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Did your sourdough starter die a quick death? Were your marathon dreams tripped up before the starting line? Is your great American novel still just fiction? We all set grand goals during the pandemic, but for many of us, they remain fantasies. It’s not entirely our fault: According to experts at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus, the anxiety that accompanied COVID-19 made it difficult for people to change their behaviors. Difficult…but not impossible. Guided by the research of three CU Anschutz scientists as well as lessons from those who managed to keep their pandemic resolutions, we outline how to achieve a new you in the new normal.
1. Who Are You?
One way to change habits is to align behavior with perception.
Annie Caldwell’s daughter used to be obsessed with the Berenstain Bears, a collection of children’s books that revolved around a family of altruistic ursines. That was fine with Caldwell, a psychology researcher at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center who loved the fables’ morality lessons. Once, for example, Brother Bear stole a pumpkin from Farmer Ben and felt guilty because that wasn’t the kind of bear he wanted to be. If it weren’t fiction, Brother Bear’s self-flagellation could be a case study in identity theory, a behavioral science concept (and Caldwell’s specialty) that says our actions are motivated by the types of people we think we are. “And so when we behave in ways that feel in line with that sense of identity and those standards of behavior,” Caldwell says, “it feels good.” The key is perception: making positive actions to fit your ideal character. Many women, for example, prioritize being a “good mom,” Caldwell says. They stop exercising (or doing book club or taking language classes) because time not focused on their children feels selfish. A better way forward is to believe that being active creates a positive standard for kids to model. You can even take them along on a walk, which shows them how exercising is healthy. The mind trick helps you make the best choices for being the person you want to be. —Spencer Campbell
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On February 27, 2020, I heard the three little words every 41-year-old woman with a history of injuries longs to hear: You are cleared.
I’d just spent 12 months recovering from a surgery that promised to restore my shoulder to the joint it had been before a lifetime of sports erased most vestiges of rotator cuff, labrum, and tendon. So when my physical therapist released me to climb, lift, run, and compete at beach volleyball again, I was ecstatic. I. Was. Back.
For two weeks.
Then COVID-19 arrived and shuttered gyms, courts, tournaments, and all other endorphin-infused environments where the virus might lurk. While the pragmatist in me understood, the competitor in me bristled. I’d spent most of 2019 watching other athletes get stronger, faster, and better as I sat on the sidelines. I wasn’t about to let some viral rival ruin my return to glory; I vowed to come out of the pandemic better than ever.
While many raided Costco for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, I unburdened Big 5 of its dumbbells, kettlebells, and mats. I installed a pull-up bar in our hallway. I joined an online gym. I held myself to the same six-day workout schedule I had before my shoulder went the way of mass gatherings.
Except I wasn’t the same athlete. About the time Governor Jared Polis rolled back his stay-at-home mandate (day 46), I woke up to a knee so swollen (box jumps) none of my pants fit. I watched the elections unfold (days 237 to 240) while icing an inflamed elbow (pull-ups). By the time rioters descended on the Capitol (day 301), I had started to wonder, Are you really an athlete if you’re always injured?
I started walking more and running less. I put down the heavy weights and picked up a mountain bike. I started my mornings with physical therapy. I got scrawny. I didn’t care (too much), because I also stopped waking up in pain.
Make no mistake: I still get the shakes if I go more than two days without sweating. But today (day 691), the workouts look different. I still lift weights (not as heavy). I climb (not as hard). I play beach volleyball (not as well). And every morning, I do PT and try to accept wherever I am.
The other day, I dusted off the pull-up bar to see how short I was of my early pandemic aspirations. I dropped down after one set, happy with the effort and lack of pain but relatively unimpressed with the result. Behind me, my husband was impressed. “That PT is working,” he said. “Your butt looks really good.”
Turns out, I did emerge from COVID-19 better than ever. I just hadn’t properly defined the terms. —Kasey Cordell
Imposter Syndrom, Begone
Among my circle of friends, I had always been thought of as the outdoors guy. I always thought of myself as a fraud.
Sure, I owned a mountain bike and went camping, but this was the mid-2010s and #vanlife was starting to fill my social feeds with people pushing their physical limits in the backcountry and their mental limits living in Mercedes-Benz Sprinters. I was jealous, of course, but I was also secretly scared that even if I had the time and money, I still wouldn’t have the courage to drop everything and just…go.
