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As we head towards balmy summer days and light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, we ought to feel elated.
After all there is more than just picnics and local parks to look forward to. There is the return to restaurants and pubs, live music and art, travel and the chance to hold the loved ones we haven’t seen for far too long.
Uneasy about lockdown lifting: Emma Hodgson with her children Max, Charlie and three-month-old Teddy.Credit:Joe Amao
Instead, for many people, the elation is muddied by ambivalence and even anxiety. At the crux of these responses is flux, or what Amy Cuddy calls “pandemic flux syndrome”.
Cuddy is the bestselling author and Harvard social psychologist whose 2012 TED talk on “power poses” has been watched nearly 63 million times.
In August, she penned an article for The Washington Post explaining how the joy many Americans felt after the first lockdown lifted had been replaced by “blunted emotions, spikes in anxiety and depression, and a desire to drastically change something about their lives”.
These emotions, she explained, are the hallmarks of pandemic flux syndrome: not a clinical term but one to capture our experience, nearly two years into COVID and battling the different beast that is the Delta variant.
It is, Cuddy says via email, an “unprecedented period of flux – rapid swings and mixed signals about COVID-related health threats [and] unpredictable changes in how and when and for how long lockdowns will be applied”.
The inconsistent approaches of governments, workplaces, and schools as well as the “immense uncertainty” about social behaviour add to the intensity and sense of flux, she explains.
“Although different regions are on different timelines, almost everyone has felt yanked around, back and forth, between hope and excitement, and fear and despair,” says Cuddy, whose Australian husband hasn’t been able to see his family for two years.
“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
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