This week marks three years since the first case of COVID-19 in Oregon. For so many here and around the world, life will never be the same.
A few months ago we asked Oregon Health News readers how the pandemic changed them. We wanted to understand how people were feeling. We got far more responses than we anticipated: nearly 200 people expressed everything from grief to hope, solitude to empowerment, anger to joy. The results highlight how personal and unique each person’s pandemic experience has been, and we thank everyone for their time and generosity as they looked inward and told us their stories.
“The pandemic taught me the importance of giving and accepting friendship from others. It showed me what it feels like to truly be alone without the option to have much, if any, contact with others. It felt scary. I got my brave on and joined what is truly a community center. I joined for the activities, but what I found were human connections.” – Sara, Portland “I've recognized many more things to do, enjoy and learn right from my home! The increase of classes and presentations offered online greatly influenced this, and I appreciate the offerings of Zoom, webinars, live streaming and YouTube. It's also motivated people to reconnect with friends and family.” – DeEtte, Florence “The pandemic has definitely changed my outlook on life. I appreciate the simple things like watching a bird in flight or enjoying a beautiful sunny day. Many of the people I worshiped with and others who were my coworkers have died from the virus.” – Kelly, Roseburg “I value my loved ones more than ever and will do all I can to see and be with them.” – Linda, Eugene
We spoke to Dr. George Keepers, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, for his perspective. Keepers believes a global event such as a pandemic has the potential to change not only our day-to-day behaviors, but the way we view life as well.
“If you are in a pandemic, you at least hear about lots of people dying from it, and you are at risk for getting very sick and dying yourself,” Dr. Keepers said. “The confrontation with mortality tends to make people rethink things. If they’ve had a death or death in the family, those have profound effects on how people approach life as well.”
Adapting to change in a positive way
For many who responded to our survey, the lockdowns virtually halted “regular life” and left many spending months or more struggling to fill the void. The additional free time experienced by some of our readers led to deeper thinking, new activities, more community time (outdoors) and more time spent communicating with coworkers, family and friends online instead of in person. People tried new hobbies, recipes and technologies, and they adopted new ways of thinking.
Some people spent less time with their friends but more time with their families. New and widely available technology kept people connected, especially those who would otherwise be alone, such as grandparents. And while it may have been uncomfortable, the push to reevaluate and redefine happiness saw many people bravely making life choices that felt better for them.
“I truly learned - and live every day now - with the reminder not to sweat the small stuff. Being faced with a global pandemic, being isolated from loved ones and having to re-imagine our lives reminded me of what truly matters for me. I cherish time with friends and family, pursue hobbies that give me joy and have de-prioritized stressing about all the little things in life.” - Liz, Portland “With the COVID-19 pandemic came opportunities; opportunities to connect to others through the internet. I found I could easily create a like-minded community of individuals in a safe and secure place. Programs like Zoom provided me with an efficient and inexpensive way to do that. I have been running a weekly educational group for almost three years, and I have found connecting in this way not only gave me a way to share my insights but also created a community of colleagues who have benefited from our weekly meetings over this time. This connection has been the silver lining to a cloud of uncertainty and death brought on by COVID-19.” - Jerilyn, Tigard My siblings and I began meeting on Zoom weekly in April 2020. We invited other family members and friends to join in as special guests, identified topics and kept in close contact about our daily lives. We are still meeting to this day!” - Laura, Portland
Coping with negative changes
The immediate effects of this pandemic range from minor to severe, and the changes we’ve experienced are a combination of physical, mental and societal. Some lost friends and loved ones to COVID-19. Those who contracted the virus and recovered may be living with long COVID-19—lingering symptoms resulting from damaged organ systems. This may include physical symptoms in the lungs or heart, cognitive impairment or fatigue. It may also include new or worsening psychiatric disorders.
Taking steps to avoid the virus was often a higher priority than life’s other needs and wants, such as social activity or work. For many of our readers, not satisfying their needs and wants led to psychological reactions with prolonged effects, such as increased anxiety and depression.
