Mental Health During COVID is a Marathon Not a Sprint

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Long ago in a (pre-COVID) galaxy far, far away, I ran four half marathons in a year. And while it takes a certain level of physical fitness to run for multiple hours, the truth is that endurance races are won or lost inside your head. There comes a time in every long run when you’re tired, uncomfortable, and questioning your life choices. That’s the point when you are most at risk of quitting. The people who make it out of the rough patch talk themselves through it.

It made a lot of sense to me the first time someone framed coping with COVID as a marathon. This virus has been around far longer than many of us expected, and we still have plenty of road ahead of us before we get to cross the finish line. Buying mountains of toilet paper isn’t going to save us. The only way we’re going to get through is by tending to our mental wellness.

Everything I Learned about Mental Toughness I Learned from Running

I’m not a mental health expert. I also don’t want to imply that I’m skating through this pandemic without a care in the world. Two of my relatives died in April in the space of six days. I live with the same financial uncertainty that touches us all. But running taught me a technique for slogging through the tough bits. Maybe it will help you.

Acknowledge the feeling.

At the beginning of my run training I couldn’t run more than two miles. I tried running at different times of the day. I experimented with when I ate in relation to when I ran. Nothing seemed to work. Twenty minutes into my run my energy would tank and I would quit running.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to pay attention to what I told myself when I got tired. Usually, I said ‘I’m so tired. I don’t know if I can do this.’ Then I tried talking myself out of my exhaustion. (This is what I thought positive self-talk was.) It didn’t work because I was lying. And no one believes a liar.

After a lot of trial and error I discovered what works for me. I treat the whole thing like a cross between a therapist’s visit and a hostage situation. When my brain says ‘I’m tired,’ I think ‘Yes I’m tired, but I’m not injured, and I know I can go a little bit longer.’ And you know what? I usually can.

Re-frame the Situation.

At some point you’re going to feel like you’re doing the pandemic wrong. If you’re a parent, you worry that you’re breaking your kids because you can’t home school with a smile. If you’re childless you may be disappointed with your inability to write a novel or get in the best shape of your life.

Here’s the thing. None of us were meant to function optimally in a pandemic. They don’t cover how to do that in school. Our circumstances have changed. And as any savvy business person will tell you, when the market changes, a savvy business leader changes her approach. She changes her goals and expectations to suit the current conditions.

So when that little voice inside of you tells you that you’re a bad person for eating cupcakes for dinner, or for letting your kids play Minecraft for 10 hours straight, you tell it that you aren’t lowering the bar. You’re being adaptable. And when the pandemic passes, you will adjust your approach like the resilient person that you are.

You’re doing your best. And your best is good enough.

In Remembrance

Me and Grandma Elena at my wedding many years ago. Can you see the resemblance? We have the same nose and cheekbones.

My grandmother’s name is Magdalena, but I never heard anyone call her that. To my grandfather, she was always Elena. So when it came time to pick my daughter’s middle name, I gave her the name Elena, not Magdalena, to honor my grandma.

Last Sunday morning my grandma died of covid.

I’m not going to tell that story. Most of you have never met my grandma, and I refuse to let her ending define her. Instead I will say this about her:

Grandma Elena moved to the US from Mexico shortly after marrying my grandfather. Great Grandma thought that if she married her wandering son to a good village girl, he would leave the US (where he was a citizen) and raise his family in Mexico. Turns out he was a good enough son to marry the woman his mother picked out, but not good enough to stay in their village. Instead, he moved his new wife back to California, where they raised six children.

My grandpa told me this story when I was 13. To hear him tell it, he and grandma took two weeks to get to know each other before they agreed to marry. Looking back, I wonder if Grandma sized up Grandpa and decided he was worth taking a chance on. She always struck me as the more deliberate of the two.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to marry a man and move to a country where you don’t speak the language. I always thought it must have taken a great deal of fortitude and resourcefulness. My father says she ran their house like a captain, feeding and bathing the children–my aunts and uncles–in an assembly line. My grandpa was the head of the family, but to paraphrase a quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she was definitely the neck, who could turn the head whichever way she wanted.

All I know is that she could cook anything. Growing up we ate menudo, buenuelos, and choritzo sausage that she made from scratch. When I went vegetarian, she was the one who tried to figure out how to make vegetarian tamales. She brought the ingredients to my mother’s house, and we spent all day, just the two of us, learning out how to make masa preparada taste good without lard.

I learned three things that day. First, Crisco is magical. Second, never make tamales with fewer than 10 people. Third, grandma really wanted me to know how to make our traditional foods, even if I didn’t follow a traditional diet. She gave me a tortilla press before I moved to New York. With that and my newfound tamale knowledge, I was set loose to spread Mexican meals wherever I wandered.

My daughter bears her great grandma’s name. I hope that she carries the same fortitude and resourcefulness inside of her. I will use strong words if she tries to marry a man after two weeks of dating. Some day I will teach her to make tamales and tortillas. And then I will let her wander. It’s what grandma would have wanted.

Remote in the Time of CoronaVirus

Yes you need the right tools, but this is still a people issue.

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On Wednesday, my eldest child came stomping into the living room to declare that her brother farted on her book, and she was forced to wash it because it “Stunk SO bad!” I double checked that no books were harmed in the cleaning process, and thought ‘I really hope we aren’t cooped up in the house because of COVID.’ Half of my parenting strategy involves yelling “Go play outside!” when they get too fidgety indoors. I’ll have to be a better parent if we must quarantine inside. Or we’ll need to re-institute the indoor laps the kids used to run when they were toddlers.

I’m luckier than many. My job is already fully remote, my husband and I know how to work while both of us are home, and none of us have any underlying health conditions. We bought our (small) box of non perishable foods and extra toilet paper to augment the emergency supplies we already had in storage. And most importantly, I have a lifetime supply of yarn, books, and other craft supplies at the ready. As far as I’m concerned this makes me a hard-core survivalist. 

In the Right Place at the Right Time

Still, it’s been a wild week. On Friday my publicist said that a reporter from CNN wanted to talk to me. On Monday morning she interviewed me about staying productive if you have to work from home due to CoronaVirus. Later that evening I spoke to someone from the New York Post about remote work. (That story isn’t live yet at the time of this writing). Monday was also the day that my article on how to rock your first month at your new remote job went live at Training Magazine, so it was a big news day for me personally. This is all heady stuff for this poor kid from San Jose.  

Both reporters focused on the concrete things employees can do now to prepare for remote work. What we didn’t talk about were the emotions. And folks, we need to talk about the emotions.

How to Mess Up Remote Work

There are two main ways to fail at remote. You can 1) fail to provide the right tools, and 2) fail to provide the right employee support. It’s a lot easier to fix the former because your employees will tell you if they don’t have the right software at home. They are far less likely to tell you that your management style leaves them feeling like you don’t trust them to do their work.

This is true under normal circumstances. But we aren’t dealing with normal circumstances. They folks who go remote due to COVID will be under additional pressure.

Remote, Without a Support Structure

There will likely be a lot of people who feel well enough to work, who must stay home. Perhaps they’ve been exposed to the virus, or have to care for a sick relative. Perhaps their child’s school has closed.

Regardless of the circumstances, most companies will have people who are trying to work with family or housemates in the background. The single biggest service a manager can do for her team is to acknowledge that these are extraordinary circumstances. No one will be at their best, but together, you will do your best. Someone’s kid is going to scream the second they come off of mute. Someone’s internet isn’t going to be as good as advertised. Provide some forgiveness up front, and your team will forgive you when you inevitably hit a snag.

None of us asked for this. But if you play your cards right, your team will come out the other end stronger, and united.