1. What.a.year.

In March 2020, the world was a forced into a reset that none of us wanted or were prepared for. Whether it was March 12th or March 13th for you depends on your time zone, but when the quarantine officially began we collectively held our breath.

Remember how the quarantine started? Schools shut down, workers were sent home, vacation mode set in since we were told ‘it’s just for 2 weeks’. Then the terrifying realization dawned that no, this is a full-on lockdown to reduce risk of an unknown airborne pathogen transmission, for an indefinite length of time. From that point, national and worldwide events happened in rapid succession: ‘corona-cations’ become mandates to shelter in place, fear and isolation escalated, physical and mental heath declined, masks became scarce, food and toilet paper flew off store shelves, job losses eroded financial stability, travel bans were in effect, household conflicts reached breaking points, and rites and ceremonies were disrupted and delayed, and while we were trying to ‘flatten the curve’ the pandemic death tolls, healthcare disparities, political divides, riots, and violence were at their peak. 

The past year has been overwhelming for everyone, to say the least. Who hasn’t been waiting for all of it to end, and have a “return to normalcy”?

Now Spring 2021 is finally here – and so are the covid-19 vaccines!

But we are not out of the woods yet. Rate of covid-19 cases continue to rise and fall and rise again, appearing to correlate with city efforts to resume business and social activities as usual prior to the pandemic. The world of work is also restructuring, with many businesses, including Microsoft, Twitter, Square, and Spotify, opting to a convert to fully remote or hybrid workforces while other businesses don’t plan to, but we don’t yet know how this will affect salaries, benefits, expectations for daily work hours, sick days and vacations, and job advancement opportunities- or our privacy, with Zoom having entered our homes and blurring the interpersonal boundaries between ourselves and our home life and those of our colleagues and managers.

What we do know is that in the U.S. the rate of unemployment rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession, with women becoming unemployed at higher rates than men. Realization set in even deeper regarding the importance of having financial savings, and enough of an emergency fund for families to survive on for at least a year. Most working families didn’t have this reserve due to incomes not rising high enough to keep up with the rising costs of living in the last several years. Many people who were laid off in 2020 were forced to reroute their careers in new and unfamiliar directions, and some enrolled in job training and college course programs in efforts to bridge the gap between the skills they had and the skills they needed to find new jobs and earn an income.

We also know that K-12 education has been adversely affected by the pandemic, with educational inequities are getting worse, and a variety of factors contributing to the widening of this divide. Unless the inequity gap closes the number of high school and college graduates will be projected to decline. Even though there will be jobs that won’t require a degree and still be considered essential we will see a decline in the number of professionals that do require advanced studies and skills, including in the science professions- the very industry that we are relying on to maintain our health care and develop the vaccines that we now have.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all aspects of our lives, leveling everything back down to the basics: food, functioning of self, family, finances, and friends. When knocked down to rock bottom, the only direction left to go in is upward.

As we look upward in this Spring 2021 season, we see the sun is shining and hear the birds chirping- but we are still facing many uncertainties about our present and future. We cannot overlook or forget what we experienced in 2020, or we will end up having to deal with the same problems again. So, while you’re looking forward to attending outings and parties and planning summer fun, think about the lessons 2020 offered us and find a balance between how you spend your time in the present and what you will need to invest in now to better secure and enjoy your future.

Esther Perel, a world renowned relationship therapist, said it best: ‘the quality your relationships determines the quality of your life.’

Our relationships include everyone in our lives- the people we chose and the people we didn’t- and during the pandemic we have seen the importance of cultivating reciprocal and meaningful relationships with each of them. The pandemic has shown us what happens when people have unsatisfying relationships and are forced to finally face that reality when distractions are inaccessible: increased conflicts, job dissatisfaction, worsening health, poorer self-care, hopelessness, and sometimes the ending of these relationships. The pandemic has also shown us the benefits that good relationships bring: understanding, sharing, creativity, fun, connection, enhanced intimacy, increased resilience, and online and offline community building to promote and maintain wellness practices and support.

Creating the best version of our relationships involve taking the time to deeply understand each person that we’re connected to, the strengths and limitations of each of them and ourselves, and cultivating or reconfiguring each combination of relational factors to achieve the most mutually agreeable version of our connection with each person.

