All of us are coming off of two — yes two — years of incredible trauma, stress and loss. Whether covid affected you directly or not, all of our lives have been drastically changed, and the consensus among experts is that we may never return to the “normal” we knew before. That is another loss, but also an opportunity. The very long pause of covid has given many of us the chance to realize which parts of our lives we missed and want to return to and what parts of life from the before times weren’t working for us. Experts call these kinds of realizations post-traumatic growth, and they are key to building resilience.
Here are some of the ways people are looking to redefine their lives in 2022 that might serve as inspiration to the rest of us as we look ahead to another uncertain year.
Leading a more comfortable social life
“There are a lot of people who actually enjoyed some of what the pandemic gave them, and I don’t think that group is talked about enough,” says Jessi Gold, MD, a psychiatrist and assistant professor and director of wellness engagement and outreach at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, “people with social anxiety who like to be able to do things without being forced to be around a bunch of people.” Gold says that working and learning from home gave them opportunities to try new things professionally or academically without having the added stress of in-person socializing. Others, who may have had a busy social life prior to lockdown, have experienced the liberation of a less crowded schedule.
Kristen Spina, a freelance writer and editor in Long Island, had a packed social calendar that went blank when covid hit. “The pandemic made it ok to say, no, because the choice was taken away from you,” says Kristen Spina. When there was an uptick in socializing after vaccines came out, Spina “dipped her toe back in,” but soon felt overwhelmed by the constant decisions around safety and found a new comfort with doing less. “I was like, we don’t need to participate in every single thing. And I liked it.” Now Spina says she opts for “going with the flow and seeing what feels right in the moment. I don’t want to feel pulled in a million different directions again,” says Spina, “and I’m hoping we can find the right balance going forward.”
Making healthy lifestyle changes
Another group of Gold’s clients who found value in the new social landscape of covid are people working to change their relationship with substances such as alcohol. Some may have used it as a coping mechanism in the early days of lockdown and then realized it was no longer helping them. Others experimented with eliminating it and found they really liked life without it. If you’ve changed your relationship to drinking, reentering a culture in which alcohol is often the focus of events can be challenging, scary, or something you just no longer want to do.
Gold recommends being honest with friends and colleagues. “We sometimes think being vulnerable or honest is scary or will make people have judgments, but often better friendships come from vulnerability or honesty,” says Gold. “You can just be really upfront and say, ‘turns out I really liked not drinking, so I’m just not going to drink.” Another solution is taking the lead on organizing social outings and choosing activities that don’t involve alcohol.
Making work work for you
As a freelancer, Spina used to say yes to every assignment that came along, but she’s used the pandemic “as permission to step back from work that I don’t want to do.” That necessitated simplifying her life to cut costs, which dovetailed nicely with her desire to do less. “We’ve cut back on our spending and focused on keeping a closer, tighter circle and on things we truly enjoy and get pleasure from.”
Joy Harden Bradford, founder of the online community and podcast Therapy for Black Girls, says that one of the big things that has come up in the Therapy for Black Girls community is “how much energy you have to use to put on this mask as a Black woman in the workplace. All the niceties that you have to do so that people don’t think you are angry or aggressive as a Black woman. It’s exhausting,” says Harden Bradford. For some, working from home has meant they “could keep their employment and didn’t have to deal with all of the micro-aggressions.” As offices return to in-person, Harden Bradford says many of the women in her podcast community are asking themselves how they might be able to continue working from home or, “if they can’t, whether they want to look for something else.”
Doing less but connecting more
“The overriding thing I have heard from my clients is that they were happy to let go of a lot of obligations, but they are also missing social connection,” says Shannon Wilkinson, a life coach in Portland, Oregon. As some restrictions loosen up, some folks are finding value in focusing on the relationships that replenish — rather than exhaust — them.
For Spina, doing less has brought more meaning to the things she does choose to do. “About a month ago we had friends over for dinner, I cooked and we did the whole thing, and it felt like such a lovely night,” says Spina, “because it wasn’t one in a long string of events that were happening, it felt special.”
How to make it happen
As you begin to reenter the world in 2022, “you get to reevaluate what you do and the purpose and value behind it,” says Wilkinson. If you only have time to invest in a few friendships, which ones will be the most rewarding? “If you can only go back to one extracurricular activity, you can sit back and ask yourself, ‘what do I like and why am I doing it?’”
And you can let the answers to those questions guide how you respond to requests for your time. “If someone is asking you to do something and it’s not an immediate hell yes, then it’s a no,” says Wilkinson. If you feel ready to rush back into the busy world you left behind, Wilkinson recommends “building in a buffer for yourself. Whatever you think you can do, cut it in half. You can always add something later, but it’s harder to take things away.”
At the same time, if you added something during the pandemic “that you really enjoyed, like an online yoga class every day, because you could do it without feeling guilty,” Gold recommends giving those stress-relieving activities as much value in your new normal. “We had the chance to realize that even the smallest things can make your life much better,” says Gold.
What if you have no idea what you want in 2022?
A lot of us have just been recovering from one hit after another without time to reflect. If that sounds like you, here are a few concrete ways to look back on what you’ve been through and where you’d like to go.
- Slow down and check in with yourself. “This is good to do regularly regardless of a pandemic,” says Laura Miller, LCSW, a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in Brooklyn. “And it’s a big part of what therapy is about: slowing down to observe yourself and others and being present with your feelings and experiences. Faced-paced living can be excellent, but it can also be a defense against feeling and knowing yourself.”
- One way to do that is journaling, which “is a great place to start,” says Harden Bradford. “Sit down and take stock of what this year has felt like and then think about, ‘what pieces of this year do I want to bring into the next year and what kinds of things do want to leave in 2021?’”
- Envision what a good future would feel “One of the best exercises that I do for myself and for clients is to think ahead to December 31, 2022. How do you want to feel?” says Wilkinson. “What will let you know that you had the year you really wanted to have?” She emphasizes focusing on the things you have control over. Wilkinson had an ambitious plan for 2020, “it was like travel more, see more friends.” Then covid came, “and I couldn’t meet any of my goals, because they were based on things that were out of my control.”
Instead of focusing on particular accomplishments or specific things, Wilkinson says “it’s useful to think about how you want to feel and what emotions you want to take you through the year.” One of the most helpful is self-compassion. “Treat yourself as you would a good friend or loved one,” says Wilkinson. “We all deserve compassion.”
Whatever you hope for in the New Year, it’s also perfectly ok to just do what you can to rest. “There is no rule that you have to start the new year off with these grand plans that things are going to change,” says Harden Bradford. “You can just be thankful that you made it to January.”