The COVID Marathon
by Suzanne Manser, PhD
It’s the beginning of Week 5 for most of us.* Most of us started hitting our wall last week. I heard it from patient after patient last week, and still into this week: It is feeling so much harder.
Here’s how it’s gone so far:
Week 1: Lots of confusion about the virus; concern for what is happening and what may happen; lots of pictures of new “home offices” and cute “office mates” (i.e., pets and kids) on social media; and countless memes about social distancing.
Weeks 2-3: Increased confusion; increased concern for our own health, for the health of the people of the world, and for those who will take care of all of us; scheduling daily walks and virtual coffee with friends; memes about the challenges of home schooling; and appreciating the time spent with whomever you’re spending it with. If you are spending it alone, things are starting to get harder much earlier for you.
Week 4: The novelty is wearing off. Any part of it that was kind of fun is losing its luster. We are starting to deeply miss the refueling we get from being with friends and/or being alone. We are trying to make it all work, and it’s not working (yes, there are memes about that). We are realizing that more people are at risk for the virus than we thought. We are terrified about the lack of ventilators, hospital beds, and medical staff. And, of course, tens of thousands of people are dying in our country alone.
It is the beginning of Week 5. The situation is wearing on us. We are very focused on the fact that we don’t know how long this will go on. We are starting to really realize that this is what we are doing for the foreseeable future. The predictions range from six more weeks to 18 more months (I can’t even….). The depression is starting to hit for many. If you have recently found yourself having to push harder than usual to get up in the morning or to get through the day, you’re not alone. This is (getting) hard.
We’ve been cheering each other on: We got this!! Social media has told us how to do this quarantine thing: take daily walks, figure out how to home school the kids but don’t put too much pressure on yourself or them, make yourself a nice home office area, and watch the Tiger King. Easy Peasy. Until Week 4, when we realize that much of that well-meaning advice only goes so far. That advice is good advice – I’ve needed to be reminded that we’re not in this alone, that we can’t do it all, and that no one is getting out of their pj’s. My Facebook feed is full of memes reminding me that it’s OK if my kids are in front of screens too much (they are).
And still, all of that is starting to fall a bit flat because it’s not addressing the phase we’re in now: the Sh*t Got Real phase. We are struggling, we are lonely, we are bored, there is a lot of ambiguity, and we are finding it harder to motivate ourselves. The memes don’t give us guidance on how to manage the burn out, the fears about money, or not knowing how long this will go on (except this one, by Michael Leunig:).
We need to find a new way to frame this thing for ourselves because we’re in a marathon, not a sprint. We didn’t train for it, most of us didn’t have any idea it was coming, and yet here we are, already getting exhausted and with no idea where the finish line is. We have to find a long-term perspective to help us pace ourselves.
First – and this is an important one – we have to accept that it’s a marathon, and that we don’t know how far ahead the finish line is. Or where the unforeseen curves are between now and then. It is natural to want to know when this Shelter at Home situation is going to end. It would feel so much better if we just knew how long we are in this situation. We could better mentally prepare for it. But at this point in time, we can’t know. That’s really hard to accept, but it is clearly the truth. Accept that, let it be as it is, and you will stop spinning some of your wheels. You create unnecessary suffering by focusing on how hard it is not to know when this will end.
Acceptance comes more easily when you’re not overwhelmed with information and feelings about that information. I am suggesting that everyone watch much less news and check Twitter much less frequently. Don’t spend so much energy looking for answers or the latest information. Checking the news once a day is more than sufficient. Most people report feeling better when they reduce their media consumption.
Once you feel some ease with not knowing how long this will go on, you will find yourself changing your expectations. When you are in a marathon, you have a different expectation of your pace than if you were in a sprint. In other words, don’t expect to learn a new language or enjoy sparkling conversation in your Zoom happy hour every Friday. Don’t expect that your kids are going to learn whatever they would have learned in in-person school. Expect that you are going to get through this. Expect that it will be hard. Expect that there will be ups and downs for everyone involved. Expect that things will feel better in the moments when you have more energy or less stress or more sleep. Don’t expect that you will be able to run an unexpected marathon without pain or needing to stop and walk for a while.
Third, in life in general, and especially in a pandemic, it is helpful to focus on what you can control and not let your focus linger on what you can’t control. Which brings me back to the uncertainty about how long this will last. You can’t control when we will return to life outside of our homes, so if you are obsessively speculating about that, stop it. Instead, focus on what you can control, which typically only exists in the present. If you are feeling helpless, where can you donate money, time, or supplies? If you are feeling disconnected, who can you call? If there is no one to call, start journaling. If you are feeling anxious, do some deep breathing or remind yourself of all of the things you are in control of. You can’t control the pandemic beyond staying at home, but there is a lot within your control when you start looking for it. That is where you will be able to effect changes in your life.
Finally, focus on the big picture: this is a truly unique moment in your life. Your life has changed in fundamental ways for a period of time, along with the rest of the world’s. What is going to be your takeaway? What are you going to keep from this period of time? What are you going to let go of from your “normal” life? What is moving you? What is supporting you? If we are paying attention, how we are experiencing this quarantine is reflective of what we value – what are we missing, what are we grieving, what are we chafing against, what are we loving about it? As we move through this, we have a unique opportunity to learn about ourselves and make significant life changes. A marathon gives us plenty of opportunities to learn lessons.
We have all become familiar with the curves and the idea of flattening them. There is also a curve of your emotional experience during this pandemic. Many of us are in a particularly low emotional moment on that curve right now, because of how we have been approaching this. The ideas above are meant to help you pace yourself and give you some sustenance along the way. Settle in, be kind to yourself, and stay safe.
*This is meant to be reflective of “most” folks’ potential experience and not the experience of people with COVID-19, those who have lost loved ones to it, or the medical staff and many others who put themselves at risk every day.