The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenging time for millions worldwide, however, 2020 may have brought unexpected health benefits for some.
The unprecedented infectious outbreak has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in the UK alone, while many more survivors endure lingering complications known as “long COVID”.
Extreme restrictions that kept us locked down in our homes have also had a serious impact on people’s mental health, with experts warning the emotional turmoil may persist for some time.
While there has been a lot of suffering and sadness, there are some positives to hold onto as we reflect on the year. For instance, some people could have benefited from the slower pace of life, catching up on sleep and reconnecting with loved ones, albeit virtually.
‘The slower pace of life has been a balm’
“Every week in my clinic we discuss the positive outcomes that have emerged from this unprecedented year,” Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist for Healthspan, told Yahoo UK.
“Many people have reported lockdowns enabled them to spend more time with family, including eating together every day at a table and talking directly to one another, walking and exercising together much more often than before, and many invested in a pet this year for comfort and company.
“These activities heighten our sense of connectedness, which benefits not just health and wellbeing but also longevity.”
Google searches for “buy a puppy” rose by 120% in the month after the first lockdown was announced, according to data from the digital marketing agency Propellernet, reported by The Guardian.
The rise in demand prompted The Dogs Trust to temporarily change its slogan to “a dog is for life, not just for lockdown”.
When taken on by responsible owners, the health benefits of pets have been repeatedly demonstrated.
In September, scientists from the universities of York and Lincoln reported how our furry friends “buffered against psychological stress” during the height of lockdown.
“Animals can act as therapy, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and giving structure to days, which for some would have been rather shapeless during lockdown,” said Dr Arroll.
With pubs shut and travelling off the table for most, 2020 has forced thousands to slow down and enjoy the little things.
“Many of my clients have said the slower pace of life has been a balm to an otherwise frantic existence,” said Dr Arroll.
“An appreciation of the little things in life also emerged during 2020 such as small kindnesses, the warmth of a gentle smile or time spent in nature.”
Liz Ritchie – a psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare – agreed, telling Yahoo UK: “Lockdown has offered many of us the rare opportunity to change our normal pace of life and slow down.
“We are normally so busy being busy we can miss the simplest of pleasures, which are so often right in front of us.”
Watch: A year like no other
Getting ‘back to basics’
With working from home the norm for office staff, many have reaped the benefits of longer lie-ins, without worrying about catching a train.
Not commuting has also given many people time to prepare healthy meals from scratch.
Dr Arroll said: “Getting ‘back to basics’ including eating well and sleeping properly has been a theme, as these are aspects of life under our control in a time when the world was in a spin.”
With outdoor exercise one of the few reasons people were allowed out of the house during the height of lockdown, many have also enjoyed getting back to nature.
Ritchie said: “Many are finding fulfilment in spending time alone in nature, or have acquired a new or renewed focus on fitness and wellbeing.
“We can feel joy, the natural state beneath the surface of our psyche, which can be easily overshadowed by fear, guilt, anger, worry, frustration and ‘life’.
“It is these experiences in the time of COVID that will certainly give us a renewed and healthier perspective, as well as the energy and strength to face potential difficulties ahead.”
While in-person socialising has not always been possible in 2020, many have reported feeling closer than ever to their loved ones, as we support each other through this challenging year.
“Although often by virtual means, many of us reconnected with friends and family, talked more openly about our feelings and felt that our relationships moved to a deeper level,” said Dr Arroll.
“This is of course not to deny that scores of families have endured tragedy and loss, but if we can take something positive from this year it is that sometimes it's good to be reminded that the simple things in life are what really matter.”
Watch: The pillars of mental health - sleep, exercise, diet