When it came to avoiding the virus, some chose to fully isolate, usually out of medical necessity. At the other end of the spectrum, some people dismissed medical advice regarding social distancing, masking, vaccines or other precautions. Those two extremes were rare, and most people tried to adapt to ever-changing guidance while striking a balance of maintaining safety and meeting their desires. There are also large groups who could not avoid the virus, such as health care and essential workers, who carried on amid near constant risk.
Now, with widespread safety mandates behind us and the balance of risk being left up to the individual, the pandemic might feel over for some. For others, it remains ever present.
“All of the isolation that people endured, they actually lost social skills,” Keepers said. “In order to stay in shape, you can’t just lie around on the couch or you’re going to lose your strength and ability to exercise. The same is true about social skills, which also need to be continuously used. And so, during the pandemic, people lost some their social skills, and as a result they are less comfortable in social situations.”
It’s not just social skills that need to be exercised. The desire and ability to experience new things also suffered during the pandemic. With so much stress, isolation and monotony all around, many of us didn’t feel motivated, or have the ability, to learn new things, take chances or have adventures.
“You do get stuck in routines that offer you some comfort but little newness, and ultimately are bad for you,” Keepers said. “Activities like binge watching television keep you occupied and give you some immediate comfort, but it’s not good for you in the long run.”
In the long run, creating big memories, getting fresh air or making a friend are good for you.
“I'm an introvert by nature so lockdowns and distancing before vaccines wasn't that bad for me. I dove into exercise, reading and connecting to friends and family outside at a distance. However, as social events are normalizing, I find myself reluctant to mix with others because of my natural introverted tendencies. They took firm hold. I force myself to go to events and gatherings with friends because I need the stimulation, and it's uncomfortable.” - Lulu, Astoria “Living alone in the isolation has made me lonely for the first time in my life. I'm hoping to re-establish some relationships in the coming months.” - Lani, Hood River “The changing rules, supply chain issues and social distancing brought out irritability and impatience, which I can usually manage much better. I cannot imagine how health care workers could stand the on-the-job pressure and stress. I found myself thanking front line people profusely and frequently.” – Mary-Minn, Eugene
Everyone’s pandemic experience is different, and what how each person navigates life after the pandemic will be unique as well.
If you are someone who feels more awkward in social situations than you would like, Dr. Keepers recommends a gradual approach to expanding your comfort level.
“Deliberately go out into small social situations with people who you’re relatively comfortable with,” Keepers said. “Then gradually expand your range of social activities as you get more comfortable.” You don’t have to be prepared for a big party or event right away, but pushing yourself a little bit should increase your tolerance for social interaction over time.
If you feel stuck in your routine, try to create some newness in your life. Go out after work one day a week, try a new restaurant or meet up with a new friend.
“As you begin to expand your activities, it gets more comfortable and becomes very rewarding,” Keeper said. Not everyone’s comfort levels for activities and socialization are going to be the same, especially for those at risk of severe illness, but taking steps to protect yourself can expand your range of social and personal activities. “Social connection is critical for human health,” and should be prioritized.
Technologically speaking, digital connections create new ways of working and collaborating with others across long distances, which for many is a huge and lasting benefit of the pandemic. However, Dr. Keepers warns that connecting over Zoom, for example, doesn’t fully replace in-person socialization.
“Seeing people in little boxes on the screen is not the same as being with them in person,” Keepers said. “You don’t have the same sense of affiliation, comfort and intimacy. There is a hormonal basis for how we connect with each other that gives us a sense of connection and reward that we have much more difficulty getting when we’re only connecting over the phone or computer.”
“When the pandemic started I was an active 88 year old. My activities included going to exercise class twice a week, church and bible study, singing in a community choir, weekly get together with other widows groups, shopping, etc. Now I am going to church sporadically, no exercise group, not back to choir, once in a while meeting with widows group, shopping online, not going to stores very much! Learned how to be a couch potato and watch daytime TV to pass the time of day. I am now going to physical therapy to help my old body function better again. Hoping to get back to choir next spring. Hope this 90 year old gets back her confidence of being an active person again! - Ellen, Gresham
History as a model
The COVID-19 pandemic was a new era in modern times, but there have been pandemics throughout history. The deadliest in history—the influenza pandemic of 1918—killed an estimated 50 million people globally.
