Building Stamina for the Pandemic

Prolonged distress is costly. Building emotional stamina can help.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

Jason Abdilla/Unsplash
Source: Jason Abdilla/Unsplash

Early on in the COVID reality, I spoke of getting through the pandemic as a marathon, not a sprint. Five months in, I think it is fair to say it is more akin to an Ironman or Ultramarathon. With COVID information and safety guidelines constantly changing, we find ourselves exhausted as we stare, wide-eyed, and full of emotions, into a future of unknowns. The World Health Organization warns of a coming wave of very real mental health conditions made worse by our current reality, and national mental health hotlines are reporting a fivefold increase in calls.

If we are going to make it through this tumultuous time with our psychological well-being intact, we are going to need mental and emotional stamina. In order to have sufficient stores of this important resource, we’ll need to get intentional about setting appropriate limits in certain areas of our lives and being proactive about our emotional and intellectual well-being.

Here are some tips for doing just that:

Stay (as much as possible) in the present. Align your media habits with this goal. A 24-hour active news cycle coupled with our connection to our devices means that we are fed constantly changing information about what is coming next. Even though much of what we learn from the media is speculation, we have a tendency to react as though it is a fact. This keeps us in a constant state of hypervigilance and reactivity.

As much as possible, set aside two times a day (at the very most) to check news and social media sites, and be present to your embodied life in between. Being tethered to ever-changing information leaves us at risk of centering our lives in sensationalized “what-ifs” and robs us of opportunities to find comfort in what is. A few deep breaths, mindfully eating a tasty meal or drinking a fragrant cup of tea, having a meaningful conversation, stretching, or taking time to savor the sights around us help us to be self-aware and present to the moment in a way that feeds stamina.

Maintain perspective and positivity. Create rewards along the way. It’s common, when training for physical feats, to set small goals and celebrate them, as well as to remember that the difficult parts of the experience won’t last forever. “I’ll run to the next light pole, then let myself walk a block.” “I’m going to be uncomfortable for a while; then, I’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment.”

The same practices can help with mental and emotional stamina in hard times. It’s important to create small rewards for making it through a day, a week, a month in challenging conditions. It’s also crucial to remind ourselves that there will be a day when we’ll enjoy hugs, meals in restaurants, and live theater and sporting events. This perspective-taking helps us tolerate the discomfort of now.

Be intentional about choices and attention. Presently, it’s easy to be overly aware of the things we cannot do. To thrive, however, we must direct our attention to the choices that are open to us.

We can choose to fill our quarantine time with scrolling social media or gaming, likely finding ourselves at risk of depression or anxiety, or we can choose to engage a variety of tasks in diverse settings. For example, rather than focusing on the live concerts that we can’t attend, we can ask a friend to meet us at a distance and play our guitars or listen to music. We can grieve, rather than be reactively angry, over not being able to dine in at restaurants, then choose to get take out and make some small tweaks to our eating space to add ambiance.

Actively work through feelings. Just like continuing to run with a pulled muscle can lead to greater injury, letting feelings go unaddressed is dangerous. This is the perfect time for finding a feeling word chart and posting it in your home or on your home screen. Refer to it often, identifying the feelings that come up for you in a day.

It’s likely that grief, fear, and anger will be frequent visitors. These strong emotions have the potential to create harm in ourselves and our relationships if they aren’t named, understood, felt, and worked through. Journaling, talking with a friend or therapist, and getting informed about emotional regulation can all help here.

Have a solid (and diverse) self-soothing plan. If we hope to name and work through our feelings, we must also have ways of comforting ourselves. Making a list of 20 actions that are uniquely soothing can go a long way.

Self-soothing and self-care aren’t all manicures and massages. Our lists should include things like deep breathing, movement, engagement with something creative, etc. If we hope to have the stamina for what is ahead, we need to know that we have ways of taking care of ourselves when things feel like “too much” so that we can re-enter life with all of its unknowns. Post your self-soothing plan next to your feeling chart, and commit to taking action when you begin to feel overwhelmed.

Manage stress. Stress is toxic and is plentiful when we feel out of control. There is such a thing as optimal stress, which helps us stay engaged and motivated and drives us to perform. Burnout, fatigue, and hopelessness, however, can result when stress is too intense or prolonged.

Getting serious about apportioning our living spaces for work, rest, and play can be important for managing stress. Similarly, the creation of clear and consistent boundaries regarding the amount of time we spend working is crucial. When everything is melded together, we tend to work more than we might otherwise, and our work is also constantly with us. This is true of school as well.

Clarifying our boundaries around space and time and committing to keeping them can help us manage our stress. So can the development of a meditation and/or breathing practice, psychotherapy, consistent recreational connection to friends, exercise, and fresh air/nature.

Tend to your body. Our bodies carry a bulk of the weight of prolonged distress. Right now, it is crucial that we tend to our physical needs. We need to drink water and move our bodies in creative and consistent ways (walk, jump rope, dance, hula hoop, badminton, etc.). It’s important that at least one meal a day is a colorful one that includes lean proteins and complex carbohydrates.

Once we’ve fed ourselves and moved, we must rest, and we must do so with consistency. Sleep offers our body the opportunity to heal, and experts recommend 7 to 9 hours plus during times of prolonged distress. It’s also crucial to incorporate periods of rest throughout the day. A brief walk, stepping outside for 3 minutes of fresh air, taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, or simply daydreaming can all help.