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Masks work, telehealth is here to stay — and other health lessons we’ve learned since the pandemic started 4 years ago

This month marks the four-year anniversary of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. During the months on lockdown, millions of Americans were grappling with uncertainty, with worries ranging from becoming ill and being separated from loved ones to facing unemployment — while simultaneously helping kids with virtual learning, sanitizing the groceries and searching high and low for a package of toilet paper. Even though the days of social distancing are behind us, some of the impacts of the pandemic — both positive and negative — have been long-term. Here, mental health professionals break down some of the important lessons we’ve learned since 2020.

Lesson No. 1: Loneliness is detrimental to our health

The pandemic both exacerbated and shined a spotlight on how many Americans were struggling with loneliness — defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as feeling isolated and “like you do not have meaningful or close relationships or a sense of belonging.” In a 2023 report, the U.S. surgeon general shared that 10 years ago, he didn’t view loneliness as a public health problem, but learned through research that being socially disconnected is harmful — its impact on mortality being equivalent to “smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.” Loneliness is linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety and premature death, according to the report. This led to the surgeon general declaring the epidemic of loneliness a “public health crisis” in 2023.

Those feelings of loneliness still persist. Peggy DeLong, psychologist and author of Feeling Good: Thirty-Five Proven Ways to Happiness, Even During Tough Times, refers to a 2024 poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, which revealed that 30% of adults reported feeling lonely once every week, 30% of younger people ages 18 to 34 reported feeling lonely every day or several times a week and 25% of adults said that they were feeling lonelier than before the pandemic.

But there are things that can help. DeLong tells Yahoo Life that one possible solution is to reach out to old friends and let them know you’re thinking about them. “Put a date on the calendar to get together, and don’t let the awkwardness associated with the passage of time make you think that they don’t want to hear from you,” she says. “In fact, research indicates that the surprise factor makes it an even more pleasant experience for the recipient.”

She also recommends participating in local nonprofit organizations, attending events at the local library or chatting with someone you don’t know, such as the cashier at the grocery store or a customer standing behind you in line. “Connecting with strangers makes us feel seen and connected to our communities and the world,” says DeLong.

Lesson No. 2: We’re talking more about our emotional well-being and seeking support

The social isolation — and ensuing loneliness — that many struggled with earlier in the pandemic in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 brought conversations about mental health to the forefront and led to a slew of people seeking mental health support. A 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association found that most psychologists saw an increase in patients needing help for anxiety, depression or stress in 2020, as well as in 2021 and 2022.

A CDC report backs that up, finding that the percentage of adults who had received mental health treatment — namely, therapy with a mental health professional, a prescription medication for mental health or both — increased from 19.2% in 2019 to 21.6% in 2021. Focusing on well-being continues to be a priority for many. A poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that 28% of Americans planned on heading into 2024 with the goal of continuing to improve their mental health.

The stigma of mental health issues has also been slowly declining, notes Elizabeth Lombardo, clinical psychologist and author of Get Out of the Red Zone: Transform Your Stress and Optimize True Success. “First and foremost, I believe people are learning about the importance of mental health,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Whether they are taking more steps to improve their mental health or have become aware that it would be helpful for them to take these steps, I think people are realizing the pivotal role it plays in our well-being.”

Lesson No. 3: Telemedicine works and is here to stay

Think of it as the modern-day house call. Because of the pandemic, having a virtual session with a health care provider has been on the rise over the last 48 months. A 2023 American Medical Association survey found that more than 74% of physicians reported using telehealth in their practices — “nearly three times the share in 2018.” The report also noted that while only 14.3% of doctors were communicating with their patients via telehealth in 2018, that jumped to more than 66% of physicians in 2022. Although COVID-19 is no longer considered a public health emergency, study authors of a 2022 paper stated that “telemedicine will remain a permanent fixture in routine American health care.”

Lombardo says that’s a good thing. “Telemedicine is good for physical and mental health,” she says. “We’ve realized that taking care of our well-being doesn’t have to look the way it used to look.”

Lesson No. 4: We learned that masks are effective

Several studies have come out during the pandemic showing the effectiveness of face masks in reducing the spread of airborne pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19. A 2021 JAMA study points out that there’s “compelling” research that “community mask wearing is an effective nonpharmacologic intervention to reduce the spread of this infection, especially as source control to prevent spread from infected persons, but also as protection to reduce wearers’ exposure to infection.”

A 2022 study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that face masks shorten the distance that airborne pathogens can travel when people cough or talk by more than half compared to not wearing a mask.

Lesson No. 5: We’re pursuing more hobbies

“Before the pandemic, having a hobby was seen as a luxury,” says Lombardo. “But once we had all this time at home, people started spending time doing something creative,” whether that was baking, knitting, hiking or gardening. Four years into the pandemic, many are still engaging in leisurely activities. A 2023 Gallup poll showed that hobbies are considered an important aspect of life among 61% of American adults — a 13% increase compared to those surveyed in 2002.

That’s a good thing since research shows an association between having hobbies and healthy aging. In a 2023 observational study of more than 93,000 people across 16 countries, researchers noted that hobbies tend to involve creativity, sensory engagement, self-expression, relaxation and cognitive stimulation — factors that have been linked to positive mental health and improved well-being.

Hobbies can include “learning something new or doing something creative, like baking, taking music lessons or doing a home project,” says Lombardo. Cooking, a hobby that also provides a health benefit, was one of the most positive outcomes from the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. A 2021 survey of 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older found that about 44% reported cooking more often since pandemic began, while 31% said they started trying new recipes.

Lesson No. 6: We’re practicing better hygiene

Remember all the news segments on proper handwashing early in the pandemic, including singing “Happy Birthday” to make sure people were washing their hands for long enough? It looks like those demonstrations paid off. According to a 2024 Healthy Handwashing survey by Bradley Company, 74% of American adults wash their hands more frequently (or more thoroughly) in response to seasonal virus outbreaks, while 54% increase their handwashing activity when they’re sick.

Although a 2023 study did find a link between SARS-CoV-2 on people’s hands and frequently touched household surfaces and infection, COVID-19 is much more likely to spread through respiratory droplets released into the air when people talk or cough. But experts say that regular handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is still important. That’s because it’s a highly effective way to avoid getting sick from respiratory infections in general, including cold and flu, as well as diarrheal illnesses like norovirus, according to the CDC. It’s why the New York Times called handwashing “the pandemic habit we should not break.”

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