“We learned all the lessons that we’ve learned during this pandemic, back during the flu pandemic of 1918, but we forget those lessons,” Dr. Keepers said. Like COVID-19, the 1918 flu spiked in waves, and it lasted two years without a vaccine or treatment. People were instructed to wear masks, clean and disinfect surfaces and maintain a safe distance from crowds to protect themselves. The public response caused massive social disruptions, protests and unrest.
Historically, periods of extreme tension often give way to permanent change, both in ourselves and socially.
Reaching further into history, we know the Black Plague arrived in Europe in 1347, and within four years had decimated the continent’s population. In the Plague’s wake, Europe’s recovery included the European Renaissance–new ways of thinking, technological developments and notable strides in art.
“I’m quite optimistic about our ability to recover from COVID-19; it just takes a while for people to get comfortable again,” said Dr. Keepers. “If humans can recover from the Plague and move forward with the kind of vigor and creativity that was seen during the Renaissance, then I have no doubt that we’ll be able to recover similarly from this. I think we’ll see some changes, and I think we will adapt the positive ones.”
The pandemic has probably changed you, and that is OK. And if you don’t quite know where you’re going, or you’re left somewhere that doesn’t feel right, you are not alone. Think about how you feel about your life and work on the pieces you’d like to improve, in small and manageable steps.
You can start by asking yourself, “How did the pandemic change me?”
If you need additional support, check out our blog for list of resources.
Here are some more responses from our readers about how COVID-19 changed them:
“I am an older senior, born in 1942, and I have always been a risk averse person. The pandemic has exacerbated that trait — not bragging or complaining. This is just who I am. In response to severely restricted face-to-face gatherings, Zoom communications have expanded my world in meaningful ways. I initiated a family cousin Zoom call for almost close to a year, bringing cousins closer together. Some of these cousins I knew of but never really associated with due to our major age differences in our younger years. Some, I had never met. And a few I never knew. I spent my entire in academic medicine and the pandemic restrictions offered me an alternative to meet with former colleagues together via Zoom. One colleague, in particular, and I spent the better part of two years writing a paper that is to be published November 2022. We never came face-to-face the entire time. To me, the pandemic has offered an opportunity to develop an attitude where I embrace challenges and ordeals as adventures, not as obstacles.” - David, Hillsboro “My mother died of heart failure complications from COVID-19 in October 2021. Polar opposites in many ways - especially politically, we had eight months to bond between her initial illness and when she died. The pandemic made me willing to look past seemingly insurmountable ideological differences with family and love them anyway. Because, in the end, love is all that matters.” – Jenny, Portland “It has been troubling to me that even the pandemic itself seems to have become politicized. In the beginning it seemed like folks were coming together, virtually of course, to support one another with grace and understanding while we all stayed separated and tried to grapple with the anxiety and uncertainty of COVID-19. But over time, it seemed like getting vaccinated or wearing your mask came to symbolize your political stance, rather than your interest in protecting yourself and others against this virus. This has been especially difficult for me as we welcomed our first child last November, and a few of my immediate family members were of the opinion that getting vaccinated and masking were unsafe and they wouldn't be doing either of those things. This has wreaked so much emotional havoc in my relationships during my pregnancy and throughout my daughter's first year. I feel there is now a rift in these relationships, and I often think of them as before COVID and after COVID. It has been incredibly difficult to navigate the state of the world when the people I would usually rely on the most during difficult times have seemed to take a stance that is opposite to mine and I don't know how to repair these relationships; especially since COVID cases are still ongoing. I've heard flippant responses to this circumstance where folks recommend cutting these folks out of your life, but when these people are my family I don't feel I have the luxury of doing that, nor do I want to. These people are important to me, but I feel this disagreement has infiltrated and colored every interaction, text and conversation that we have and will continue to have. Even interactions that have nothing to do with COVID. More than just physically having to spend time away from my family, I feel that the past several years has created an emotional rift in my family, and I'm not sure how to reconcile that.” - Marisa, Portland “We live in a small townhouse community in Sellwood. We began a happy hour out back for neighbors, and we now have a community that honors the richness, talent and diversity that has sustained us all through this experience. We’ve laughed a lot. We’ve wept. We’ve supported each other, and we’ve developed deep friendships. We are immensely lucky to have each other and our community.” – Susan, Portland