8 Lessons from Pandemic Living

It’s been a long, difficult and tragic year—and counting—of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s also true that we’ve learned things that can serve us moving forward, about ourselves, our families or how we want to live.

We asked UNC Health providers to share the wisdom born from their coping strategies after a year of pandemic living. (Some of them participated in a story last year about positive things to do during the pandemic.)

Here’s what they learned that we can take with us into the (hopefully) last months of the pandemic and beyond.

1. Adapt to the present but look ahead.

UNC Health psychologist Cynthia Bulik, PhD, is a ballroom dancer and competitive ice dancer—she and her partner won the bronze medal at the 2012 U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships.

Ballroom dancing and ice dancing aren’t exactly COVID-19-safe activities, so Dr. Bulik, who is founding director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the UNC School of Medicine, has found other ways to exercise, with an eye on the future.

“I set up a ballet barre in our spare room and found some great online barre workouts to help keep me in dancing/skating shape for when it’s safe for me to dance and ice dance again,” she says.

2. Focus on others.

Adam Goldstein, MD, MPH, director of UNC Tobacco Intervention Programs, said early in the pandemic that he felt best when he reached out to a friend to check on him or her. That focus on thinking of others helped carry him through the past year, he says.

“Calling friends every week to check on them also made me feel better,” he says. “And telling people of all walks of life ‘thank you’ more often helped me experience more gratitude and feel less concerned about my own experience.”

3. Take in the beauty of home.

UNC Health cardiologist Christopher Kelly, MD, says he will remember this time as “horrific in countless ways, but one small silver lining for the survivors has been a renewed focus on family and home.”

Dr. Kelly, a father of three, has “really enjoyed spending more time with my children and exploring local attractions, like the parks and lakes near our home.”

UNC Health clinical psychologist Christine Peat, PhD, agrees. “The biggest thing that’s gotten me through is being able to spend time outdoors with my pup Stanley. Time away from screens and getting to enjoy fresh air and sunshine have been rejuvenating during times that have felt really heavy.”

4. Explore your creative side.

Emily Carter Cox, MSW, a clinical social worker, therapist and clinical instructor with the UNC School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, has found new ways to process her emotions.

“Intentionally creating something each day has been helpful for my overall mental health,” she says. “Writing, baking, drawing on the sidewalk with my kids, planting in our garden—anything to help me feel more connected to that naturally creative part of myself.”

UNC Health family medicine physician Dana Neutze, MD, PhD, might relate. She began crafting and learning calligraphy during the pandemic.

5. Stay committed to (safe) socializing.

Yes, we still have to be careful about in-person gatherings, and yes, we’re all tired of video calls. But it’s important not to just give up on socializing, says UNC Health psychologist Samantha Pflum, PhD.

“Movement, fresh air and socialization continue to be so valuable for us during the pandemic,” she says. “To combine these important coping strategies, I have been hiking with my wife and our dog Radish, going for walks with neighbors, and doing (masked) outdoor workouts with friends.”

Similarly, UNC Health psychiatrist Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH, has made an effort to stay connected with the people in her life in any way possible, including outdoor gatherings, phone calls, video chats and, after she was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, very small indoor gatherings with other vaccinated people.

“Sometimes the conversations are serious and other times lighthearted,” she says. “But it has been vital to have this kind of support and connection that is honest, compassionate and nurturing.”

6. Remember your mission.

For UNC Health dermatologist Christopher Sayed, MD, this crisis has reinforced why he chose his life’s work.

“I still feel incredibly lucky to do the work of being a physician,” he says. “Our expertise feels more important than ever, and it is a privilege and joy to be in a position to help others in great need. Despite any politics or controversies that have swirled around the pandemic, I still feel valued and trusted every day I’m in the clinic, and I’m glad to have the chance to care for people during a difficult time.”

7. Keep flexing your gratitude muscle.

When everything feels hard, it can be helpful to focus on what’s good, says UNC Health orthopedic surgeon J. Megan M. Patterson, MD.

For one, she’s been grateful her job requires her to go into work, where she can enjoy the human interactions that many remote workers are missing.

Also, as a mom, “I know my kids are missing out on sports and playdates, but I’m grateful for the extra time I get to spend with them now that they aren’t so busy. While I miss how things used to be, trying to find gratitude in these changes helps lift my spirits.”

8. Celebrate whenever you can.

The pandemic has taught UNC Health psychiatric epidemiologist Anna Bauer, PhD, MPH, that there is power in turning toward the light—literally.

“We hung some lights for a neighborhood Diwali celebration, kept them up for Christmas, and decided we wouldn’t take them down because they were so lovely and brought us so much joy,” she says. “On my daughter’s birthday we put candles on pretty much everything she ate all day. And I make sure to get outside during the brightest part of the day, even if only for a few minutes.”

If you’re having trouble coping, talk to your doctor about getting help. Need a doctor? Find one near you.