12 Months In: What We’ve Learned About Our Health, Lives, and Coming Together from the Pandemic
March 10, 2021 --
It has officially been a year since many of us said goodbye to our in-person coworkers , left our desks askew as if we might be back shortly to water the plants, walked the streets of our hometowns with the air on the bottom half of our faces, and even held subway poles with abandon, no Purell in sight.
As we reflect back on what our lives looked like in early March 2020 and what they’ve been like since then, one thing is certain: We’ve grown. Whether you’ve personally experienced illness , lost a loved one, lost a job, had to cancel a big event, or simply missed out on the small everyday moments we’d all grown accustomed to, 2020 changed us.
We also experienced a necessary social justice reckoning after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The Black Lives Matter movement became one of, if not the, largest movements in U.S. history . The trauma experienced by the BIPOC community during these painful moments was compounded by the disproportional rates of death from COVID affecting these communities.
On top of this, the political divisiveness of the 2020 presidential election drove us further apart in a time we needed to come together to heal.
Emotional health, which is built into Parsley Health’s care , plays an important part in overall health and received the spotlight as we saw the combined stressors of the year take their toll.
There’s no right or wrong way to feel about what the past year means to you, but it can be a time of deep personal reflection. Below are just a few of the things the Parsley team has learned about our health from this shared experience and what you may learn, too.
We’re vulnerable (physically and mentally)
At the time of writing, 528K Americans have died from COVID-19 , and while there are countries with higher death rates, the immeasurable loss has shown us how precarious our collective health really is. 6 out of 10 Americans have at least one chronic illness and certain underlying medical conditions like cancer, chronic kidney disease, obesity, heart conditions can put you at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
There has never been a more critical time in our country to refocus on our health and work to improve chronic illness—and that includes mental illness.
In a recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 42 percent of people reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, up from 11 percent in 2019. “I think one of the most powerful lessons of the last 12 months is the true necessity of prioritizing self-care,” says Jaclyn Tolentino, DO , a board-certified family physician at Parsley Health. “This isn’t a luxury or something indulgent, it’s very much an urgent necessity to cultivate long-term health. I view my role as a provider in helping you identify and overcome barriers to optimal self-care, and implement sustainable habits that work with your lifestyle.”
Our mental wellbeing is a muscle we need to exercise
“The importance of mental health has crystallized for me as a need-to-have, rather than a nice-to-have,” says Grace Nickel, Clinical Operations Associate at Parsley Health. “I’ve been doing a self-compassion group meditation practice every Sunday morning, something I likely wouldn’t have made time for pre-pandemic.”
Brie Thompson, Care Operations Manager at Parsley agrees, “Meditation has been new and a game-changer for me this year. Every day I challenge myself to be more in the present and worry less about the past and future.”
There’s more urgency around building stress management techniques into your life now that previous outlets like visiting with friends or going out to dinner are less accessible, but these practices are here to stay.
Particularly for the BIPOC community, self-care has become essential for managing racial trauma. As Dr. Rheeda Walker told Parsley Health previously , “The decision to be intentional about one’s authentic identity regardless of what ‘they’ will say is a courageous act that inherently promotes self-care and well-being. BIPOC who reject the white, heteronormative identity are likely to be psychologically resilient.”
“Many of our members have realized they need to have a variety of stress-reduction tools,” says Parsley health coach and certified nutrition specialist Erica Zellner , who works with each member individually to help them discover what works best for them in a variety of situations.
Disruption to our routines can be a good thing
The total disruption to my own daily patterns—and even where I wound up living—was an exercise in discovering what’s truly necessary to lead a fulfilling life. I don’t need boutique fitness classes, to stop for a coffee every morning, or even—gasp—Whole Foods. I can live a good life if I’m surrounded by the people I love, even if that’s sometimes virtually.
Maybe changes to your daily routine have meant having your kids at home more, losing childcare, caring for an ailing parent, changing jobs, or re-evaluating relationships.
“Helping Parsley Health members build new routines amid so much change has been a focal point of my coaching visits in the last year,” says Parsley health coach Kelly Johnston, RD . “Pre-covid, so many of us were tied to a structure that wasn’t actually serving us. Being able to recreate a daily routine really allowed us to take a long, hard look at what we want our days to look like.”
Part of that means defining a clear work-life balance . “Being really intentional with my time is more important than ever,” says Jamie Shulman, Membership Experience Manager at Parsley Health. “The day can feel like Groundhog’s Day if I don’t.”
Johnston recommends doing a “walk to work” even if you’re working from home to help set clear boundaries in your day and get a dose of morning sunlight .
It’s really, really hard to create new habits
In place of our old habits, we’ve all struggled to find new ones. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to exercise, meditate, make time for self-care activities , and get dinner on the table, having our usual routines thrown out the window made committing to new habits even more insurmountable. “If you want to create lasting habits , it means making different choices, and making different choices is hard,” says Robin Berzin, MD , founder and CEO of Parsley Health. Here’s how she recommends setting yourself up for success:
Self-assess your commitment level.
