fluctuated greatly for many people.

As summer 2021 curtails into fall, many are experiencing what social psychologist Amy Cuddy and writer JillEllyn Riley have coined as ‘pandemic flux syndrome,’ a non-clinical term used to describe a jumble of feelings associated with all the changes: “blunted emotions, spikes in anxiety and depression, and a desire to drastically change something about their lives.”

“This idea of ‘pandemic flux syndrome’ resonates not only with me but with what I’ve experienced with people served,” said CHD Clinic Director Katelyn Merz. “It really puts into words what I think so many of us have been feeling, especially recently, as things continue to shift.”

Examining this range of emotions, Merz explained that there are many factors to consider, but an especially important one is the renewed sense of hope and motivation that many shared as we got through the winter and entered spring and early summer. As COVID cases have increased in July and August and more cities and towns have begun to resume mask mandates, Merz said that for many, it feels like that renewed hope is slowly slipping away.

“I think many of us felt like we were finally getting to a place where we were starting to feel some normalcy, but it doesn’t exactly feel like that anymore,” Merz said. “Now the uncertainty is back, and so is the added stress that comes along with that. That instability and the uncertainty really drive anxiety and depression.”

Exploring the challenging feelings identified as being part of ‘pandemic flux syndrome,’ Merz shared tips to help navigate these experiences while also prioritizing mental health:

 

Be mindful of your boundaries.

Many different factors of our lives have shifted, so it makes sense that our boundaries may need to as well. When trying to maintain balance during uncertain times, Merz shared it’s best not to overcomplicate and overwhelm ourselves by adding in more than we’re comfortable with, whether that’s in reference to our social lives or our news and social media intake.

“It’s important to check in and be aware of what you’re exposing yourself to and the impact that’s having on you,” Merz said. “I can say I’ve personally done that, and that it’s become a major theme with the people we serve. It’s important that we consider what we’re putting our energy into and what we’re allowing ourselves to spend a lot of time on. In that way, setting boundaries can be an act of self-care.”

 

Consider what you can control, especially your wellness.

Though there are steps we can take to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19, a great deal of what’s happening with the pandemic is not in our immediate control. One area we do have control on, however, is our wellness. While the pandemic can impact mental health and other factions of our wellness, Merz affirms that trying to maintain balance in our mental, physical and social health can be effective ways to keep us from feeling that we’ve lost control.

“When we’re busy or we’re tired, we often think we don’t have control over our self-care, but with a little bit of extra effort, we can try to get those things back in balance,” Merz explained. “Whether that’s getting enough sleep or maintaining a balanced diet, we can work to hone in on areas of our wellness that impact our mental and physical health to try and stay as balanced as we can.”

 

For those who are restless, take a step back to reconsider.

Many of those experiencing ‘pandemic flux syndrome’ are noted as having a desire to make drastic changes in their lives. Merz notes that while change can be good, it’s important to slow down and reconsider our actions during times like these.

“While positive change and healthy motivation can come out of challenging times, I think it’s important that we refrain from making any drastic decisions or impulsive moves that are driven by emotions right now,” Merz said.

She shared that it may be a good idea for those who are feeling restless to try to take a step back and consider all aspects of a change they’re looking to make. She said it’s important to examine from both a factual perspective and also from an emotional one, which can often be difficult to do.

“In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), there’s a skill we teach called wise mind, which encourages the balance between our rational mind and emotional mind,” Merz explained. “That’s a key concept we use a lot with those we serve, and with ourselves, to look at a situation or decision from all angles before moving forward. I think that’s really important for everyone to be especially thoughtful of right now.”

 

Remember, you’re not alone. Let others know, too.

As we continue to collectively navigate these periods of change, Merz said it’s especially important that we normalize the experience. She noted that we continue to walk through this together, even if we feel our responses vary from others’.

“We are all facing the same pandemic and many of us are facing a lot of the same challenges,” Merz said. “It’s important to remember that someone else is feeling similarly to you, even if others seem to have a different experience. No matter how you’re responding, it’s important to know that your response is okay—it’s valid and it makes sense.”