Imagine you want to get back into running after not doing it for a year. If you expected yourself to be able to traverse the same distances you did previously without stopping, or match your personal best speed, you would likely be disappointed. You will be rusty. Your body needs time to adjust to the new work you’re asking of it. Some muscles, including your heart, will need to get stronger, your lungs will need to acclimate to more rapid and efficient breathing, and your mind will need to become reacquainted with the specific discomfort that comes with prolonged exertion. You would need to rebuild your stamina, and hopefully you would be kind to yourself while doing it.
Can the concept of stamina be applied to other forms of exertion? I think so. I’ve spoken with countless people who spent over a year seeing very few others throughout the worst of the pandemic and then, as soon as it seemed safe or as soon as they were allowed, resumed the same social calendar they had pre-COVID. Many of those people became overwhelmed by the time commitments, the scheduling complications, and the expenditure of energy required to remain attentive and engaged in conversation with friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. For some, that overwhelm led them to worry they had lost something they would never get back. Maybe a year-and-a-half of limited contact with others had irreparably eroded their social skills like a shoreline being forever overtaken by a lake.
But maybe they just need to rebuild their stamina. Maybe they need to be deliberate in setting aside time for socializing and challenging themselves to be uncomfortable in situations that no longer feel familiar. Maybe they need to take more time for rest and recovery than they imagined. Maybe they need to slowly re-engage with the world to get back to where they used to be.
As an aside, maybe they came to recognize that the way they used to be wasn’t working well for them. Among the many hardships the pandemic continues to bring us, there are a few specific benefits some are fortunate enough to enjoy. Just as many businesses are re-evaluating the necessity of having people back in the office after a prolonged period of remote work, many people are rightfully re-evaluating the way they engaged with the world. Some of the peripheral relationships might not make sense to resume. Some of the demands they placed on themselves or accepted as vital might not serve them. Maybe they never did, but it took a pause to recognize it. Using that pause to reflect is healthy, and we have a rare opportunity to collectively reshuffle and rebalance the ways we interact with one another and the world.
Back to stamina. It can be applied to more than just physical exercise and social re-engagement. As many therapists preach, recovery is not linear. There will be setbacks along the way that, in the moment, may feel like falling back to square one. As a clinical psychologist I am often in the role of reminding my clients that they may feel worse today than they did yesterday while also feeling better than they did a month ago. Zooming out and looking at longer-term progress is important in gauging the success of treatment. It’s also vital to maintaining hope, which is vital to recovery.
With depression in particular, working hard to take care of ourselves and our obligations while managing a depressive episode, and then continuing to work hard to put the depression into remission or tamp it down enough to get by is exhausting. One of the more insidious things about depression is the way it manipulates our perspective. It magnifies the negative and minimizes the positive. It makes us look for evidence that we, the world, and the future are hopeless while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Depressive rumination, the re-hashing of the same difficult thoughts and feelings over and over again that keeps many depressed people awake and exhausted, further falsely amplifies the significance of the evidence of hopelessness.
So imagine you’ve been in a depressive slump for several months and you feel yourself pulling out of it. You reconnect with people, re-engage with work, and commit to healthy habits. Things are going well until they aren’t anymore. You have a bad day or a bad week or a bad month. You might start to wonder if any of the work you’ve been putting in is worth it. If you’re going to feel terrible regardless, you might as well save your energy and give up the fight. Maybe you’re trapped.
Far more likely, however, is that you need to rebuild your stamina. Take time for rest. Ask for extra support. Challenge yourself to do a little more this week than you did last week and be kind to yourself when you fall short of your expectations.