Take greater care of relationships that you choose to enter into, such as romantic partnerships and marriages, working relationships, and parenting, since these have the greatest impact on your day to day living and quality of life.  Stop entertaining relationships that have already shown you disrespect, gaslighting, abuse, ghosting, and Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the (Relationship) Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.  Start setting and enforcing boundaries and be prepared to end relationships that display these elements; this may be your best chance to see if things can change and explore how things can change. If these terrible experiences don’t change then the best version of that relationship is no relationship.

Ideas that may be helpful for improving quality of relationships include:

Fun for all: Make time to share fun facts and useful information, double up on expressing affirmations and initiation of considerations for each other, volunteer to help out or share tasks and alleviating stress by reducing workload or performance anxiety, take a group vote for choosing group activities, including games to play.

More advanced relational skills include learning to expand communication and transforming conflict into collaboration, and, in some cases, learning to put more distance or leave relationships gracefully when they become too draining or uncooperative to remain in and finding a more compatible match.

Additional tips:

For Couples: Explore Gottman relationships skills, and learn the difference between communicating information and sharing feelings (use Dr. Wilcox’s Feelings Wheel to re-explore and expand emotion words). Make space for love and being lovers.

For Parents of Young Children: Explore their thoughts, feelings and interests from a place of curiosity. Teach them age-appropriate skills and how to think for themselves and make smart decisions. Play games, take turns telling stories, and help them with their homework in any way you can to decrease their stress about learning in isolation and performance anxiety. Use free tutorials to help with developing skills for fun and for school with them.

For Parents of Teens: Explore their thoughts, feelings, and interests, friendships and relationships from a place of curiosity, not invasiveness. Talk about social media posts of interest and use internet resources to learn how to talk with each other about mental health practices and care, stress management and coping skills, and having healthy relationships. Be open to their feedback as well, and develop a collaborative relationship based on positive reinforcement, honesty, and support.

For Parents of Adult Children: Learn to be in a couplehood again. Re-engage in favorite activities and find new ones. Do the things that you have always wanted to do with each other. Enjoy remembering the past, but spend more time speaking about, and doing, what you want to enjoy as a couple in the present and near future.

For Individual Adults: Learn how to take care of yourself and meet your own needs. Meet more people and make more friends. Get involved in social activities that expand your skills and life options in the world. Improve interpersonal skills, explore Gottman relationships skills, and learn the difference between communicating information and sharing feelings. Learn about healthy relationships before entering into your next relationship.

For Work Relationships: Think about what you really want at your job, and from your job, and the trajectory that you want to have for your career. Evaluate whether the relationships you have now are creating limits or creating opportunities for you to professionally advance. The working relationship is one where expectation for collaboration and mutual benefits are more overtly stated and more overtly evaluated by both parties. Be warned though, workplace dynamics can replicate family dynamics, so you may find that the same strategies that you need to use for dealing with difficult family members can be useful for less than supportive or toxic work relationships. Keep in mind that work relationships are also inherently internally competitive, so if you’re looking for real friendships from your job you may be able to cultivate more authentic relationships after you’ve made your professional advancement and see who you’re still friends with then. Cultivate work relationships that help you do well, stay collegial, and advance your skills and yourself to the next level of your career.

Invest in developing the relationships closest to you to their fullest potential, which will vary for each connection, since the quality of these relationships will affect the quality of your daily life, mood and health. 

Another thing we learned in 2020 was that many people became too reliant on their relational identity, and without their other half it became more difficult to define their own identity and look inward to figure out and attend to their own self-care needs.

In response to the disruption in maintaining individual mental health and wellness we saw an explosion of self-care information on social media. There was so much information available that some messages were conflicting, and essentially amounted to: do something to improve your self-care, but doing nothing is also self-care. Fun fact: I am a fan of rest and recharging, but I am not a fan of the concept of ‘doing nothing’ since stagnancy creates and escalates a lot of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

       

We learned that when we focus so much of our identity on external attachments we deplete ourselves of our internal resources and disconnect from understanding our inner experience and how to manage our own self-care. We also learned that when we are disconnected from aspects of ourselves we forget that there is more to us than the parts we extend to other people, and when the activity of every day life quiets down, we begin to remember that there is so much more to who we are under the surface. Having more time alone gave us the opportunity for more self-reflection and journaling to bring these parts of ourselves back into consciousness, and actively reintegrate these elements back into our identity.

The concept of self-care has expanded from the basics of managing one’s physiological functioning to include the 8 dimensions of wellness: emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational, and social. In keeping us home and limited in our activities, the pandemic offered us the opportunity to turn inward and look at our values, interests, dreams and desires and reassess what we want for our overall wellness. It also offered us the opportunity to strengthen our self-regulation, and the internet was flooded with ways to make these skills accessible to us.

Connection and reconnection with ourselves integrates our mind, body and spirit, makes us whole again, brings us serenity, and allows us to know ourselves, to know how to connect with others, and live, labor, and love more completely and authentically. 

In 2020 we saw that yes, working remotely ‘can’ be done. We also saw a greater investment in workplace wellness, to strengthen the human factor that keeps companies up and running- and making that money.

       

Now that the big businesses have found their footing, I wonder how many are still mindful about the impact of being socially isolated from colleagues and still promoting and providing access to health and wellness resources? That will be a topic to be explored at another time, but for now let’s keep reflecting on what we learned in 2020, and the other questions we thought about and asked:

  • How did you feel about the efforts your employer made for workplace wellness during 2020?
  • Do you feel that the work you do is meaningful for you?
  • Where would you love to live if you didn’t need to report to the office every day?
  • Does having the option for remote work change the trajectory of your life and career?

In our cultural and social spheres our focus on work is intense; we spend so much time in school preparing for our careers and at our jobs that what we ‘do’ is deeply intertwined with who we think we ‘are’. Our job title is usually one of the first 3 things we say about ourselves when we first introduce ourselves to people, which creates a picture of our educational level, social status, financial income, and desirability as a friend or romantic partner. The experience of job loss in 2020 not only impacted income but also impacted identity, limited favorable topics for social interactions, and added extra pressure for people who had limited technology skills to begin with.

But job losses also allowed us to reframe work for what it is, an activity in exchange for payment, and have a healthier separation between our job and our personal identity. We learned that we can still have an identity without a job and that a fuller identity also opens up a range of job possibilities- including a lot of fun and creative ones that were set aside in favor of more “traditionally socially acceptable work.” The internet came through for us again, offering a massive influx of free masterclasses and low-cost online courses to expand our skills and options for paid work, even as freelancers, which created the opportunity for everyone, employed or unemployed, to think about the role work plays in their quality of life.

Quality of life as it relates to work and the workplace varies for each person. Some people love staying home and need to stay home for many reasons, including providing care or managing chronic illness issues. Some people love having a place to go to outside of the home, having a change of scenery, working alongside and chatting with other people, and clocking out and the end of the day to come back home. Some people like having a mix of both. Some people also have realized the value of having a primary job that provides a steady salary and health insurance and having a second freelance job for fun and additional income.

The most important realizations about the world of work in 2020 is that (1) everyone wants to have a job that they love and find meaningful, (2) they want to do that job for employers that value them as people and value and reward their contributions, (3) that people are no longer afraid of reinventing themselves and moving in different directions if they need to in order to have a better quality of life for themselves and their families, and (4) that technology makes it possible to work for oneself or remotely for companies locally, across the country, or internationally.

The earliest traces of the proverb “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” are connected to the Native American Cherokee tribe. Since then, many people, including authors and comedians, have put their own spin on the term to fit their context, but 2020 brought us all back to the original theme of the proverb: the importance of empathy.

Mental health stigma was quite prominent before the pandemic, with an estimate of more than half of people with mental health disorders not receiving treatment due to fears of discrimination and impact on family and personal livelihood. Researchers identified 3 types of stigma, public stigma, self-stigma, and institutional stigma, and acknowledge the impact of unfavorable cultural perceptions, the history of abuses in mental and medical treatment, and resulting distrust as barriers to accessing mental health care. If empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another” then mental health stigma, and related negative perceptions of people who experience mental health issues, are most certainly examples of a lack of empathy for human experiences.

There are few experiences that can so swiftly and powerfully inspire empathy as trauma and grief, and the pandemic of 2020 created a collective trauma and grieving experience that spanned all over the world. Again, the internet and media connected our stories, real, relatable, and recurring, and created opportunities for an outpouring of sympathy and support for each other that we were eager to give and grateful to receive. The reality that mental health issues could affect anyone, at any age and any time, reduced mental health stigma as it related to the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, and allowed people to speak, and post, more openly about mental health issues, the impact on overall health, coping skills, and resources for support.