Then the pandemic hit, and I lost my job. Fueled by the resentment of being laid off, I packed my stuff into a storage unit in Seattle and headed east, planning to fly-fish my way across the country. The first night out, I promptly had a panic attack; the fear was so strong somewhere in the Idaho Panhandle that I almost headed back to Seattle without even setting up camp. What if I get lost? What if my friends don’t miss me? What if I’m derailing my career? This was classic Nick. I have a knack for talking myself out of things, because if I don’t try, I can’t fail.
I made it through that first night by telling myself I could go home in the morning if I still wanted to. Nearly two months and 5,500 miles later, I’d only spoken to a half-dozen people, met a witch in the woods, lost my lucky hat and found it again on the side of a dirt road 1,000 miles later, and caught more trout than I could count. I was standing in a river deep in the Montana wilderness, having one of the best fishing days of my life, when I realized my trip was over. There was none of my usual indecisiveness. I’d become who I’d wanted to be, and who I wanted to be next was showered, well-fed, and asleep in a real bed. —Nicholas Hunt
The Long Haul
For most of my life I’ve been a traveler. Not a salesman or a ship captain but a writer who visits strange places (Albania!) to eat strange foods (narwhal skin!) and do strange things (ski in North Korea!). My travelogue includes seven continents, 80 countries, and every state but Michigan.
The pandemic shut that down, robbing me of a part of who I am. I’m an inquisitive person, and on the road there’s always something foreign to make familiar. Homebound, I was a battery without a toy—a polyglot reduced to changing his Netflix language settings to French.
My curiosity rebounded in a curious way. During the pandemic, I purchased a 14-foot NRS whitewater raft. I couldn’t use it on rivers around my home, though, because I had no way to haul it. What I did have was an old snowmobile trailer I’d bought eons ago. The thing was a real piece of shit, with warped decking, frayed wires, and rubber-slicing bits of rusted metal around the perimeter. It needed an overhaul to be usable, but I’d never used a grinder, a welder, a soldering iron, or an impact driver before. Could the travel guy become the fix-it guy?
The challenge was exactly what I needed. Just like before a trip, I spent days researching the job ahead, this time on YouTube and Mountain Buzz. The more I discovered, the more I needed to know. I repacked bearings and sunk Teks screws. I learned way too much about plywood. On one wonderful Friday night, I showered my driveway in sparks as I ground off bits and welded on others. It felt…magnifique.
None of the work is perfect. That’s OK. Hauling the raft out for a test run, I looked in the mirror and saw something I hadn’t seen in months: me. —Tim Neville
2. Context Cues
Finding a path to new, positive actions means recognizing the conditions that led to your old, unhealthy ones.
Decisions are not made in a vacuum, says Dr. Dan Bessesen, the director of the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. The context of your life—your friends, work-related stress, your proximity to the office candy bowl—informs how you behave. Before you give your two weeks’ notice, though, try writing down the chain of events that led to an undesired end. Maybe the boss yelled at you, so when you got home you were anxious. There was a bag of cookies on the counter and, next thing you knew, you were down a sleeve of Oreos. By journaling the situation, you could spot the unhealthy connection between cookies and solace and replace the former with something more beneficial, such as learning to paint or dance. “The term for this is self-efficacy,” Bessesen says. “What we hope over time is that people can look at a situation and say, ‘I want this to change,’ and they can take it apart and see what’s really going on here.” —SC
The Best Version of Me
At 39, I had reached a state known in the yoga world as santosha, or contentment. I was happily single after a suffocating yearlong relationship, and my career as a freelance journalist had taken off: I was traveling to far-flung locales like Madagascar and Easter Island to report stories. While the globe-trotting was thrilling, however, it was also exhausting. In need of a mini-sabbatical, in December 2019, I sublet my apartment in Boulder and rented a place in Maui, Hawaii, so I could slow down for a few months.
Love usually comes when you aren’t looking for it, and within my first week on the island a friend introduced me to a guy from Colorado who instantly charmed me with his intellect, athleticism, and wild travel tales. Overnight, contentment became bliss. We spent two months in an easy rhythm of farmers’ market trips followed by home-cooked meals, walks on the beach, and sunset surf sessions. When I left for a weeklong ski trip in February, I felt so confident in myself—and in us—the possibility of infidelity didn’t enter my mind. Naturally, he cheated on me. And not with just anyone. With a professional athlete a decade my junior. My 40th birthday just two weeks away, I fell into a spiral of self-doubt and heartache.
Unable to escape the island thanks to the pandemic, I threw myself a wine-soaked pity party—and cyberstalked the other woman. She—let’s call her Madison*—was a strikingly beautiful Amazonian. But after the wine buzz wore off, I started to ask myself, What was so attractive about this other woman, beyond her good looks? I found motivation in attributes that were admirable, like her work ethic and sense of adventure. Madison became my inspiration more than my rival.
