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Don’t give up. Here are some ways to improve your mental health

Self-care during the pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
January 8, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 2


An illustration of a woman wearing PPE sitting on the ground looking sad.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock
It has been hard, but there's light at the end of the tunnel.

Depending on where you live, the days may be dark and cold, and the holiday season may have just ended. This can be a difficult time in a normal year, and this is not a normal year. This January marks 1 year since the global emergence of COVID-19, and the loss we have experienced is immeasurable. It includes family and friends who have lost their lives, the millions who have lost their jobs or businesses, and the mental health toll of living in a socially distanced world.

But there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Two vaccines have recently been authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration and are already being distributed to those at highest risk. While it will undoubtedly take many months before daily life starts to resemble prepandemic conditions, that goal suddenly feels more tangible.

If you’ve ever run a marathon or spectated at one, you likely know that mile 20 is notorious for being the point in the race when runners “hit the wall.” There are physiological explanations for this, but in my personal experience, the psychological factors can play an even bigger role. This is the point when it feels like you have been running forever, and while the finish line is starting to seem attainable, there is still a long way to go on tired legs, and it is not yet clear whether you will make it there.

We are arguably at a similar place in the pandemic. However, a pandemic does not have a distinct finish line, the stakes are infinitely higher, and we almost certainly have much more than one-quarter of the way to go. Indeed, this is the point when the temptation to give up may feel stronger than ever, especially when it comes to our mental health. In addition to bringing immense tragedy, the pandemic has also taken away many of the activities that we would normally turn to for coping and self-care. The gym where you normally work out may still be closed, hugs and high fives from friends are off limits, and many vacations are now staycations.

Similar to the opening miles of a marathon, in the early months of the pandemic we found creative ways to cope with the discomfort, such as online game nights or movie-watching parties. But at this point, the thought of logging into another videoconference call at the end of the workday may feel unbearable. Much like that spectator shouting encouraging words and cheering you on to a strong marathon finish, I want to encourage you to not give up and to keep seeking out new ways to take care of your mental health through this time.

Above all, if seeing a counselor or therapist is part of your mental-health care, that is a Zoom call worth keeping on your schedule. When it comes to daily routines, one thing I’ve found to be particularly helpful is to intentionally seek out a change of scenery. Early in the pandemic, getting to go for walks in my neighborhood was a novelty of work-from-home life, as was not having to get in the car to go to work. But after walking those same loops hundreds of times in the past year, it is now more fun and relaxing to drive to a nearby park to go for a stroll or sit and enjoy nature. If your outdoor space is currently blanketed in snow, this may be the year to try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Or perhaps you can find comfort in trying a new meal or beverage recipe and then settling in under a blanket to read a book. Every person is different, and you may need to experiment a bit to find what is practical for you and helps you feel recharged. Much like in the lab, you will likely have failed experiments, but there is always a way to redesign and try again.

We also need to prepare for what will come after the pandemic. If you’ve witnessed a marathon finish line, you’ve seen the exhausted faces and the athletes who are barely able to stand up and walk. It is unlikely that we will immediately bounce back to good mental health when life returns to “normal,” and the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder could be widespread. However, through every stage of what is happening and what is to come, your mental health is worth fighting for. Don’t give up—every day brings a little more daylight.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

Editor’s note

This column is not advice from a mental health professional. Contact a mental health professional if you have any concerns about your well-being. Here are some resources:

• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ( a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Crisis Text Line ( is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

• If you are located outside the US, call your local emergency hotline.



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