As people around the world have spent the past year trying to dodge a deadly virus, everyone has learned more about masks, social distancing and washing hands than anyone thought possible.
Many folks have pivoted their workout routines to at-home renditions and tried to eat more vegetables because we’re fighting coronavirus and trying to feel better at the same time. (Many have also eaten more junk because – comfort food comforts us in a pandemic.)
On yet another World Health Day during a pandemic, it’s worth noting on April 7 what we’ve learned over the past year about our health and well-being.
Health is about more than your body
People are worried about the physical effects of this deadly virus. But physical health is only part of the equation. Countless people have had to grapple with what balance looks like when it comes to mental, emotional and social well-being and what the personal risk-to-reward ratio is to care for the whole self.
Many learned, for instance, that small risks might be worth it, critical even, to engage in some activities, like leaving the house, that we deem necessary in order to care for our well-being.
“If there is a silver lining to be found this year in the Covid-19 crisis, it is the focus on the importance of our mental health,” said Alexandra Lo Re, an Oyster Bay, New York-based clinical social worker.
We felt more disconnected from others than ever over the past year, which has brought on loneliness, anxiety and depression, but also different ways of thinking, even fostering creativity.
Lo Re suggests trying to get ahead of emotional stress by seeking out care early. “Mental health is a key component to living a complete and full life, which includes the ability to overcome challenges, dealing with crises and setbacks, and learning self-care techniques,” Lo Re said. “As with most things, however, preventative care is so much more efficient and successful than dealing with issues as they develop.”
Health and equity are inextricably linked
The World Health Organization, which sponsors World Health Day, calls the systems that privilege some over others when it comes to access to health care “not only unfair: it is preventable.”
Black and LatinX people have long known that they have faced a disproportionately higher risk for negative health outcomes, including a higher likelihood of having underlying conditions that lead to Covid-19 complications. These people of color have less access to health care and emergency treatment, and they are more likely than White people to hold public-facing roles where exposure to the virus is higher, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now everyone else knows about those disparities, too.
The World Health Organization recommends we focus on collaboration, data collection and working across borders to tackle the inequities that so many communities face when it comes to access to health care.
We have seen how more marginalized communities were ravaged by Covid-19, including in the US, in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, and now lag behind with the vaccine rollout.
There are no easy solutions, but there are identified strategies that require steadfast focus and continued support.
READ MORE: People of color create their own mental health services online
Comorbidities shouldn’t be dismissed
It’s easy enough to ignore the number on the scale or the doctor’s polite warning about elevated glucose levels or liver enzymes. It’s harder to connect those numbers on a chart to our actual well-being.
Maybe you feel fine, but you’ve been told you have an autoimmune disorder or high blood pressure, or one of the long list of conditions that could complicate. Pay attention. Your life may depend on it.
Even if you don’t care, Covid-19 has made clear that it cares about your comorbidity. It will exploit it and threaten a more severe infection if you have one of any number of underlying conditions, including ones like obesity that impact a large number of people globally and nearly half of all Americans. We’ve had to reconcile these facts over the past year and, hopefully, begin to address them in ways we’re able.
“This challenge has emphasized the essence of who we are and what we need and created opportunities to meet our basic necessities,” said Dr. Edward Krall, assistant professor and associate director of residency training at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine.
Get “back to the basics” as a way to reset and focus on well-being, Krall recommended. Every day, “eat a meal with someone you love, do something physical, do something for someone else, and read something inspirational,” he said.
Human contact is critical to our well-being
Happy hour with your pals never felt like a necessity until you had to get on a video call with a cheap bottle of chardonnay all by your lonesome self. Young people were particularly negatively impacted by the social isolation the past year has brought.
“Noticing that our well-being is strongly linked to our thoughts and feelings is a natural outgrowth of the pandemic,” said Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “We all felt it. Consequently, the stigma of having these sorts of struggles seems to have dissipated in this context,” he said.
No one was immune from the impact of social distancing. As social creatures, even many who are introverts have longed for some form of human interaction. Seniors in nursing homes had to visit with family through plate glass windows. Adults who lived alone sometimes went months without any human touch.
We realized just how much we need and want contact with others. We miss handshakes and hugs, friendly pats on the back and high fives. We realized that bumping elbows just doesn’t cut it and making out through an app is not actually a thing.
The good news is that as the world gets vaccinated and is effective in combating the current strains of Covid-19, we can embrace the love that we missed out on all these months and reconnect with our loved ones physically and reap that emotional nourishment.
We are resilient creatures
Suit up in hazmat gear and work 24-hour shifts in an overflowing hospital reminiscent of a war zone to save as many lives as possible. Check.
Deliver groceries by bicycle through blistering summer heat and blizzard winter conditions to make the rent. Check.
Find obscure last roll of toilet paper and celebrate more forcefully than you did when you won $1,000 on that scratch-off ticket, when you scored backstage passes to your favorite band’s concert, and when you danced your shoes off at your wedding with the love of your life and everyone you care about, combined.
We have learned how to hug from 6 feet away, smile through three-layer filtered masks and make our own yeast. We have learned how to survive in a more concrete and visceral way than ever before.
We’ve realized that we can live through a real-life dystopian novel or horror movie. What’s more, we can see the light on the other side of it and still find joy.
Even amid lockdowns and desperate moments filled with dread and anxiety and sleepless nights, we acknowledge that our fingers are still attached to our hands, our feet are still planted squarely on the ground. We are resilient. We are survivors.
It’s even possible that sacrifice can sometimes masquerade as solutions, and that some of the things we’ve been forced to forfeit – commute times to work, obligatory social interactions, unwanted touching – are welcome changes.
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“People have developed new routines and different ways of connecting. With ingenuity they learned novel ways of creating meaning and purpose,” Kroll said.
With any luck, we will continue to put our health and well-being center stage, viewing the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit, and create a future that looks healthier for us all.
Allison Hope is a writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep.