The Pandemic Is a Marathon. Here’s How to Stay Strong.
Expert advice for getting through the winter with COVID-19 as bad as it has ever been
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In May, shortly after the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote an essay for The New York Times comparing COVID-19 to an endurance event. I argued that getting through it would demand patience, pacing, persistence, and purpose. While all of that was true then (and still is now), readers pointed out that my metaphor was wrong on at least one account: in endurance events, you know when the finish line is; not so with COVID. However, thanks to the development of highly effective vaccines, it seems that the end may finally be in sight. And yet it likely won’t be until summer or perhaps even fall. That’s because a critical mass of people must be vaccinated in order to attain herd immunity.
The brutal paradox in a marathon is that right when you can sniff the finish line, usually between mile 20 and mile 22, the race invariably feels the longest. The same is likely to be true with COVID-19. Cases are rising and fatigue from far-reaching lifestyle modifications is building. We may be done with most of the race, but there is a good chance the final stretch will feel like forever. Here are six principles to help you get through it.
Set Appropriate Expectations
Happiness is a function of reality minus expectations. If your expectations are higher than your current experience, you are likely to be sad or disappointed. When we received news of effective vaccines, lots of people felt quite positive, and for good reason! But it’s important to remember that vaccines do no good until they are in your arm, and the arms of just about everyone around you. That is going to take time. It’s best to prepare for the worst, and if everything turns out great, then you can be pleasantly surprised. In my coaching practice, I’m working with clients to adopt the mindset that things will be normal by October but will continue to be hard until then.
Practice Tragic Optimism
Lowering your expectations doesn’t mean that you can’t be hopeful. The goal is not to spend the next several months despairing. Rather, it’s to hold the good and the bad at the same time. Psychologists call this tragic optimism, or “the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.” This approach acknowledges and accepts a challenging situation for what it is. And then it says: Well, this is what is happening right now, so let’s see what I can control; I might as well do the best I can. People who demonstrate tragic optimism suffer the same—and sometimes even more—pain and sorrow in the short term as those who become pessimistic and despairing. The difference is that tragic optimists do the hard work of feeling that pain and moving forward anyway. As a result, studies show that they are less likely to experience lasting psychological distress and more likely to find meaning and even thrive amid chaos.
Keep Moving Your Body
Even though it’s cold outside and gyms are closed, you should still keep up your physical practice. As I’ve written countless times before, though exercise is by no means a panacea for depression and anxiety, hundreds of studies show that it can help.
Do what you can to make movement a daily priority. It doesn’t have to be heroic. Even a 20-minute circuit of body-weight exercises or a fast-paced walk can do wonders. Remember: you don’t need to feel good to get going. You need to get going, and then you give yourself a chance of feeling good. Just get started.
When the term “social distancing” was first coined, I argued that it needed a rebrand. I wrote that “physical distancing” is much more appropriate. That’s because, perhaps now more than ever, we need connection. Decades of research shows that going through hard times together is a lot easier than going through hard times alone. Though there’s little research on the best ways to use digital media during a pandemic (the last pandemic was in 1918, long before the internet), in my experience with coaching individuals virtually, the more present you can be for the conversation, the better. If you are multitasking while on Zoom or your phone, you probably won’t feel great after. In other words, when you are talking to someone, give them your full attention. Close the other browsers on your computer, and turn off the television. As a 2018 article in The Journal of Social Psychology explains, multitasking is associated with lower satisfaction with the task at hand—anyone who has surfed the web while on the phone and felt kind of hollow afterward knows this to be true. It totally sucks not being able to get together in person. Everyone is feeling at least a little lonely right now. Know that you are not alone, and keep putting in the effort to stay connected however you can.
Stick to a Routine, but Be OK with Changing It Up
Scott Kelly is a former NASA astronaut who spent 340 days on the International Space Station in 2016, the longest amount of time an American has ever been in space. In a recent interview with CNN about living in isolation, Kelly emphasized the importance of having a set schedule: “If you’re lucky enough to be able to work from home, you know, schedule those work times. I would go as far as even scheduling meals. My wife and I have been making a schedule like we were in space, because if you keep to that schedule, and it has variety, I think what people will find are the days go by much quicker.”
As I’ve written before, routines are beneficial for a variety of reasons. They help you activate when you’re feeling low, automate decisions so you don’t burn willpower, and prime your mind-body system to more easily groove into the task at hand. Perhaps the biggest advantage of having a routine right now, however, is that it can help mark time. With traditional ways to delineate between days and weeks largely gone (like going to work in an office or going out to dinner or to a movie), routines can help fight against the COVID-19 blur, where one day, week, and month bleeds into the next. Just be sure to change things up once they feel stale. Always having a routine makes sense, but it doesn’t always have to be the same one.
Don’t Get Lazy Now
Before effective vaccines were authorized, we had no clue if life would be like this for years. Thankfully, it won’t. We now know that there is an end point, a finish line. This means that if you can just make it through this final stretch by being cautious, following public health guidelines, and practicing self-compassion, you can look forward to normalcy, fun, and well-being on the other side. At the end of this marathon you don’t get a medal. You get a shot (or two) in the arm. But it’ll still be great.