5 Positive Lessons From 2020 That We Can Take Into The New Year
This year has been one of the most challenging years in modern history, one that has taken a toll on our mental and physical health. To help you through it, we launched Experts On Call, a new series in which top-tier health and well-being experts answer your questions—however big or small—to help you find solutions, put together a game plan, and make each day a little bit easier. Don't forget, you can ask questions anytime, and we'll do our best to find the right expert to point you in the right direction. Without further ado, here's another edition of the series.
The year 2020 was really difficult — but what useful lessons can I glean from this challenging year and begin 2021 on a positive note?
The start of 2020 introduced us to a pandemic. What felt like a distant storm at first soon disturbed nearly everything in its wake. Yet, the center of this storm created an eerie stillness, exposing our deepest vulnerabilities, laying bare our most hidden fears, and breaking down our comfort zones.
We found ourselves asking the questions: Who are we? Who do we want to be? And, most importantly, how do we get there? As 2021 approaches, we can reflect on the lessons we've learned and remember to take them with us into the new year. Here's what I'm choosing to hold on to:
1. An awareness of physical health.
One of the first things that came sharply into focus throughout the pandemic was the awareness of our physical health. Before COVID-19, many of us defined success as endless to-do lists and meetings, eating on the run, skipping meals, and skimping on sleep. All so we could wake the next day and do it again.
We operated on the idea that we can get to our health and well-being at some later, undefined time. As the country began to close, coercing us into stillness, we had the opportunity to reflect on the fact that chronic illness does not happen overnight.
Rather, chronic illness builds on a lifetime of habits that deplete the body's reserve, hinder its ability to heal, and create changes that can lead to disease. We also learned that chronic illness can potentially weaken our body's defenses, thus leaving us more susceptible to acute infectious illnesses.
2. Healthier habits.
During COVID-19, staying at home allowed us to feel the impact of daily habits on our bodies. Here are just a few healthy practices people adopted:
- Identifying foods that enhanced energy and sharpened focus.
- Eating out less and cooking more.
- Prioritizing daily walks to feel more alert and less moody.
- Waking up feeling refreshed, instead of groggy.
- Washing our hands frequently, sanitizing more, avoiding crowded areas, and staying at home when we didn't feel well.
- Learning that feeling clear, focused, and rested can actually make us more productive.
3. Gratitude for healthy relationships.
All the time away from others highlighted the importance of relationships we often take for granted. Many studies support the idea that healthy relationships help us live longer, more satisfying lives, with a decreased risk of chronic illness. Healthy socialization has also been linked to decreased stress levels, improved immunity, and decreased risk of depression and anxiety.
Ironically, in the midst of one of the most stressful times in recent history, we were asked to stop meeting up with friends, avoid community events, limit our hugs, and, in some cases, not visit our families. Those of us who were able to spend time with loved ones focused on the gratitude we had for them. The American Psychological Association's (APA) 2020 Stress in America Survey found that 82% of parents considered spending more time with their children a highlight of the pandemic.
Many of us began looking at our neighbors with empathy, rather than judgment. The sense of loneliness and isolation we felt individually made it easier for us to identify those feelings in others. This encouraged us to reach out by phone, text, or video chat to make others, and ourselves, feel less alone.
4. Normalizing the discussion around mental health.
With the weight of the pandemic, political and civil unrest, and economic uncertainty, the need for mental health discussions and support became more urgent.
The APA survey reported close to 8 out of 10 Americans were stressed about the future of the country. Another report from the CDC said 4 out of 10 Americans struggled with mental health issues and 1 in 4 young people contemplated suicide due to the pandemic.
Due to cultural taboos, the need to seem "strong," and a fear of being stigmatized, many have suffered from mental illness in silence. Others simply could not find or afford the mental health support they needed. However, 2020 made it clear: If we were going to fully recover from this year, mental health discussions could no longer be avoided. The majority of Americans are now open to discussing the impact of stress on their mental health and well-being.
5. The value of humanity.
Who are we when faced with crises that demand us to look not only at ourselves but also how we affect others? When we witnessed one human callously losing his life in the midst of a pandemic, things came sharply into focus.
We saw the disparities, injustices, and most importantly, we saw humanity in others. Health care institutions acknowledged implicit bias, and we need to address it. Citizens across the globe, of all races and cultures, stood up and demanded change.
The year 2020 gave us a global "aha" moment. From wearing a mask to protesting in the streets to demanding health care for all—we learned to protect and care for one another.
As I look forward to 2021, my hope for the future—beyond vaccinations and curbing a pandemic—is that we remember the lessons of 2020 and take them with us. Here are a few of the key takeaways:
- Mental and physical health is nonnegotiable.
- Gratitude and kindness help both the giver and the receiver.
- We are a global community and are only as strong as our weakest citizen.
I hope we, as a nation, continue to advocate for humanity, each other, and our planet.
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