Generating wellbeing in times of emotional flux

When people ask me that ‘How are you going?’ question my immediate response is ‘I am fine and we are all managing well.’ For the most part, I have provided a fairly accurate response. I am grateful to come to work each day and I have a routine which includes speaking with my father each day, regular exercise, healthy meals and chocolate.

Like everyone else, I have my bouts of frustration when I am expected to make decisions for our School based on decisions made by the Government who have not provided the finer details. I become despondent when we are unable to have our students return to school and complete their school year with a level of normality. I become concerned about the welfare of our students, teachers, staff and parents.

Pandemic flux syndrome

I was interested to find an article written by Amy Cuddy and Jill Ellyn Riley for the Washington Post in which they write about pandemic flux syndrome, a non-clinical term used to describe a jumble of feelings associated with all of the changes, blunted emotions, spikes in anxiety and a desire to drastically change something about our lives.

Author Brene Brown notes that the pandemic flux syndrome has resulted because there is a lack of clarity about the future. We have lived with uncertainty and unpredictability for 18 months and this has resulted in exhaustion and disappointment that we have not yet reached a more normal existence.

The three stages of a crisis

Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, the author of ‘Battle Mind: Performing under pressure’ suggests that a crisis such as COVID-19 typically has three phases although they do not always come in a neat sequence of Emergency, Regression and Recovery.

  • In the first phase an emergency creates a surge capacity when the threat is extreme and we urgently need to act. In our society, we are more likely to have shared goals about getting through the crisis, and therefore we will focus on being productive and creative. We may feel resilient and even buoyant because we are all working together to reach a common goal.
  • Regression is an in-between phase where everything is uncertain and after the emergency effort we can feel tired and agitated. We tend to seek out and regress towards things that make us feel comfortable and safe. People can feel powerless and less vital during this phase. We can feel demoralised because we realise that there are aspects of the COVID pandemic and government responses over which we have little control. In this regression period we may feel less able to be our best selves. There is, however, a recognition that valuable lessons have been learned during the first and second phases and we have reflected on those things which we value most in our lives.
  • In the Rebuilding phase many of us are motivated and energised to move towards a new optimistic state. Although this is challenging as we underestimated what it might take to rebuild and we’re doing so in an altered reality. The Delta variant, along with the vaccine roll-out and the socio-economic challenges provide us with a backdrop that make the rebuilding phase more difficult than we may have imagined.

Between a rock and a hard place

Dr Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests that many of us find ourselves stuck between regression and rebuilding phases and we feel a level of ambivalence that will ebb and flow and will likely be very unique to individual circumstances. Some people desire the opportunities to rebuild and reinvent in order to make significant life and work changes. But this is not necessarily matched with the immediate sources of energy to enact these changes.

Human beings are not particularly accurate in predicting the intensity and duration of our emotions both positively and negatively for significant life events. The pandemic has resulted in all of us being in a prolonged emotional state caused by the need for resilience and monitoring of threats. Our collective capacity and mental heath have been impacted upon.

Over the past 18 months we have been drawing upon our resources with our ‘surge capacity’ which are a collection of adaptive systems both mental and physical that humans draw on for survival in acutely stressful situations. We are not supposed to be exposed to this level of stress for long periods of time and this means that that our nervous systems are depleted which can be manifested for people in various ways, such as depression, anxiety, inertia and a lack of motivation.

There is value in being able to understand these feelings and that our lives are in a state of flux.

Effectively managing a state of flux

Katelyn Merz, a social work clinician from the Centre for Human Development in the USA makes the following suggestions:

  • Be mindful of your boundaries. When we are trying to balance uncertain times, it is best not to over-complicate and overwhelm ourselves by adding more that we are comfortable with.
  • Check in with yourself and be aware of what you are exposing yourself to and the impact this is having on you.
  • Consider what you can control, such as our wellness. We are able to maintain a balance between our mental, physical and social health. When we are busy and tired, we do not always give attention to self-care.
  • Take a step back to reconsider. It is best to refrain from making any drastic decision or impulsive actions that are driven by emotions. It is important to step back and consider all aspects of a change we may be looking to make, from both a factual and an emotional perspective.
  • Normalise the experience because everyone is facing the same pandemic.

Self-care refers to those activities and practices that we deliberately choose to engage in on a regular basis to maintain our health and wellbeing. By incorporating self-care activities into our regular routine such as going for a walk or socializing with friends, we can avoid or reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety. The Black Dog Institute suggests that individuals need to develop a self-care plan.

Step one
Evaluate your coping skills by examining your habits and putting positive coping strategies in place.

Positive Negative
Skipping meals
Connecting with others
Withdrawal from friends and family
Emergency self-care strategies Helpful Unhelpful

Relaxation and staying calm
Which activities help you to relax?

Helpful self-talk may include: I am safe/I can do this?

Social support
Which family members and friends can you reach out to for help and support?

Which activities support a positive mood?

Step two
Identify your self-care needs by taking a moment to consider what you value and need in your everyday life and during times of uncertainty.

Step three
Reflect. Examine. Replace. We need to reflect on the existing coping strategies we have identified, examine the barriers to maintaining our self-care and how these can be addressed and work on replacing negative coping strategies.

Step four
Create your own Self-Care Plan.

The Black Dog Institute suggests that in addition to the Self-Care Plan it is important to find an approach that SETTLES the mind.

  • Stay focused on the here and now and avoid thinking too far into the future and take each day one step at a time.
  • Engage and stay connected to friends, family and support networks. Working together with communities, united as a country we can move through this.
  • Thoughts are thoughts, not necessarily facts. Be alert to negative thoughts and don’t give them power.
  • Treat people with kindness, support others through this time of uncertainty.
  • Limit information and time on unhelpful media. Constant exposure to anxiety-fuelling stories drives panic and uncertainty.
  • Exercise is key, research shows that good physical health is critical for a healthy mind, focus on good sleep, eating well and working out.
  • Seek help, if you are concerned about yourself or others talk to your GP, the Black Dog online clinic is a good place to start with a self-assessment

If we can all manage to develop our own self-care plan we will be better able to manage the weeks and months ahead, I believe. My days will become lighter and brighter when our students return to school and I know that all of our staff feel exactly the same way.

Susan Just
Principal, Lauriston Girls’ School