5 Reasons You Might Like You Better After Living Through the COVID-19 Pandemic
Tough times can make us stronger. Here are 5 ways that psychologists say living through this global health crisis may have boosted our capacity to cope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives in innumerable ways. We won’t try to summarize them here. Suffice to say: Many of us may feel a bit different than the people we were at the beginning of it.
And while the pandemic has brought stressors, challenges, and a lot of tragedy, it’s okay if at this point into it, you’re also grateful for the personal changes it’s meant for you.
“Whenever there’s a moment that feels like a change or a chapter break, it’s an opportunity,” says Katy Milkman, PhD, a professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the author of How to Change. She studies how economics and psychology affect decision-making and behavior change, and research from her team shows that if a particular moment in time feels like a new beginning to you, you’re likely to be more motivated to pursue new goals.
“And if you discovered something new and better when you were forced to live differently during the pandemic, it’s absolutely okay to hang on to that,” she adds.
For some of us, the pandemic forced us to experiment with lifestyles or routines we wouldn’t otherwise have tried. Be it working from home, spending less time on the go, spending more time with family, or taking more time for self-care, if there are new habits you want to keep, consider that a silver lining of living through a pandemic, Dr. Milkman says. “Holding on to those things that the pandemic showed us we liked better than the old normal is not just okay, it’s wise,” she says.
Here are some of the positive changes people may have experienced as part of living through a global pandemic — and how to embrace them as we continue to cope with (and hopefully eventually come out of) the era of COVID-19, according to mental health experts.
1. You Learned How to Set Boundaries and Say No
Part of navigating risk during the pandemic meant regularly evaluating our personal limits for what made us feel safe and learning to articulate them. From declining social invites to opting out of activities like indoor dining, many of us practiced saying, “No, I don’t feel comfortable doing that right now.”
So it’s no surprise that it made some of us more comfortable saying that in other parts of our lives, too, says Megan J. Clary, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Brooklyn, New York. “People became more aware of what they needed and felt freer to set limits,” she says.
It’s the skill of self-advocating for our needs, explains Leah Katz, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Portland, Oregon. And it’s one we can definitely apply to other parts of our lives, she says.
To keep your self-advocacy practice going, Dr. Katz says, “Take a step back and learn to check in with yourself.” How do you really feel about someone’s request or ask? Before you respond, remind yourself that you don’t need to feel guilty or bad for prioritizing your mental health, she says, adding, “You have permission to speak up for yourself.”
2. You Learned How to Get More Out of Doing Less
The pandemic has meant different things to different people, including when it comes to how it may have changed your work, social, and leisure routines. But for many, COVID-19 has meant doing less and interacting with fewer people (at least at some point over the past year and a half).
“Many people realized how much time they spent rushing around on automatic pilot and started being more mindful of what they commit to, how they spend their time, and who they spend their time with,” says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in the San Diego area and the author of The Stress-Proof Brain.
The break in routine gave some people the opportunity to reevaluate, Dr. Clary adds, saying, “People recognized, I was doing too much; maybe I don’t want to do that as much. Or, Maybe I haven’t been living in an authentic way, and I want to do what truly makes me happy.”
As the world begins to reopen, you might feel pressure to add back in all of those prior commitments. If you don’t want to, think about what obstacles are actually standing in the way of making the changes you want to hold on to, says Milkman. For example, maybe a return to office is making your schedule especially crazy or you’ve signed up your family for multiple activities. The first step in trimming back the to-dos is identifying what’s leading to too many of them in the first place.
3. You Sought Therapy — and It Helped
“There was an increase in people seeking therapy and also people realizing, I actually am very stressed out, and I haven’t been paying attention to how it might be affecting my health. Here’s an opportunity to do something about it,” Dr. Greenberg says.
According to survey data collected by the American Psychological Association (APA) between late August and early October 2020, nearly 30 percent of psychologists reported seeing more patients since the start of the pandemic. (The data included a representative sample of 1,787 psychologists in the United States.)
To make the most of therapy, it’s important to have a good relationship with your therapist, according to the APA Task Force on Evidence-Based Relationships and Responsiveness. It’s the job of your therapist to ensure that you’re comfortable and working toward mutually decided goals together; they should also be willing to try new treatment approaches that truly benefit you. Up to 40 percent of people drop out of therapy early, notes the APA, so it’s important to give honest feedback about what’s working and not working for you, so that you can continue to progress and grow in therapy.
4. When the Going Got Tough, You Showed Up
Coping with the daily hardships of a global pandemic (whatever your circumstances were) was tough, says Katz. Are you proud of yourself for the way you handled things? “People are experiencing self-gratitude for being able to show up during really hard times. They’re also making time to reflect on how they’ve grown and celebrating their resilience,” Katz says.
”Post-traumatic growth” means growing and healing after trauma or adversity, and it can look like finding new meaning for an experience, developing a sense of your own strength, or learning to be grateful for what you do have, Greenberg explains.
It’s not synonymous with resilience, according to the APA. Rather it’s the result of what happens when we are resilient.
In research on nearly 400 caregivers (most of whom were mothers) in Portugal following COVID-19 lockdowns, 88.6 percent said they experienced positive change, such as stronger relationships, a greater appreciation of life, embracing new possibilities, and evolving spiritually, according to a study published online in January 2021 in BJPsych Open. The authors surveyed individuals to come up with the results and note that simply asking these questions may have sparked this post-traumatic growth.
Try it yourself. Consider areas in your own life in which you’ve experienced growth or found new meaning since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maybe it’s getting closer with family or making time for self-care. Then think about ways you can prioritize those things — maybe it’s making more time to get together more often with loved ones — says the APA.
5. You Developed Some Really Good Self-Care Habits
While we hunkered down inside, many of us took on new hobbies, from baking sourdough to practicing yoga to crafting. And these new activities did more than help us pass the time; they also taught us to be present in the moment, a way of practicing mindfulness, says Clary.
Having habits that are our own and make us feel like ourselves is self-care, adds Greenberg. “It’s self-expression,” she says. “And it’s part of what makes people happier and more resilient.”
Self-care is all the steps you take to tend to your physical and emotional health in the ways you are best able to do so. Sometimes it’s activities that you enjoy doing, and sometimes it’s activities that you enjoy the result of.
To keep the momentum going on newfound self-care habits you want to continue, Greenberg suggests making them part of your day-to-day routines. Schedule self-care practices for specific times or the same time every day, if that’s possible.
And remind yourself regularly why you do them. “Remind yourself of the rewards of self-care,” she says.
With additional reporting by Jessica Migala.