Ask an Expert: What Is Pandemic Flux Syndrome?

Someone staring out a window at floating COVID virus cells.

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Key Takeaways

  • Pandemic flux syndrome is not a clinical term, but can be helpful for describing what many are living through right now.
  • The seeming unending nature of the pandemic can stress humans out in ways that affect our feelings toward the present and future.
  • Strategies like setting boundaries with the news and social media can help.

Like the graphs charting COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic– we have all been in a state of flux for the past year.

That flux might ebb and flow depending on surges of the virus in your area. Still, it's not clear when this back and forth will end.

Constantly changing guidelines and uncertainty have brought about "pandemic flux syndrome," according to Amy Cuddy, PhD, and writer JillEllyn Riley. Although it's not an official clinical term, the duo coined it in a Washington Post report.

Philadelphia-based therapist Amanda E. White, LPC, founder of Therapy for Women, posted about the "syndrome" in late September. She talks to Verywell about it, as well as ways to cope during this time.

Verywell Health: What is "pandemic flux syndrome"? How does it work and why do some of us feel this way?

White: Pandemic flux syndrome refers to the emotional impact that this phase of the pandemic has on our lives.

As a result of the pandemic’s waxing and waning, many of us have been experiencing feelings of whiplash, specifically after the sharp rise in cases after the Delta variant. There has also been a big increase in anxiety, depression, and feelings of numbness, as many of us are realizing that the pandemic may not ever go away.

We likely won’t have an "end of the pandemic" parade. We may never have an official end, which makes it hard for us to process and move on from something that is still ongoing.

Amanda E. White, LPC

Our bodies were designed to be under stress for only a short period of time.

— Amanda E. White, LPC

One reason we are feeling this way is because our surge capacity is depleted. Essentially your surge capacity is what gets you through short bursts of stress. It is the flood of hormones and physical changes that happen to your body when you enter a fight/flight/freeze mode.

However, our bodies were designed to be under stress for only a short period of time. As Amy Cuddy says, natural disasters and crises end. But for the pandemic, there has been no end. We can’t imagine one. So, it is very difficult to get closure, work through grief, and move forward when we have been in a crisis for 18 plus months.

We are exhausted, depleted, and numb. We want to hide under the covers and not leave. Many others also feel restless and bored. We may feel the urge to make a huge life change—to get a new job or move across the country. We may also feel both of these at the same time or bounce between the two urges.

Verywell Health: Why is this important to address now?

White: Unfortunately, the pandemic is predicted to be in flux for the inevitable future. There will likely be more variants that make the pandemic unpredictable. So, to some extent, we need to learn to cope with how we are feeling. It’s also important to address now because a lot of people were coping with the pandemic by fantasizing about all the wonderful things they can do when it’s over.

However, now as people have experienced the lifting of some restrictions, they may be realizing they are not feeling the joy and fulfillment that they had imagined. As a result, many of us feel disoriented and don’t know what we should be doing to cope.

A huge portion of how we feel in the current moment is based on our future. When we cannot imagine what the future will look like, or struggle to make plans because we truly do not know what will happen with the pandemic, it has a big negative impact on our mental health.

Verywell Health: How would you recommend go about coping and moving forward?

White: If you are someone who is thinking about a major life change, I would encourage you to get curious about your intentions of the change.

A year and a half is a long time to live life, so many of the changes you may want are a natural part of growing older. The pandemic also gave some people an opportunity to slow down and re-evaluate what is important in life. This may have led to very important changes that are completely in alignment with their values.

However, if you are taking action as a reaction to feeling anxious, my recommendation is to slow down and remember a big change is not a permanent cure for how you feel. If you feel especially pulled toward avoiding life right now, practice the opposite action.

This involves recognizing how you feel and taking action that is atypical from how you feel. For example, if you feel sad and want to lay in bed all day, practice getting up and getting out of your house. If you are coping by over-scheduling yourself, take opposite action by scheduling downtime and rest.

My other recommendation is to accept and surrender to this phase of the pandemic. It is true that we cannot predict what will happen during this phase, but we can predict that it will be unpredictable. We can recognize that this is going to be in flux for a while.

Therefore, instead of avoiding doing things you enjoy, obsessively checking the news (especially when it doesn’t directly apply to you), and waiting for an official end, try to practice acceptance. As a reminder, acceptance doesn’t mean you like what is happening. It doesn’t mean you approve of it. It simply means you stop fighting with reality.

Finally, set boundaries. Be honest with yourself if keeping up with the news and numbers are truly helping you or it is making you feel like you are in control of something. Take breaks from social media, take days off from work, and do things that nourish you when you can.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.