Latest Thinking

COVID-19: it’s a marathon not a sprint

May 28, 2020

I like to walk very fast, but I really hate running. For me, the idea of running a marathon provokes the same level of excitement as the prospect of a root canal. If you’re the sort of person who is excited about running far, voluntarily, all I can say is, you do you.

Unfortunately, we’re now realizing that we’re actually in the midst of an ultra-marathon. Unlike the traditional 42 kilometre undertaking, ultra-marathoners run 50, 100, even 200 kilometres – in COVID-speak, we’ve got a long way to go before we cross the finish line. From a pandemic perspective, that means while our communities are slowly opening up, there are still major obstacles ahead and almost certainly there will be second and even third waves of illness.

If you are one of the 20 per cent of Canadians who lives with a mental illness, you might feel your symptoms are worse right now because of the high level of stress we’re all feeling. A recent Angus Reid survey found that more than half of Canadians reported that their mental health has worsened due to COVID-19. We are all vulnerable.

I feel grateful I am still employed when so many Canadians have lost their job or experienced lost wages. However, many of us are working in challenging circumstances: some have small children and no childcare support, others have a partner who has lost their job, and those who continue to interact with customers worry about their personal safety or bringing the virus home to loved ones.

One area of concern that seems most widespread is that many of us are working longer hours than usual and have lost the work-life balance that is necessary for well-being. Longer work hours and other COVID-related stressors have been ongoing for nearly two months and some of us are definitely feeling the strain.

When stress is chronic, relationships can become strained, substance abuse may begin or worsen and mental illness can take root. Below are some thoughts on self-care and keeping yourself on track to finish this ultra-marathon feeling both healthy and peaceful.

1. Reflect on self-medication

According to a recent Nanos Research survey of more than 1,000 Canadians, alcohol consumption is on the rise. Conducted in early April, the report noted 25 per cent of people aged 35 to 54 and 21 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 said they’ve been drinking more since physical isolation began. The most common reasons given: lack of a regular schedule, boredom and a high stress level.

Drinking becomes “self-medication” when it’s used to treat an ailment, in this case, psychological distress. Most people have, on occasion, thought, I could really use a drink to unwind, but when that becomes necessary on most days, if more and more alcohol is required to feel relaxed or when alcohol negatively impacts your functioning at work or at home, it might have become a problem. You can substitute many other words for alcohol, including drugs of abuse or just about anything else you’re doing to excess that is negatively impacting your relationships and functioning.

If this describes your current state of affairs, and you’re not happy about it, it may be time to reflect on the situation and consider making a change. If you’re not sure you need to make a change, perhaps ask someone you know and love to walk through the situation with you and offer their thoughts. Sometimes when we’re under stress, we lose insight, which means we don’t see ourselves as others do. Asking someone who loves you what they see can really help you decide if a change is needed.

2. Get on a regular schedule

As noted above, more than 50 per cent of those surveyed said the lack of a regular schedule resulted in increased alcohol intake. You will weather this storm better if you and those you live with stick to a daily routine. Parents, remember when your toddler misses their nap? Adults are no different. We all benefit from routines, especially related to when we eat and sleep.

3. Sleep

Sleep is a gift you give yourself every night. Unfortunately, stress, anxiety and depression can rob us of sleep and leave us irritable and less effective. To put the value of sleep in context, losing just one hour of sleep related to Daylight Savings Time has been associated with an increased risk of fatal accidents, heart attacks and strokes.

We sleep better in rooms that are cool, dark and quiet. Getting to bed at the same time every night, setting an alarm to get up at the same time every morning, and not having screen time in the hour before bed are also factors associated with better quality sleep.

4. Work here, sleep there

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a space that allows, make sure to keep your work area separate from where you unwind, eat and sleep. That way, when the work day is over, you can walk away from your workspace – your physical separation supports your psychological separation, which can help you unwind.

5. Turn off your phone

Staying connected through technology has proven to be more important than ever throughout this pandemic, but when you’re supposed to be relaxing, your phone constantly beeping and/or ringing can provoke higher stress levels than occur when you’re actually supposed to be working. If you must have your phone on for friends and family, change their ringtone so you know it’s them. Most importantly, if you can, silence your phone at night.

6. Get moving

I know I’m something of a broken record here, but physical activity is a treatment for depression and anxiety. It actually grows brain cells, which is one of the ways antidepressants work. Happily, you do not need to run! A brisk walk for thirty minutes, five days a week is enough. If you haven’t done much (or anything) for the last few months, that doesn’t matter. Commit to a daily 10-minute walk and once you’ve mastered that, push it up to 20 minutes. If possible, get yourself outside every day for your walk.

If you’ve always been an “exercise person,” there is no greater gift you can give yourself right now than getting back at it, but take it slow. Pushing yourself too far, too quickly, might do more harm than good.

It’s a difficult time for every one of us; you are not alone, there is always a path ahead, and we will get through this together.

Please take good care,

Diane McIntosh, BSc Pharmacy, MD, FRCPC (Psychiatrist; General Manager, Copeman Healthcare; Chief Neuroscience Officer, TELUS)