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5 ways to cope with Long COVID

Mental wellbeing

With more and more people being vaccinated, COVID-19 is becoming much less dangerous – but unfortunately for some, it can leave a long legacy.

Long COVID, sometimes called post-COVID Syndrome, can leave sufferers experiencing post-viral symptoms for a long time after the initial infection.

In some cases, it's emerged in people whose COVID symptoms were very mild.

Post-viral conditions can be very debilitating, and sufferers can find themselves falling into traps that other people have also experienced.

In this article we'll describe some of those traps, how you can avoid them and what steps you can take to cope with the symptoms of Long COVID and other post-viral infections.

Before we continue, though, it's important to stress that if you think you have symptoms of Long COVID, such as unusual tiredness, breathing problems, or 'brain fog', you should seek qualified medical support as soon as you possibly can.

1. Beware the boom and the bust 

One of the most common traps for people with post-viral illnesses is the boom and bust trap.

That's when you have a good day, a day where your symptoms aren't too bad, and you rush around doing all the things you weren't capable of doing when your symptoms were worse.

Unfortunately all that activity then triggers your symptoms and can leave you feeling knocked down for days afterwards.

2. Find your right pace 

One effective way to deal with your symptoms is to embrace what's called Adaptive Pacing.

This is when you learn what your symptoms enable you to do without making them worse.

This is your baseline: it's the level of activity you can do comfortably.

A good way to discover your baseline is to keep a daily diary with three columns for each day: activity, symptoms and other factors.

You can colour code it if you like: green for low-demand activities such as watching TV; yellow for medium activities such as doing chores; and red for demanding activities such as challenging work tasks.

This diary enables you to see patterns in your activities and symptoms.

Activities can be emotionally draining without being physically demanding, so for example spending time making small talk with a colleague isn't very hard physically, but it can still take its toll on your energy levels – as can noises from the environment around you or other things you have to put up with.

Once you've had the chance to see the patterns in your symptoms, you can now identify the minimum level of activity you can do comfortably not just on good days, but on bad days too.

This will probably be a lot lower than it was pre-COVID, but don't despair: this is the foundation you're going to build on.

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3. Eliminate unhelpful behaviours 

Some people try to fight their condition when they first become unwell, ignoring their symptoms in an attempt to power through a task or event.

But that can be really unhelpful, because the fight can actually make symptoms worse: the boom and bust cycle we mentioned earlier.

Another potentially unhelpful one is to 'listen to your body': it's not bad advice in itself, but it's easy to become too preoccupied with every slight change in your symptoms, and focusing on them can make them feel even worse.

It's better to think in terms of specific activities or times.

For example you might know that spending a bit of time replying to email doesn't trigger your symptoms, but spending an hour on social media does.

Or you might learn that you can work for a certain amount of time but no longer, in which case it's best to stop and come back to it later rather than persevere.

4. Increase the pace, but do it slowly 

The knowledge you've gained from your diary and your experiences has helped you find your baseline.

The next step is to gently increase activity, with gently being the key word: it's recommended that people with post-viral syndromes don't increase activities by more than 10% at a time, so for example if you can do email for 10 minutes then by all means try doing it for 11, but don't jump immediately to 30: that risks setting your progress back significantly.

Throughout this process, it's important to give yourself a break: imagine you're talking not to you, but to a loved one who's recovering from a serious illness.

Be as nice and as encouraging to yourself as you would be to them.

5. Don't try to find a quick fix 

Long COVID is nasty, and as much as we wish there was a magic pill we could take, liquid we could inject or button we could press, recovering from it takes time.

The modern world doesn't have much time for convalescence but it's a crucial part of recovery: our bodies and our brains need time, space and compassion in order to get better, and you may encounter the odd setback along the way.

That's okay, and hopefully your diary can help by showing you how much progress you've made.

Another strategy that you might find helpful is to take some time to think about your life pre- COVID and your life now.

Are there aspects of your previous life that you don't miss, or things that have new meaning for you know?

By using your recovery as an opportunity to think about what matters to you (and perhaps to think about what parts of your life you're better off without) you can find some positives from what is of course an awful experience.

Psychologists call this 'post-traumatic growth', and it can be helpful to think about it if you're finding your progress or symptoms frustrating.

Engage in these five ways to cope with covid and you will be more aware of your limits, increase the likelihood of having a good day, and be able to allow your body to recover.