       

Many states also relaxed restrictions related to accessing mental health services and allowed therapists to use telehealth and obtain temporary licenses in other jurisdictions, and waived copays for people seeking mental health services to ease the financial burden for people seeking mental health support. Many therapists saw a significant increase in people seeking mental health services during this time and supported people with pre-existing untreated issues further impacted by the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether these institutional supports will remain in place, or whether we will get some variation of these supports, or whether we will lose these supports for access to mental health and return to the way things were.

There is one community that has greatly suffered throughout the pandemic, the healthcare professionals themselves, who are dealing with the medical impact of the pandemic for long and exhausting hours, some contracting and dying of covid themselves, and the toll of it all on their own mental health and impact on their own families. We have seen the pleas from the medical community in the photos with the message “we stay here for you, please stay home for us” and the helplines and online support groups for medical professionals and frontline workers, but what we haven’t seen or heard about is how the administration of medical facilities are providing workplace wellness, or some form of relief, for their people.   

       

Social media has been instrumental in amplifying expressions and acts of empathy, communicating the interrelationship between mental health and physical health, normalizing discussions and sharing resources. It has also drawn attention to the ongoing issue of disparities in health care, and to the plight of the people most deeply impacted that need our help, support, advocacy and activism to ensure they receive the support and resources they need too.   

The political events and violence of 2020 were shocking; those events need their own separate discussion, and the fallout is still ongoing into 2021.

What we also witnessed in 2020 was the resolve and unification of the people in calling for reforms and compassionate leadership in our government, state and city officials, lawmakers and law enforcement, businesses, education and school protocols, and healthcare.  The theme of 2020 was a call to action to recognize and protect human life and human rights.

We still have a long way to go. In the realm of healthcare alone there is much work to be done with handling patient care, with respect to decision making and consent, cultural considerations, accurate translation in communications and making consent forms available in different languages, sexual health, making all healthcare more affordable, reduction of inequities in access to healthcare, and prevention of abuses within the healthcare system.  

According to 2019 data from the World Health Organization, the leading causes of death globally include:

  1. Heart Disease
  2. Stroke
  3. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  4. Lower Respiratory Infections
  5. Neonatal Conditions
  6. Lung Cancers
  7. Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementias
  8. Diarrheal Diseases
  9. Diabetes
  10. Kidney Diseases

Some of these diseases are communicable, and many of these are preventable. How can you help advocate for better healthcare and practices in your family and communities? How can you inspire people in your communities to unite and work together for a common cause that reduces illness and increases quality of life?

Final thoughts:

Relationships: Did you experience any changes, for better or worse, in your relationships last year? How did these experiences affect your decisions to better connect, or disconnect from the people in your life?

Self-Care and Identity Development: What parts of yourself did you discover or rediscover last year? How have your self-care skills improved? How have both of these expanded your self-concept and personal identity?

Work: If you could do anything that you love and find personally meaningful, what would do, where would you go, what would your work and home environments look like, and how could technology make that happen?

Mental Health: How has your experience changed the way you understand and feel about mental health, and care for prevention and interventions related to distress? Do you feel better able to recognize signs of mental health distress in yourself and others? What will you do to better manage your mental health and wellness? What are your strategies and plans for prevention and intervention care?

Community Unity and Reform: What have been the experiences of yourself and your family with the healthcare system? How are you managing your own healthcare? Where do you think you may want to contribute to advocacy and reform in the healthcare system and its practices? What other areas of social reform do you want to participate in, and which organizations are in place to for you to contact and offer your support?

This is one long post, more of an essay than a blog, but it’s been one long year.

How are you doing? Do you have the support and resources that you need?

If you need someone to talk to, give me a call. I’m here for you. 

 


@ Copyright 2021 Lifespan Wellness Marriage and Family Therapy, PLLC.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above for informational purposes, and any opinions, analyses, or speculations expressed are not to be interpreted as medical advice. Please consult with your medical provider(s) regarding any health issues you may be experiencing.

None of the materials on this website, including articles, are to be reproduced, altered, or otherwise used by third parties in any way without the expressed written consent of the author.

All images were made by Maria Constantinou. Feel free to share and repost with credit.

Questions or comments can be directed to Maria Constantinou at lifespanwellnessmft@gmail.com.

For telehealth appointments, please call 917-913-6441.