I wrote a post a few days ago saying that I feel sometimes like I’m not getting anywhere, in terms of my physical and mental health.

But progress is happening… slowly.

There’s a concept in ecology that we call the shifting baseline syndrome, which was coined by a scientist named Pauly who was writing about monitoring fisheries. It essentially boils down to this: ecosystems can change substantially but gradually. Each generation has a new picture of what the world looks like–a new ‘normal’. We don’t necessarily know how to judge the health of an ecosystem because we don’t really know what it looked like in the past. We need to step back, research the past, and compare different snapshots of what that ecosystem looked like, to really know what’s going on.


This morning I took a walk along a bike trail that goes through some saltwater marsh. Most of the people walking by probably think it’s a beautiful marsh full of lush grasses. They hear birds singing and think, this is so great that this piece of marsh is still here. There’s a lot of trash on the ground but if we cleaned that up, it would look pretty pristine.

I think it’s really gorgeous. I took some photos, listened to the red-winged blackbirds and chickadees singing, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. But I also know that the tall plumed grass is an invasive species that changes the ecology of the whole marsh. This is not how it would have looked two hundred years ago before the Phragmites took over. The invasive grass excludes or limits native plants, and changes what animals can thrive there. We would not call this a healthy marsh by any means.

But these days, in North America, we see a lot of marshes that look like this, and we think they’re pretty.

Shifting baselines. New normals, losing sight of old ones.

The same thing is going on as I consider how my general health has changed.

Sometimes I think to myself, honestly, I feel pretty terrible today. I felt pretty terrible yesterday, and come to think of it, I have for the whole past year. I’m not getting anywhere. But when I really step back and compare snapshots in time, I can see that it’s gradually improving. I went for a three mile walk this morning. This time last year I could hardly walk at all. The awfulness is magnified because it is right now, and I am worried about it.

It is really, really hard to step back sometimes. And that stepping back process is not a cure. Perspective is not all I need. 

But it can be helpful for me. My daily life is entirely microcosmic. It has become all about what I am feeling right now, and what I can do right now that will help. And if that’s what gets me through the day, it’s ok. But I when I think about tomorrow, I find that I do need to step back.

It helps me to consider how my baseline has unintentionally changed over time, but also to purposefully change my expectation. I can’t go for a six mile hike today. Maybe I will be able to do that this summer, but I don’t know. Right now, it’s a good day if I can get some work done, get a bit of exercise, and do basic housework. It’s an amazing day if my spirits stay in the range of neutral to comfortable.

But just setting new expectations for how much you can do is really hard, too. For example, I’ve been finding it very hard to be ok with the fact that I go to work about twice a week, and usually last about 6 hours. I do some more work from home, but I keep it very flexible.

My expectation was that I would be working a full-time job right now. That was what success looked like for me, and there is high pressure to be employed that way for people my age (mid-twenties). I worry that it looks like I’m on vacation for most of the week. But between depression and chronic pain, I really am doing my best, in the way that is best for me.

Anyhoo, thanks for for meandering with me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.