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COVID-19: The Last Leg of the Race—Stay Strong, Stay Safe!

On the night of Sunday, December 13, 2020, a cargo jet touched down at Mirabel International Airport in Montreal, carrying Canada’s first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. And it’s not a moment too soon, because we’re all tired. We’ve had our fill of lockdowns, unhappy, cooped-up kids, wearing masks, canceled birthday parties, and not being able to hug our grandparents. We all long for the return of normal life. But the fight isn’t over yet. In fact, these final months may be the most critical time of the entire pandemic. Managing our own anxiety can go a long way toward helping our loved ones steer clear of mental health issues and keep the ill-effects of anxiety at bay.

Pandemic fatigue is very real, but it’s also dangerous. Now that we know a vaccine is here, it may be tempting to drop our guard too soon. But acting like the pandemic is over before it’s actually over, is a recipe for disaster. Easing up too soon could bring unnecessary suffering and death that we’ve seen in other places, where the pandemic ran wild. After sacrificing so much, that would be truly tragic.

This last leg of the marathon is when we’re all the most tired, but it’s also when we have to dig deep, and find a little extra stamina, so we can finish strong. It won’t be easy. Canadian winters are always cold, dark and a little lonely, and this one will probably be worse than usual. But there are ways to make it more tolerable. Here are a few suggestions for making it through these final pandemic months.

I’ll freely admit that in terms of psychotherapy, none of these are novel or ground-breaking. But the amazing thing is that after years of research into therapeutic methods, study after study has shown that these simple practices really do work to help manage stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues brought on by loneliness and isolation.

#1 Show Compassion

We’re all tired and stressed—it’s easy to recognize pandemic fatigue all around. It’s easy to be cranky, frustrated and focused on our own problems. So, try to remember that others are dealing with the same—or even worse—conditions. Check-in with neighbours and friends to ask if they’re okay. Try to be patient and sympathetic with strangers, particularly if you can see visible signs to indicate they may not be coping well with anxiety. Small acts of kindness will brighten their days and your own. Show yourself self-compassion (more to come on that).

#2 Spend Time Outdoors

One of the things we’ve learned about COVID-19 is that it’s primarily spread by face-to-face indoor contact. That means spending time outdoors is generally safe, as long as you follow distancing rules. Even better, we also know spending time outdoors almost always elevates one’s mood. You don’t have to be Survivorman, snowshoeing through the forest, either. Even just bundling up and taking a walk or sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee, in the sunshine or under the stars will almost always help lift your mood and help reduce feelings of anxiety.

#3 Connect Virtually With out-of-town Friends and Family

In the 1918 flu pandemic, the only way people could stay in touch was by snail-mail or, in an emergency, telegram. Today, with our ubiquitous voice and video calling technology, we are so much luckier. But you need to actually pick up the phone or sit down at your computer and use it. Again, Zoom calling a friend or loved one is another one of those simple acts that can make you both feel better.

#4 Set a Small Daily Goal

As the days run together, we can feel stagnant, bored, and mired in routine. Ironically, having time on our hands and nothing to do with it can allow us to fall into a depressive feedback loop where the less we do, the less we feel like we can do. One way to shake this is by setting small daily goals. Shoot for simple, achievable 5-, 10- or 15-minute tasks, like taking a short walk, reading a few chapters of a book, or even just making your bed. Meeting these kinds of small, positive goals gives you a much-needed sense of accomplishment. For individuals facing diagnosed mental health issues, an important component of treatment is helping them establish a routine of simple activities.

#5 Give Yourself a Break

The flip side of #4 is that it’s also okay to give yourself a break. Just because you’re cooped up at home, you don’t have to feel like you must use this“bonus” time to learn to play the viola, speak a new language or give your house the Marie Kondo-treatment from top to bottom. Even though we may not realize it, we use a surprising amount of our mental and physical energy simply getting through the pandemic, day after day. So, every once in a while, it’s okay to let the dust bunnies roam free, or the dishes pile up, or the leaves go unraked. On airplane safety talks, they tell you to put on your own oxygen masks before assisting others. The same is true on the ground: You can’t take care of others if you’re not well enough to take care of yourself.

It’s unfortunate that we are all experiencing widespread pandemic fatigue, but now that the end is in sight, we all need to hang in there just a little longer. And if we can do it, the spring and summer of 2021 will be a time to celebrate our shared sacrifice and, hopefully, return to the joys of regular life.

Thanks for reading and, as always, please feel free to reach out with questions about this or other mental health issues.
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