On COVID, anxiety and finding balance…

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Paul Atreides, Dune

It has been sometimes since I wrote on this blog. I am ready, it is now time to get it going again!

The COVID pandemic has hit us fast and hard. We had to very quickly move our teaching online and rethink some of our laboratory courses. As a university professor, I had to learn to teach to black boxes on Zoom screens (being sarcastic but…). While not everything in that experience was negative, it became quickly obvious that the non-verbal component of teaching in front of a class takes all of its meaning: the curious face one or many students make when some concepts do not really get through, the fidgeting on the chair, … all of these get lost for the most part in translation when moving teaching online. This was a lesson learned for us professors (and some more on how to get beyond this issue).

On the research side, while numerical projects were able to thrive, experimental research programs were closed for weeks and it took months before we were able to get to full speed again. Scientific meetings got canceled and then moved online. Mentoring as well as our weekly group meeting moved fully online for almost a year. Travel all but got down to a trickle. Because of that, I had graduate students that never started their program in the fall of 2020. I will not be shy to say that two years later I can still feel the effect of this pandemic. The only positive aspect was how much materials my graduate students had been collecting before the lockdown, enough for manuscripts that they have been putting off it (procrastinating on!) for a while.

Let’s be frank, the whole situation was quite unsettling and worrisome. For me the lockdown happens right after an electrophysiology procedure to solve my tachycardia episodes (had it for years but got quite worse in the last two years before this procedure). While it was not the dangerous kind of tachycardia, I developed anxiety behavior associated with it in the few months prior to the procedure. I got to admit that the COVID lockdown did not help in that regard, and anxiety change to panic attack in particular situations. Two years later, I am still learning to live my anxiety. If any of you have any kind of triggers for anxiety and panic attacks, I understand what you are going through and do seek out help. It works!

That being said, the lockdown also had benefits. I decided to direct the time saved from commuting to start a Couch to 5K program. Never looked back and still jogging (yeah I do not call myself a runner, I think I am just too slow!) 3 times a week. In the 18 months that followed, I lost almost 15 kg (and my BMI is now in a much better range!), got my resting heart rate around 60 bpm and lower my blood pressure medication that I got two years before to the minimum available on the market and to the point that I could possibly get without it (maybe when I get rid of those last 2-3 kg to get back to my younger self!) I used Apple Fitness+ plus to start meditating and took advantage of the mindfulness trigger on my Apple Watch to introduce deep breathing moments throughout the day. I have to say, all of the above further help in decreasing anxiety and bring your mind to a much more calm (and also creative) state!

I must admit that I got hooked on my morning jog, to the point that to this day, I still miss the time when we could skip the morning commute to work: up, jog, shower, eat, deep breathing and start the day’s work by the same time I would get to work after commute. I was also able to institute a clear cut-off at the end of the day (OK mostly a clear one, but I used to never disconnect at all before the pandemic) . Wow, my evenings became so much more relaxing than my old routine.

Overall, this got me rethinking about work-life balance. When the pandemic started, I spent less hours/week working but I did not do less. In fact, I found out I was doing more. However, the unimportant stuff got evacuated very quickly, and focus on the important work, personal and family stuff suddenly got very clear. The concept of busy vs productive takes all its meaning and productivity becomes much more holistic in nature.

Furthermore, I think that many of us became more attuned not only to our well-being and that of our family and friends, but also mindful of others, in particular to the students that we are guiding, mentoring. I had always in the past told students to disconnect once in a while, not come to the lab during certain periods, like at Xmas. But now I insist much more that they take their 4-week vacation every year, adapt to flexible schedules and working from home, and so on.

Reflecting on my work-life balance before and after March 2020, I came to the conclusion that bearing obvious major deadlines (like a grant proposal!), if I cannot fit everything I do at work in a 40h/week time frame, then there is something I am doing wrong, most likely I am doing too much unnecessary/unimportant stuff, stuff that is not moving my key projects forward.

Coincidentally, I have started to track the time I spend on various activities (to take decision based on actual data), for example trying to get the time I spend on e-mail down to an acceptable level. But this will be for another post…

One comment

  1. Thank you Luc for sharing this. It inspires me as I look to find a new balance post COVID. Too many hours at work and too few being present at home. More stable exercice schedule does seem like a good starting point.

    Liked by 1 person

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