I’m not a runner, but I imagine this is what it feels like to be at mile 20 of a 26.2-mile marathon, so close, yet so far. As we close-in on the year mark of COVID-19, many of us are hitting a wall. We’re tired of just putting one foot in front of the other, we miss our friends and family, and we’re just over it.
The vaccine came barreling in during the holidays and seemed to defibrillate us with a sense of hope and excitement. But it’s fizzled a bit. Even though some of us are fully vaccinated, there are more people who aren’t, and it feels as if we are still in a holding pattern, unable to visit many of our loved ones, which is what we want the most.
We’re beyond fatigued, and this last push feels impossible. We want to give up.
As the clinical director of Penn’s wellness platform, I’ve given nearly 100 presentations on resilience and burnout in the last year. I tell people to stay in the present, focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and ride the waves of anxiety and depression with patience and self-compassion.
But after a recent presentation, I realized how tired I have become of giving this speech. They became more like survival seminars because we are merely surviving this pandemic, but not thriving. COVID-19 has asked us to pause much of what makes us human. We have been asked to stop doing things that were never “wrong” before. Being together in groups, going on vacations, and sharing important moments are necessary for us to thrive. And yet, we still need to make these sacrifices in order to survive.
A patient tearfully shared with me recently, “I just never thought I would ever go a full year without seeing my family.” That person is right. This isn’t normal. But it’s necessary, and it’s been a massive sacrifice.
And as the winter, grayness, and isolation continue, many of us are shaking our fists at the sky, saying “enough already.” I’m here to remind you that you don’t have to like this, and it’s OK to rage and cry, and say “I quit.”
We aren’t meant to live our lives trying to “get through” the next moment. We are meant to joke and play and laugh and enjoy all that this world and our relationships have to offer. We are meant to attend weddings and funerals. We are meant to dream and plan our next vacation. We are meant to leave work on a Friday and kick off our shoes to enjoy the weekend with family and friends. We are meant to go to live arts, concerts, or crowded karaoke rooms to take in the gifts and talents of our fellow humans who make us see the world in different ways.
We miss the broad spectrum of our humanness.
So earlier when I said you can quit, I was lying. You can’t. You can quit for an hour, maybe a day. But we need you.
Instead of giving up, try one of these techniques to push through the wall:
Give yourself credit for all that you are doing and write it down at the end of the day.
Find joy in the little things where you can.
Get outside for some mood-boosting fresh air.
Don’t beat yourself up. Treat yourself with the compassion that you would treat someone you love.
Engage with what you can control (regular meals, sleep hygiene, exercise).
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Your mental health is as important as your physical health.
I know it might be the last thing you want to hear — and, frankly, it’s the last thing I want to keep preaching — but take that next breath, take one more step, and keep trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re at mile 20, only six to go.
Thea Gallagher is a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the director of the outpatient clinic at Penn’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, and the clinical director of COBALT, a wellness platform for Penn employees. She also hosts a mental-health podcast called Mind in View.