I hired a trainer and did at-home workouts. I would wake at 4:30 for sunrise surfs. I kept a daily journal. When I felt sluggish, I forced myself to ask: What Would Madison Do? Does that seem obsessive? Probably. Yet I emerged from lockdown not only in the best physical shape of my life but also with a novel sense of discipline. I’ve maintained that mantra of focusing on self-improvement back home in Colorado, and it’s empowered me to take on some of my most adventurous assignments ever, from ice climbing to heli-skiing. More importantly, I’ve stopped following Madison on social media because I have renewed confidence that I’m my own best role model. —Jen Murphy
*Clearly not her real name.
A New Religion
For decades, I have struggled with anxiety brought on by childhood traumas, financial distress, and abandonment issues. But every time I considered seeing a therapist, my grandmother’s words would rattle through my mind: “We don’t need therapy, we got Jesus!”
The phrase has been uttered so often by the women in my family, it might as well be our official motto. I didn’t want to be seen as weak, so I suffered through feelings of dread and doom, getting high and drunk to try to Band-Aid over emotional bullet holes.
As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, however, I had to face the realization that I needed secular assistance. Not only was there a chance I wouldn’t make it through alive—the virus seemed to me to be targeting Black and brown folks—but also I lived by myself. Without human connection, I languished in mental lockdown, alone with my unhealthy thoughts. Then, in June 2020, I May Destroy You premiered. Watching the HBO series, which centers on an incident of rape, my own half-forgotten memory of being sexually assaulted in high school jolted to the surface. I began looking for a therapist.
Finding the right one was more difficult than I expected. I wanted a Black female therapist, because I didn’t want to have to explain pieces of myself and my culture. (Only a Black woman would understand what it feels like to walk into every space knowing it wasn’t created for you.) Except the American Psychological Association reported that in 2015, 86 percent of psychologists in the country were white, while only four percent were Black. But after four months I finally found her.
The moment we spoke, she got me. She understood my “isms,” my facial expressions. She connected current behaviors to past traumas. From unpacking my body issues to addressing generational and ancestral traumas, she has facilitated a beautiful and painful voyage that has healed my life.
Ironically, before therapy—when my family’s words made me fear their judgment—my anxiety actually alienated me from the people I love most. I didn’t believe my character offered them anything of value, so I simply never showed up, physically or emotionally. Today, I am guided by a different adage: “You can’t pour from an empty cup. What is in my cup is for me, and what overflows is for everyone else.” Therapy helps fill my vessel. And I am brimming. —Joce Blake
Off to the Races
The first winter of COVID-19 changed me, and not in a good way. I would wake up as late as possible every morning, typically just in time to walk 10 feet across my one-bedroom apartment to log on for work by 9 a.m. After staring at a screen for at least eight hours, I would either stay in the same spot and listen to my friends talk over one another during a Zoom happy hour, or I’d sink into my recliner some five feet away to watch TV.
Maybe it was the sad beard I grew, which pretty clearly signaled a lack of interest in good hygiene, or it could’ve been my struggle to squeeze into my pants, but after about three months, I came to the conclusion that I needed a goal that would jump-start a change in my behavior: I decided I would run the Colfax Marathon the following October. My training started slowly, as I worked in three- to four-mile runs a couple of times a week throughout the spring. Over the summer, I would go for longer and longer runs, pushing myself to be in the best shape I’d ever been in.
It wasn’t easy. There were days I didn’t want to get out the door. Although I encountered some hurdles—cramps, leg pain—during the final stretch of training, I knew getting out and moving was better than melting back into my easy chair. I finished the race just in time for the cold weather to settle in again. While I don’t have plans to conquer another long race in 2022, I am planning some ski days and maybe some yoga—anything to keep the beard at bay. —Shane Monaghan
3. Plug Into a Higher Power
Small changes are easier to make when connected to big beliefs.
