Looking back, I can say that I managed well during the early months of the pandemic. Hunkered down with my family, we held it together. But about a month ago, as the pandemic carried on, I realized I often felt tired, that my enthusiasm was down, and my brain was a bit “off.” I was more forgetful and it felt like focusing took a bit more energy than usual.
Like many other people, the prolonged uncertainty of the pandemic has been wearing me down and affecting my mental health.
And then the organizers of a Zoom meeting I was scheduled to attend invited Dr. Roger S. McIntyre, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto, to present on how stress affects people during the pandemic. The timing was perfect for me. Not only did I learn why I had a“foggy brain” and low energy, but McIntyre also gave me a miracle cure for it.
A bad case of “CUS”
The first thing McIntyre—who’s also the head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at the University Health Network and executive director of Toronto’s Brain and Cognition Discovery Foundation—explained is that the pandemic has left many people with “reduced cognition due to stress.” That’s when your brain is worn down and you can’t think as well as before. It leaves you feeling tired and unmotivated, and coping with your daily tasks and challenges gets more difficult. And the culprit behind this is chronic unpredictable stress, or CUS for short.
To quote McIntyre’s presentation: “For the last year what this [pandemic] has been is just stress. Not just chronic stress, but worse. It has been chronic unpredictable stress… which is the worst type of stress of all. And we know that chronic unpredictable stress has the most damaging effect on a person’s brain and body….”
CUS is damaging to humans because we are not equipped to deal with it that well. When people can recognize and predict the source of the stress they face, they can adapt. That’s why most of us can drive at high speed on the highway—we can identify the stressors, like other cars, predict their pattern of behaviour, and act or react accordingly.
But during this pandemic, the sources of stress have come at us day after day and for a prolonged period. It leaves many of us feeling that there’s nothing we can do to combat this CUS. Stuck in a stressful and unpredictable world, we feel powerless and that we can’t do much to make things better. And that is what’s wearing us down.
But there is something we can choose to do to help us be and feel better.
The healing powers of “choosing to move”
Everyone knows that being physically active is good for your health. But what I took from McIntyre’s presentation is that physical activity has another superpower that we desperately need in these uncertain times. The simple act of choosing to move gives you, even for an instant, a much-needed sense of control over your life.
I had tried to stay active during the pandemic. I walked the dog, biked, and created a makeshift gym in my basement, but it got stale. But after listening to McIntyre, I took a new perspective on being physically active. I made a commitment to moving every day and decided that these activities would be dedicated to taking control of my life.
I’ve been at it for a few weeks now and my energy and my enthusiasm are back. I also feel I can think straight.
Make “choosing to move” a tiny habit
As more people are getting vaccinated and some countries feel they can pare down restrictions, we can see light at the end of the tunnel. But consciously choosing to move and acting on it will give you back a sense of control that will help you right now.
It doesn’t have to be a big, long, arduous type of activity. Any kind of physical activity performed in the right frame of mind will help you improve your mood and get you through the last few legs of this pandemic.
Personally, I used the “tiny habit” method developed by Dr. B.J. Fogg, a behavioural scientist at Stanford University. In this short NPR article, Fogg explains that creating new habits is easy, fun, and quick when you combine three elements:
- Make your new habit tiny and simple
- Make it fit in your daily routine
- Celebrate after, that way your brain will associate your new habit to feeling good. As Fogg emphasizes, “emotions create habits.”
Here’s what it looked like for me:
- Tiny habit: “I will choose to move once a day.”
- Make it fit in my daily routine: “I will do this right after lunch.”
- Celebrate: “After moving, I will congratulate myself!”
The pandemic has destabilized the world. Fight back by choosing to move, in whatever way that works for you, every day. It will give you the vitality you need to get back to your old self.