The Silver Linings of 2020

We're allowed to both want 2020 to end and be thankful for some aspects of it.

Pandemic Silver Linings
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2020 has been a lot. It has been painful, full of sadness, anxiety-provoking, and really ridiculously exhausting. As a psychiatrist, I might know the hard and heavy feelings better than anyone because I listen to them for hours every day. But, as important as it is to name all of our challenging experiences and traumas of 2020 out loud and not ignore them, it is just as important that we look for the silver linings and the positive experiences, too. They are the ones that give us hope.

In other words: 2020 doesn't have to be all or nothing; even seemingly conflicting feelings or opinions can exist at the same time. We are allowed to feel joy and sadness without one diminishing the other. We are allowed to both want 2020 to end and be thankful for some aspects of it. You can also grieve the losses of the people who have died and feel grateful for the time you have had with your family. And, you can hate how abruptly and unexpectedly our day to day lives changed and be OK keeping some of the changes in the future.

Looking back, these are the lessons and habits 2020 has blessed us with that we're planning to carry into a post-pandemic world.

1. Fashion Rules (and Bras) Went Out the Window

With so many of us working from home, comfort took a front seat in 2020. Thanks to Zoom, sweatpants became the norm and even influencers spent less time on their hair and makeup. We put our heels aside in favor of slippers, sneakers, and even Crocs, the 'It' shoe of quarantine, and, as discussed at length on Twitter, many of us decided to forgo restricting bras for the first time in a long time, and felt so much better for it. On the other hand, the pandemic also made us realize that it's OK to go all out with fashion, even if only for ourselves (or our dog). Despite what we've been taught, we don't need to follow outdated fashion 'rules'; we can simply wear what we want and love, even if there's no perfect occasion in sight.

2. Lunch Breaks Became a Real Thing Again

There are some aspects of working from home that have taken us a while to adjust to. Many of us have been doing work for far too many hours of the day, including e-mails late into the night. One of the benefits, however, of being near your own kitchen all day is getting to actually take a lunch break — and learning the value of this time. In an office, it's all too easy to get sidetracked by a conversation with your coworker or pulled into a last-minute meeting and ignore your hunger (or bathroom) needs entirely. Working from home, we learned that no one can interrupt your schedule except you – and that midday breaks to eat or go for a walk around the block are crucial, especially since it's often our first and only opportunity to pull ourselves away from our screens all day.

3. Work Can Be Virtual, So Can Meetings

While WFH was commonplace in some industries before the pandemic, for others, including medical professionals like myself thrust into telemedicine, it was an entirely new concept. The perks of the work from home experience, including fewer wasted hours commuting and flexibility to tackle household chores like laundry during the day, became quickly apparent. Over time, many of us also realized there is no need to be in the office physically every day, as many aspects of our jobs can be done remotely. In other words, the pandemic forced many companies and businesses to re-think what work will look like and how to incorporate working from home in the future in some capacity. Hopefully, many meetings will also stay virtual as well — or better yet, perhaps they'll just be canceled and put into an email instead.

4. We Prioritized Our Own Self-Care

There are very few times in our lives where we are able to spend time on ourselves and evaluate our needs, feelings, and coping mechanisms. During the pandemic, by challenging us in so many ways, and removing socializing (which was often our most relied on coping skill), we were forced to spend time alone and understand our own likes, dislikes, and needs. The benefit to this is we actually got to answer those questions that we may never have even had the time to ask. We also got to try new skills, like baking bread or knitting, and new ways to cope as more of our outlets became unavailable (like running or online exercise classes when the gyms closed). For me, I was able to see which coping skills I liked (therapy) and which I didn't (mindfulness), but either way, I had time to try them out and come to the realization that I really needed to redistribute my time and priorities. This is something a lot of people have realized in 2020: how to prioritize themselves.

5. Reconnecting with Family of All Generations

There will 100% be a camp of people reading this who will say being with their family for this long has been way too much family time and they need time away ASAP. That is completely understandable. But, there is another side, too. Many people have expressed that they have not had this much quality time with their families in a long time and it was sorely needed and greatly appreciated. Without needing to travel for business or work, or having as many social or extracurricular interruptions, families have been able to get to know each other better and do more dinners and activities like game nights together, creating new traditions. With older children home for remote college and with some 20-somethings returning to their parents to quarantine, and with households having grandparents move in to help with caregiving or to be cared for more closely, intergenerational bonding has also taken place that might not have otherwise.

6. Redefining the Social Circle

I can't count the number of times over the pandemic that the following phrase was said on a Zoom call or Google Hangout, "Why have we never done this before?" There are friends I've had for a decade that I would see when we were in each other's cities, but never once thought to chat with over video, or watch a movie or play a game with virtually. Until now. Holiday parties and birthday party lists have also changed as friends can be included even remotely who might not have been invited otherwise because they don't live nearby. The pandemic has truly redefined the connections we have with each other and sparked creative ways to maintain them, even if you thought you were doing a pretty good job before.

7. Normalizing Mental Health Conversations

The pandemic has been challenging for everyone's mental health. Nearly everyone has dealt with some kind of stressor, from being isolated at home to trying to work while managing a household, to struggling to sleep and concentrate. As a result of everyone being emotionally taxed and stressed right now, people are actually openly being more vulnerable and talking about their feelings and challenges. To me, this could be what we need to help normalize mental health and destigmatize it, once and for all. Given the tremendous need that will come after the pandemic, being able to talk openly about how we are doing will be a key factor in identifying signs and symptoms and asking for help in the first place.

8. Less Is More

One of the blessings of the pandemic is that we can reevaluate the things we'd normally say "yes" to and ultimately set better boundaries for ourselves. To socialize right now is a lot of work, so to continue to see that person or do that thing, you have to really want to do it. To still do an activity or club if you are in college, for example, might also be really challenging (or different and virtual!). To stay committed, you again have to decide what is important to you, and likely, you will end up feeling like less is more. Without having to keep up with the Joneses in our lives, we might actually do what we want to be doing and not what we feel like we have to be doing.

So, how do we keep these habits in our lives in a post-pandemic world?

It might not be possible to keep everything, but the first thing to do is reflect on what you liked and why and the values that those habits identify in you. Knowing that you, for example, value time in your day set aside for self-care or for family and friends, you then know you need to build a post-pandemic future on those core values and always keep them in mind. When you go to make a decision about an activity or adding something else into your schedule, you can then ask yourself if it is in line with those values. If it isn't, which does happen sometimes, you should be able to articulate what about that particular decision was worth going against your values, and what gain was worth that choice in the long run. This way, you can feel good about the choices you make and their alignment with who you are.

As busy people, we also might need to artificially build in time for things like self-care or lunch breaks — and stick to them. A lot of these things are able to happen right now because we are home and together and have more time. But, with more travel for work or without family in the same physical location, this could easily change back, so you can't let it. You need to make it a habit, even if it feels a bit forced for a while. Once you get used to it and stick to it — even on the days where you know you could be working through lunch — it'll feel just like another part of your day.

In the end, we don't have to lose what we gained in ourselves and with each other in 2020. We can create a new normal, a different workplace, and a different culture instead. That part isn't up to a vaccine, but up to us entirely.

Jessi Gold, M.D., M.S. is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis

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