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The coronavirus pandemic has people feeling uncertain, angry, helpless or sad, issues that if not addressed can compound and adversely impact our mental health.
Trail runners are great at managing big tasks, for example, breaking down long races into reasonable bites by focusing on just running from aid station to aid station. But the intangibles and uncertainty of coronavirus and its ever-changing restrictions make that kind of rational approach almost impossible, allowing the stress to accumulate.
Many athletes’ lives are programmed to be extremely busy between work, training, family and social obligations, and disrupting those routines can trigger underlying mental-health struggles like depression, anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, compulsions and eating disorders.
While running is still encouraged (with appropriate social-distancing practices) and can help reduce stress levels, we should all prioritize our mental health. Here’s some food for thought.
Feel What You Feel
Whatever you’re feeling is OK. It could be anxiety, sadness, grief or something you’ve yet to identify.
“It’s OK to feel disappointed that your race was canceled and to grieve that loss, even in the face of a global pandemic. It’s OK to feel like you are losing your mind trapped in your house unable to shred the trails,” says Haleigh Fisher, a Licensed Professional Counselor in Texas who specializes in working with athletes. “Allow yourself to feel, then work on processing those feelings and experiences.”
Journaling or talking to a trusted friend can help you work through complicated emotions and allow yourself needed personal space. Culture might encourage some people, particularly athletes, to hide their emotions and put on a brave face.
“Acting tough can lead to a stress response, and lead to more symptoms of depression and anxiety,” says Danielle Snyder, an ultrarunner and licensed clinical social worker who works with athletes through Inner Drive Athlete. “We as a society need to collectively process this societal loss from coronavirus in order to move forward.”
Control the Controllables
Separate what is in your control, and what isn’t. While the coronavirus isn’t in our control, our response to it is. Channel energy into the things that you can take care of, like following public health directives and washing your hands. Develop healthy habits around sleep, eating and exercise.
Limit your time reading news and spending time on social media. Compulsively researching every scientific fact, or refreshing COVID-19 case counts will not affect what is happening in the world and isn’t good for your mental health.
Set boundaries with others. If you’re communicating with others who are panicky, it will increase your panic. Let people around you know if you’re feeling sad or anxious, and that you need to be protective of not feeding those emotions. It’s also okay to ask for a little extra space if you’re sharing close quarters in self-isolation, so don’t be afraid to express those feelings to a roommate, partner or family member.
Set a schedule. Try to wake up, eat meals and head to bed around the same time. The same goes for exercise for your run or exercise. “It’s true that it may look different, as gyms and other places are closed. However, the outdoors is still open, with social distancing, and being able to work out outside can still be an option,” says Dr. Amy Gallagher, a licensed psychologist with Whole Health, LLC.
Many people who are used to working in offices, or meeting with a group to run might be struggling with loneliness and isolation. Those feelings can exacerbate underlying mental health issues and are challenging in their own right. Build a support network. That could include family, friends, coaches, teammates and a therapist.
Reach out to that network if you need support. Ask specifically for what you need, and practice vulnerability, because people in your network are probably feeling similar things.
If you’re used to working in an office, schedule a FaceTime coffee with a co-worker to check-in and share how things are going. If you’re used to running with a group, reach out to your running buddies to share how your isolation training is going, and encourage them as well.
Set Aside Time For Joy
Fisher recommends identifying the things that bring you joy, and setting aside at least 20 minutes a day for at least one of those activities. Don’t be afraid to take some pressure off your training and get back into things you might have neglected. Start writing a short story, or pick up the guitar. Try a new recipe, or start a new TV show
“It could be talking with a friend, baking or taking a nap,” she says. “Now is also a great time to try new things or re-invest in things you once enjoyed but haven’t done in a while.”
Lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders might cause feelings of anxiety to escalate, and lead people to feel stuck and isolated. Snyder urges people to resist the urge to hunker down completely and to move around safely in their homes.
“Walk around your house, or sway in place. Walk back and forth, or jog in place,” she says, citing that moving side to side rhythmically uses something called bilateral stimulation, which helps re-regulate your nervous system and can help produce calm. “If you can step outside, do it. Engage all of your senses to help you ground.”
Gallagher says that practicing gratitude can also help ease feelings of anxiety, “Focus on something that is going well in the moment – perhaps, you are healthy right now, you have food to eat, the sun is shining,” says Dr. Gallagher. Start a gratitude journal, or text a friend to let them know you’re thankful for them.
Breathing exercises and meditation can also be effective in combating anxiety. Some people might turn to humor to help them cope, just make sure you’re being considerate of others’ feelings who might not share that approach.
Remember that you’re doing the best you can with the information that you have, and give yourself compassion and kindness. Basically, cut yourself extra slack. And do the same for others.
“Encourage yourself and remind yourself that you are safe right now,” says Snyder. “We will survive this storm by grounding our roots down, like a tree in a storm.”