7 Lessons From This Pandemic Year, From Top Mental Health Experts
Exactly a year ago, I'd been working at mindbodygreen for just over one week when we were asked to work remotely and shelter-in-place. As the new health editor, I was acutely aware of growing concerns over this ominous virus—but like most people, I had absolutely no idea just how much COVID-19 would affect our world.
Whatever situation you personally faced—whether you isolated at home, worked an essential job, or helped on the front lines in hospitals—there's no denying the last 12 months have been a challenge. While physical health has become more top-of-mind than ever, it's also important to acknowledge how much this experience has taken a toll on our collective mental health—amid a historical time riddled with overwhelming stress, uncertainty, loss, grief, and many more undefinable emotions.
As psychiatrist Anna Yusim, M.D., puts it, the year has affected us on so many levels: physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually: "And yet we knew we had to go on and figure out how to make sense of the madness, stay calm over all the pressure, do our best to manage the uncertainty, and keep ourselves and those we love and care for healthy in all of these domains."
Now, on the anniversary of when pandemic reality set in for most of us, the mbg staff is reflecting on what to make of this unprecedented year. To help offer some clarity and illumination on this complex topic, we reached out to some of our favorite and most trusted mental health experts to share their own takeaways, along with advice for where to grow from here.
Don't take authentic, present social connection for granted.
"I think the importance of community is likely top of mind for many of us. In a way, we already had an informal slide into social-distancing before the pandemic—we would sit around the room with our people, but we'd be absorbed in our phones.
"My hope is that this imposed formal social distancing has made it abundantly clear that authentic, present social connection is our lifeblood and to cherish it when we get it back—to be present with each other without always getting sucked into the vortex of our phones."
—Ellen Vora, M.D., holistic psychiatrist
Reevaluate priorities & slow down.
"One of the biggest things we can learn is what it's like to take a pause. It's rare that the world stops. Under all this chaos and grief, we've been given a gift to slow down. This is an opportunity to reevaluate our priorities, figure out the things we really need, and also figure out anything that's not working—that we were maybe glossing over in the past because we were so busy.
"Also, recognize there may be a grieving process of our old 'normal'—let's not brush that under the rug. While we may not be going back to normal, we're going into a new normal.
"During this time, I suggest really reflecting on the things that are important to you and also what has shifted. We may be moving forward, but the experience of the last year and a half isn't going to be erased. Did it bring up questions about relationships, issues around work, or how to better support your body? Paying attention to those things is really key.
"Consider what you want a 'new normal' to look and feel like. What kind of support do you need to move forward? Is it finding a therapist? Is it embracing self-care for your mental health? All of these elements are important to acknowledge so you can incorporate them going forward."
—Roxanna Namavar, D.O., psychiatrist and doctor of osteopathic medicine
Intentionally starting & ending each day.
"Throughout the pandemic and this year, positivity bias has been an absolute game-changer in my patient's lives and mine. I purposefully start each day on a positive note. As soon as you awaken or your feet hit the floor in the morning, start the day by saying, 'Today is going to be a great day' out loud. Since your mind is prone to negativity, unless you train and discipline it, it will find stress in the upcoming day. When you direct your thoughts to 'today is going to be a great day,' your unconscious brain will help you uncover the reasons why it will be so.
"Likewise, at the end of the day, write down or meditate on ‘What went well today?’ I love doing this because it helps me remember wonderful moments I might have forgotten in my busy life. Ending my day by focusing on these things [has] buoyed my spirits and helped me drift off to sleep."
—Daniel Amen, M.D., clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor, and 10-time New York Times bestselling author
Be patient with yourself.
"One of the biggest lessons was the importance of managing our mental health, and the vulnerability we all have. Everyone has experienced insomnia, anxiety, and sadness over the past year. Some of the lessons from that are the challenges we have looking inward for comfort and self-regulation.
"I think there's going to be the challenge of post-pandemic hypomania. We've been without parties, concerts, social interaction—and soon there will be a moment when it's OK to do that. I think that will be a strange feeling. Because we've all been cowering with some amount of fear, I think the management of being free again is going to be a bit challenging. Of course, we're all looking forward to it, but we should anticipate the transition will be a little bumpy; it's not all going to be good. I think people should acknowledge there will be a lot of powerful, unexpected feelings—some things we've bottled up—and that's OK; we should make space for that.
"I also want to add, I think it's crucial to continue the strides in social issues from 2020—between the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter. I think it's really important that we don't let the emotional exhaustion of the pandemic keep us from a continued engagement and progression of those ideas and ideals."
We have the power to support our body & mind with food.
"As a nutritional psychiatrist, I learned even more about how poor food choices worsen stress, trauma, anxiety, insomnia, and depression—to name a few. As a society, we learned that more of us were suffering or dying due to pre-existing health conditions (cardiac disease, obesity, diabetes) and that as a nation, our metabolic health is in crisis.
"How do we improve both mental and physical health moving forward? The answer is at the end of our fork. Nutrition is one of the key lifestyle factors we can adjust to help our metabolic burden of disease. Plus, eating healthy can keep your thinking clear and sharp, without brain fog.
"So moving forward, how about we rethink our pantry and kitchen? Maybe clear out the packaged processed foods; stock up on frozen wild blueberries, cauliflower, and broccoli; make spinach crisps in the oven instead of chips; whip up a dreamy chocolate mousse with fiber-filled avocados; add polyphenol-rich colorful veggies to your plate, and play around with spices to boost flavors and help your brain.
"Let's take this pause to reset and revitalize our health. Stop for a second, close your eyes, take a deep breath—and realize this life is for you and yours; choose to live it in the best way possible."
Practice mental fitness.
"It's important to build mental fitness and resilience, way before anything bad happens. Mastering your mind, energy, and time are things we should learn and practice during good/better times rather than scramble to stick figurative Band-Aids on the situation and expend further energy.
"The question then becomes, what can you do every day to build and train your mental fitness muscle? It can be as simple as learning to reset your brain every time you're frazzled so you make wiser decisions. Or keeping a routine so you have some sense of stability, from which you are always prepared to be agile, spontaneous, and flexible.
"Also, be sure to celebrate your mental gains and be very proud of yourself. Doing so causes us to feel a sense of accomplishment, which motivates us to keep building the mindsets and behaviors that work for us."
—Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, psychologist and executive coach
Showing compassion for ourselves & each other is crucial.
"We are all connected. We have all been affected by this pandemic in unprecedented ways. However, certain communities are certainly (and very sadly) suffering more than others. This means it is all of our collective responsibility to help our loved ones, our neighbors, our communities, our country, and our world to move beyond this, in whatever ways we can.
"The collective grief we have experienced in the last year is tremendous, so we will need to provide individuals and communities with tools and resources to process grief and the mental health consequences: anxiety, depression, insomnia, and addictions.
"We also need to take care of ourselves, and make this a top priority, especially if we have others depending on us—be it our spouses, families, small children, or our patients. Nothing has rung true as powerfully as the need for self-care, self-love, and self-compassion during this incredibly difficult time.
"One last thing: Don't lose hope under any circumstances. Hope is one of our most powerful psychological currencies in times of despair."
—Anna Yusim, M.D., award-winning, internationally recognized psychiatrist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author
Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen. Kristine is a New York University graduate with a degree in journalism and psychology, and also a NASM-certified personal trainer. She has spent her editorial career focused on health and well-being, and formerly worked for Women’s Health and Health. Her byline has also appeared in Men’s Health, Greatist, Refinery29, HGTV, and more. In her current role she oversees, edits, and writes for the health, food, and movement sections of mindbodygreen.