The Pandemic Paradox: Expect the Unexpected

August 21, 2020

If it seems like every day of 2020 is delivering new information, it’s because it is—and the sudden shifts include what’s happening at colleges and universities nationwide. The motto for the moment seems to be expect the unexpected. We asked Associate Professor and Program Director of Clinical Health Psychology Amy Wachholtz, PhD, how to navigate all this change.

Besides all the changes related to COVID-19 health information, people are also dealing with changes in virtually all aspects of daily life. This includes significant shifts in education, from kindergarten to college. In fact, universities have had to adjust plans so quickly that The Chronicle of Higher Education updates its list of college reopenings daily. Notably, the list of reopening reversals is growing. Two weeks into the academic year, some colleges have had to send students home. A U.S. map titled “Changes to Colleges’ Fall Plans” shows color-coded dots for different scenarios, including purple for “Outbreak, going remote.” Students, faculty, and staff had to adjust overnight last spring—and it’s possible that a sudden shift will happen again.

Amy Wachholtz
Amy Wachholtz teaches psychology.

“Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher stated, ‘change is the only constant in life,’” Wachholtz said. “Change is how we grow, how we develop new skills, and move into new stages in life,” she added.  The types of change that give people the most difficulty are unexpected changes, and the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in many.

Part of the issue with pandemic-related changes has been that they put many people in a constant state of flux. “Plans will get developed over months of discussion, but may need to be suddenly changed overnight when new information comes to light,” Wachholtz said.

It takes a lot of cognitive energy to stay flexible. “That may be particularly difficult for people right now, because there are so many competing demands for people’s cognitive energy (concerns about financial status, jobs, childcare, classes, among many other issues). So change may feel more disruptive and exhausting than it normally would,” she added.

There are ways to cope with constant change. Wachholtz recommends people preserve their cognitive energy by using stress-management techniques. “Some of the techniques that have been found to be the most useful include things like periodic ‘unplugging,’ or taking an electronic break. Meditation, physical distant engagement with friends or family, exercise, and other self-care techniques can give your brain a chance to take a break from the stressors that are draining your cognitive energy,” she said.

Instead of worrying, “you can use time to take a break from the stressors that are draining your cognitive energy,” Wachholtz said. CU Denver’s Wellness Center offers some great tools: YOU portal, Nod App,  and Virtual Wellness Programs, including At-Home Adventures.