“If you have that thing you’ve been wanting to do, ask yourself ‘Is this something I want to do, or is this something I’m committed to doing? Am I more interested in the benefits I’m going to get from it or am I more interested in maintaining how I am?’” Self-talk can be a good clarifier, says Dr. Berzin. If you’re not ready to commit, be honest with yourself. That’s your starting place and your place to move from. If you are ready, find the current habits that are not serving you and address it head-on.
Restructure your day.
Use the calendar to plan out time to commit to your new habit. Dr. Berzin suggests sending yourself a calendar invite or adding a block to your calendar for things like real lunch breaks, morning meditation, an afternoon walk, or a workout . Just seeing it on your calendar asks as a visual cue that will help you commit. It also signals to others with access to your calendar to respect your time blocks.
Find your community.
Accountability is key to success. Finding a friend or colleague that can serve as your accountability partner will make you more likely to succeed at your goals, says Dr. Berzin. It could be a weekly virtual cooking class with coworkers, an online meditation group, or just a friend you text every day to check in with on your goals. Parsley members find health coaches to be really valuable for holding them accountable to new goals and guiding them along the way.
Wait, I have no hobbies
“I saw many members struggle with figuring out what to do on the weekends,” says Zellner. For many people, it was an eye-opener that their lives had previously been so busy they hadn’t taken time to pause and spend time doing activities that were just for them. To connect with your passions, Zellner has a few tips:
Think back to activities you did as a kid.
“It’s a unique opportunity to reconnect to interests you’ve had in the past, that perhaps you haven’t made time for lately, or maybe in years,” says Zellner. Chances are, hobbies you had as a kid were as authentic and true to who you are as they come. Whether it was creating collages, writing stories, playing board games, or even making paper airplanes, the activity may even stir up some nostalgia, which research has shown could have a positive effect on feelings of loneliness .
Choose a creative pursuit.
“Creativity and expression are just as important to your health as what you’re putting on your plate or how much sleep you’re getting,” says Zellner, who herself took up needlepoint in the past year. “I’ve had a number of members explore their creative sides by taking online art classes or picking up a long-forgotten musical instrument.” Creative activity is also associated with higher positive affectivity, or positive emotions and expression, research finds .
Start something completely new.
Dabbling in a hobby you’ve never done before can also be beneficial. The simple novelty of new activities can stave off boredom and improve your mental wellbeing. Learning a new skill also generates new neural activity patterns, shows research , which can benefit long-term brain health.
Yes, technology boundaries are critical
As if we weren’t already attached to our phones and spending most of our days in front of computer screens, Zoom fatigue became a fast reality during the pandemic. “Technology is eroding our ability to cope, connect, and self-soothe,” explains Dr. Berzin. But setting boundaries to limit our time with technology is one way to combat the impact of technology. Dr. Berzin offers a few tips for making this a reality:
Set limits on social media.
Use the Screen Time functionality on your phone to monitor your usage of social media apps and set a new, lower goal. You can even set physical time limits on certain apps to hold you accountable.
Choose one day per week to go analog.
No social, no Slack. (You can do it!) Disconnecting on one of your weekend days is a reminder to connect with people in real-time (even if that’s giving them a phone call) and practice self-care by doing things like getting outside, taking time for a hobby, or sinking into a bath.
Limit blue light exposure.
Blue light, like the kind produced by your phone and computer screen, can block your body’s natural production of melatonin, the hormone that signals it’s time to wind down for sleep, explains Dr. Berzin. This can make it difficult to fall asleep or lead to less quality sleep . You can support your body’s natural circadian rhythm by avoiding blue light two hours before bed. During the day, to avoid digital eye strain, you can try blue-light-blocking glasses, download the F.lux app to your computer to reduce blue light exposure. Staring at a fixed point—like your screen—for an extended period is one of the main contributors to digital eye strain. To combat that, you can try a few simple ocular exercises during your day to strengthen the muscles of your eye.
Gratitude is a powerful practice
“I’ve definitely learned not to take for granted all that I do have in these moments,” says Abigail Gendler, Clinical Operations Manager at Parsley Health. In fact, studies show an association between expressing gratitude and overall wellbeing . “Keeping up with my gratitude journal has been an important exercise in the cycles of emotions that have come with the pandemic,” says Shulman.
Johnston found more of her patients were open to beginning a gratitude practice this year than have been in the past. To get started, she recommends jotting down three things you’re grateful for every day. Try not to repeat yourself, and stick to the same time every day to form a habit. “You’ll be shocked by how much regularly reminding yourself of the good things makes the things that are not so great feel so much less significant.”