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How to Avoid Depression During the Pandemic

Psychologists present concrete steps to creatively counter the very real risk of depression right now.

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Earlier this month, mental health experts warned that depression and anxiety could be the next wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Most of us, in fact, would have to be superhuman to avoid at least some level of depression. A deadly disease is on the loose, the economy is on the ropes, elderly relatives are locked down where we can’t visit them, and we can’t even find toilet paper, for goodness’ sake. 

Running Through Loss

Several signs posted to a gate say "Doors unlocked from dusk to dawn," "This area is CLOSED to prevent the spread of corona virus," and "Due to COVID-19 this area is CLOSED until further notice"
Photo: Rich Fury / Getty Images

But in addition to these things, which afflict everyone else, runners are finding they are not only unable to go to a track for a workout, but that favorite trails are closed, races are canceled, and it’s no longer possible to join their pals for Saturday-morning training runs.

“Those are very real losses,” says Tiffany McClean, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and marathoner in Portland, Oregon, who frequently works with athletes. “When runners get injured, they get depressed, too. The new epidemic has already begun.”

We’re also dealing with a type of depression we’re not used to—a lot more complex than simply waiting out an injury. One result is that even though we are fit and unhurt, we may find it increasingly hard to find the inspiration to train—especially if the things we really love are races, now-closed trails, or hard training workouts with our friends.

“Suddenly, it becomes ‘Why am I running?’” says Jeff Simons, a professor of sports psychology at California State University, East Bay. The resulting depression, he says, can lead to hopelessness and reduced motivation even to get out the door.

It’s a problem that can afflict even the most mentally healthy. “The issues are uncertainty and loss of control,” Simons says. “These make us confused, stressed/anxious, lethargic (or hyped up), and depressed.” All of which can send your running into a downward spiral, especially if you figure you’ll just get back into shape after the pandemic ends. “If you drop it entirely, it’s probably going to be a long road back,” he says.

Adjust Motivations

The solution, he says, begins by adjusting your reasons for getting out the door. Instead of focusing on racing and training goals, he says, run for the simple pleasure of it. “Run long/hard when you feel like it; run easy other times to make it OK to get out and do something. Make it less of a chore, more of a relief/reward.”

When doing this, he says, don’t focus on training/racing goals, but on what it feels like to be alive and moving. 

“Find the love you have in moving and being,” he says. “That keeps you ‘present’ and is intrinsically satisfying.” 

This, he adds, is intrinsically fulfilling, counteracting the temptation to feel that because you have no race to look forward to, “I’m just going to sit around.”

Avoid the Productivity Trap

But at the same time, he urges, avoid what he calls the “Special Times, Special Opportunities trap”—the idea that because quarantine may have left you with unaccustomed time on your hands, you ought to apply it productively by adding new things to your training that you’ve never had time for before.

What makes this a trap, he says, is the phrase “ought to.” 

“Yes, you may find that you can accomplish things that you didn’t have time or energy to do before,” he says, “but cast off thoughts that you should be using this time to ‘get ahead.’”

The problem, he says, is that the minute such “should” goals fail to happen, you feel guilty.

“Then you go to sleep, eat, watch TV, do nothing. The ‘should’ turns opportunity into obligation, which too often creates mental torture.”

Bottom line, if a new activity sounds like fun, do it. But if you’ve guilted yourself into it, don’t do it. Especially if it’s something intense that might get you hurt, and doubly depressed.

Establish Routine and Maintain Safe Social Contact 

Overlooking a wide waterfall, a man and woman in winter clothes run toward each other with arms wide
Photo: Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune via Getty Images

Getting yourself out the door today, tomorrow, and the next day, however, is only the start. 

In addition to being a runner battling the effect of the coronavirus on your racing dreams, you’re also a person struggling with the effects of a long quarantine, with the threat that it might recur in the fall

That’s the type of thing that can not only depress you in your day-to-day life, but can eventually mount another attack on your motivation to run.

The issue, says Carol Posluszny, a licensed clinical social worker in Portland, Oregon, is that the exercise from running is only one part of a triad of ways to stave off the depression that may, again, sap your motivation to run.

The other two are social contact and establishing a daily routine. “I have been using this behavioral model for mild depression/anxiety with good results for a couple of decades,” she says.

Getting out the door to run, of course, is a key to getting exercise. And making it part of your daily schedule helps address the need for routine. But that alone doesn’t do much for the need for social contact.

That’s a tough problem calling for creative solutions. Virtual races and online training buddies may help, but coronavirus social-distancing rules may not entirely preclude direct interaction with a fellow runner. “If you’re in a place where there is space on the roads or trails, you can probably run in pairs,” Simons says.

Of particular relevance to that, he adds, was a study released earlier this month in which scientists studied the movement of droplets in the exhalations of runners and other athletes. 

Most reports of that study focused on the fact that running six feet behind someone put you far too close in their slipstream. But the study also found that, if there’s room, running side by side is better (not to mention a lot more sociable).

As a coach, I have found this enormously helpful. Once a week, I find an opportunity to watch a runner train—always from a distance of well beyond 6 feet. Because of the constant need to watch my distance (and monitor the wind direction), it’s by no means what I was once used to. But I always come out of these experiences refreshed—not depressed at what I’ve lost, but marveling at the wonderment of the things I once took for granted.

Learn to Be Flexible

McClean sees similar value in such experiences. “Being flexible in the face of unprecedented ambiguity is really important,” she says. “The athletes—and people in general—who I see suffering the most are those with very rigid thinking. If all you see are canceled races and the fun you’re missing out on, it’s like wearing blinders.”

Another way to deal with this, she says, is to yourself become a coach. Find a friend who always wanted to become a runner, but was intimidated—or a new mother, seeking to get back in shape—and jog (safely) with them. 

Getting out of your own runner’s depression to do this, she says, is good not only for the person you’re helping, but yourself. “It’s doing something bigger than yourself, and focusing on something positive,” she says. “If you focus on making lemonade out of lemons, it not only will improve your mood, but build resilience, which will serve you well in future races and training.” 

Be a Realistic Optimist 

Years ago, Vice Admiral James Stockdale spent seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, enduring unimaginable tortures. When he was finally released, he said that those of his fellow POWs who fared the worst were the pessimists (who gave up) and the over-optimists (who were repeatedly disappointed). What was needed to get through, he said, was a realistic optimism that never lost hope that eventually (whenever that might be) the present tribulation would end.

Simons agrees. “You have to have a future look, but it has to be a cautious optimism,” he says.

One final caveat. If you were previously prone to depression, and running was your coping mechanism, contact a professional for help. “If you are feeling worsening depression or anxiety,” McClean says, “this is a good time to reach out.”