covid-19

The People Who Transformed Themselves During the Pandemic

Is there such a thing as post-traumatic growth?

From existential lows to new heights. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
From existential lows to new heights. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Before the pandemic, Eric Curtin didn’t care for the sunshine. For as long as he could remember, the 26-year-old social-media producer felt anxious about his body and how it looked to other people — a fear exacerbated by the warm weather in Los Angeles, where he lives, and the never-ending calendar of outdoor social obligations. “I wouldn’t want to go to events during the day if I had to be outside,” he says. “L.A. is hot, and I worried about sweating and being uncomfortable with my body.” The week before a daytime party, he would worry about what to wear to make him feel the least self-conscious; most of the time, he would decline the invitation altogether, opting instead to hang out indoors or in the darkness of the night.

“Something I’ve always thought about, even years ago, is Man, I wish I could just fucking lay low and work on myself and emerge as more confident,” Curtin says. Then last March arrived. Although he had always worked out at the gym, Curtin found a park with a pull-up bar and began running to the park, working out, and running home. Being outside didn’t feel as burdensome as it had pre-pandemic; he wasn’t self-conscious about sweating in front of others because he was alone. The isolation brought other benefits, too. Fewer parties meant fewer hangovers, which meant fewer “two-day spirals of I need to lay in bed all day, I don’t want to do anything.” Fewer social occasions meant he could eat the same five healthy foods at home (“Turkey, beans, potatoes, chicken, and oatmeal.”) He began to notice changes in his body, most notably in his face, which had always held a little weight he had never been able to shake. For the first time, Curtin feels attractive. “I’ve always had body-image issues and felt very self-conscious. Now, it’s nice to just be like, I have to run this errand, or I have to go to the grocery store, and not think, Oh, I look like shit,” he says. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”

In the past 15 months, American bodies have undergone major changes, many of them unwelcome. A study by the American Psychological Association found that 61 percent of Americans had experienced “undesired weight change” during the pandemic (those who had put on weight gained, on average, 29 pounds; those who had unintentionally lost weight shed, on average, 26 pounds). We slept worse, we drank more. But for a certain segment of people — namely, childless, white-collar workers — the pandemic’s disruption of everyday life provided something rare: the chance to remake themselves in ways they had always wanted but could never execute. For some people, it was the months of privacy that catalyzed their transformations. After all, self-improvement can be an awkward and unruly process, one that is frightening to expose to the scrutiny of others. For many, it was the quiet: Finally, away from work and happy hours and dinner parties, they were alone with themselves, and they didn’t necessarily like what they saw. And for others, it was the sheer misery of the pandemic, which sent them plunging to new emotional and existential lows; when forced to decide whether to stay there or to make a change, they chose the latter.

It took being perpetually stuck at home for Sarah, a 29-year-old writer in Toronto, to realize the importance of moving her body. Before, she would spend her days working on her computer and her nights hanging out with friends; she didn’t think much about exercise. When the pandemic hit, she lost the majority of her work and suddenly found herself inside her apartment with nowhere to go. “I was just doing nothing,” says Sarah, who requested that I use only her first name. But idling around her apartment made her body revolt. Her hips ached; she couldn’t stop slouching. Last fall, Sarah resolved to improve her posture, so she began taking Pilates classes over Zoom. Before long, she started to notice how her body felt stronger, how she was walking with more confidence. “Before, I was truly mush, and I had no strength at all. Now, I can do things with my body,” she said. The change she has undergone isn’t so outwardly perceptible, though some friends have noticed her improved posture, including one who observed that she looks “so much less like Mr. Burns.” “No one who hadn’t seen me in a year would be like, Whoa, Sarah looks so different,” she says. “But I just feel good mentally. And I have the foundation to consider doing other workouts. Maybe I’ll start doing weights or something.”

The fact that it took a pandemic for some people to gain a healthier relationship with their bodies says less about the individuals I spoke to than it does about the machinery of the modern world. All the things we once filled our time with, from long days at the office to the gauntlet of social engagements, gave our lives a sense of structure and belonging. But in the blur of activity and obligations, it was easy to bury our self-doubts and sorrows and dissatisfactions — to grow habituated to situations that might have been untenable.

Lina Perl, a licensed clinical psychologist, told me that many of her patients were able to make positive life changes motivated by the pandemic, which she describes as an “interesting accelerator for growth.” The pandemic removed distractions that might have shielded them from things in their lives that were bigger issues than they had ever realized. “It also turns up the volume on the discomfort and the despair and the stress. I think a lot of people had marital problems or maybe mild problems with alcohol or maybe weren’t that happy in their job,” she says. “I think it forced people into a new relationship with self-care, basically, because they were suffering.”

There’s a relatively new concept for such change in the world of psychology: It’s called post-traumatic growth, the flip side of post-traumatic stress. PTG “comes out of the reconstruction of a core belief system that’s been challenged or shattered by what’s happening,” says Dr. Rich Tedeschi, the psychologist who pioneered the concept, which is not accepted by all mental-health professionals. “Some people went through the pandemic without much discomfort [or] anxiety because their core beliefs have not been challenged all that much. For other people, it’s created profound changes.”

For much of his life, Matt, a 29-year-old brand marketer, struggled with alcohol abuse, which he had tried but failed to stop just before the pandemic. The isolation of lockdown made his use worse, culminating in a six-day bender on the Jersey Shore last summer. It was a rock bottom that finally made Matt get serious about sobriety. “At the end of the day, all I had was me, alone in a one-bedroom apartment,” he says. “I have had the opportunity to just do nothing but be alone with my thoughts. And part of that was realizing that I don’t want to be a drunk anymore.”

Matt’s drinking was always, in part, exacerbated by the tremendous pressure he put on himself to perform in social settings. “It was me trying to live up to this persona I had created. I was synonymous with partying and having a good time and just being the guy that owned the fucking room and got everyone riled up,” he says. Without such parties, “every excuse I would make for not sticking with sobriety was out the window. The ‘My friends might not like me’ excuse, the ‘I’m not gonna be as fun at work events’ excuse, the ‘How am I going to meet women?’ excuse, the social anxiety.” Matt decided to stop drinking cold turkey. After the worst of the withdrawals passed, “I just started turning a corner,” he says.

Since then, Schweikert has kept himself on track by counting the days since he last drank and journaling about the positive changes he has noticed in his life. Sobriety, he says, has given him new mental clarity and a stronger sense of self. He’s in a new relationship that he’s excited about. He made the decision to finally get his undergraduate degree, and in his first semester, he earned a 4.0 GPA. “I’m just starting to see the silver linings more and more,” Schweikert says. “Maybe everything I viewed as a negative, all the downtime, that time alone with my thoughts, was exactly what I needed to just kick my ass.”

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The People Who Transformed Themselves During the Pandemic