In 1946, Viktor Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning, a memoir about his time in Nazi concentration camps. The Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist surmised that prisoners who held on to a sense of meaning had a better chance of surviving. “Our thinking was, ‘Maybe this is a way of helping people sustain behavior,’ ” says Kevin Masters, the director of clinical health psychology at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. Finding a link between “higher order constructs”—not just religion, but also things like family and politics—and behavior proved difficult. People only think about “purpose” at weddings and funerals; it doesn’t factor into daily decisions about whether to binge The Great British Baking Show or actually learn to bake. Recently, though, Masters and his colleagues have asked patients to rank what’s most important to them (it’s overwhelmingly personal relationships) and, through smartphone apps, have begun sending them daily prompts to help them focus on what they selected. The idea is to remind people that if, say, they want to be able to play in the park with their grandchildren, they need to eat right and exercise so their bodies will remain healthy as they age. “Truthfully, I don’t know how well we will succeed with this, but I do think it’s worth a try,” Masters says. “And [subjects] who have been involved in our research seem to believe that we’re onto something.” —SC
Family Time, Reinvented
Schools closed for COVID-19 on Friday, March 13, 2020. “Enjoy an extended spring break,” the official district email communiqué advised us. With the weekend upon us, my wife, an attorney, and I didn’t grasp the implications until Monday. I had two impending writing deadlines, and she was steeped in litigation matters. What at first had seemed like a rare gift—bonus hours with our kids—quickly morphed into what felt like a theft of time. How could we possibly work a normal day with our kids at home? Because COVID-19 had vaporized our childcare, we resorted to iPads as babysitters. While the kids binged on ninja anime and Dude Perfect, I slammed through my assignments. A week later, I got COVID-19.
It was an inauspicious start to a global pandemic. As spring inched toward summer, though, we knew we needed to make big decisions. Two full-time working parents without childcare was unsustainable. So I quit, a decision that came easily because we had that luxury—and because two decades of hustling for freelance gigs had left me feeling uninspired. A pandemic sabbatical to be a stay-at-home dad felt like a prudent career move.
With a sudden windfall of family time, making it purposeful became our priority. First, we ditched the iPads after remote school ended in May. In early June, the whole family departed for Utah for seven days of camping near Capitol Reef National Park. But when the prospect of returning to a 9-to-5 workday routine loomed, we added another week to our trip and began devising a scheme to keep our kids in the screen-free outdoors for at least the next few months.
After establishing a pod with another family whose kids were similar ages as ours, we camped and backpacked together throughout Colorado for much of the summer. Life on the road was gloriously simple and also safer. In Utah, for example, we were boondocking on a scarcely populated plateau situated in a county that had, at that point, recorded zero cases of the virus. By early September, our family had spent more than 40 days off the grid. My wife worked remotely from our five-year-old pop-up camper, seeking out Wi-Fi in nearby towns when necessary. When our daughter asked me, “Dad, can we do this every summer?” I knew we’d succeeded in creating something special that our kids would remember long after the virus relents. —Michael Behar
A Meditation on Meditating
“Ooooohhhhkaaaaayyyy. Just…take your seat…and…close your eyes. And take a few deep breaths. And try to arrive, all at once, for the next 10 minutes.” Sam Harris, the man whose soothing voice visits me through my earbuds, had me until that phrase, “arrive, all at once.” What does it mean to arrive somewhere when you’re sitting perfectly still? I wonder. Where am I arriving? How will I know when I get there?
Nearly two years into the practice of (almost) daily meditation, I’m still waiting for answers. I have not reached nirvana yet; I figure that’s because I can’t even get through 10 minutes of meditation without getting lost in thought about work, my teenage boys, my aging parents, and whether the wind speeds are optimal for a bike ride.
I’ve meditated sporadically since college, but it never really took—until I found Harris’ Waking Up app. I subscribed to the app about a month after Denver’s stay-at-home order commenced because, like so many others, I felt lost and out of control. I was searching for something more, something beyond the mundane existence we were living—so I decided to embark on a more regular meditation practice.
Turns out that’s not as easy as it may sound. Harris says things like, “Look for the looker” and “Recognize that consciousness is something that’s just appearing.” Sometimes, I feel like I’m growing. Other times, I get pissed at Harris’ vagaries. This, I will admit, is very un-Zen.
But I keep meditating, because if this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s A) that our time here can be very short, B) there is more to life than Twitter, and C) meditation has actually helped me to be less reactive and calmer, at least some of the time. I keep at it because one day I hope that when Harris asks me to arrive, all at once, I will recognize that I’m already there. —Geoff Van Dyke
As a child, I was lactose intolerant. I eventually outgrew it, but I continue to love goat milk because, well, it tastes awesome. So when, in 2018, my family moved from Denver to a small farm north of the city, I started dabbling in goats—cheese making and stuff. I was bragging about my feta during a vacation to Napa Valley, California, the next year when one of my girlfriends dared me to live only off what I could grow on my farm for 12 months. I had been drinking just enough wine that that sounded like a good idea.
The challenge itself would run from August 2020 to August 2021. As I was preparing, though, COVID-19 hit Colorado. My husband kept telling me that nobody would blame me if I delayed for a while. But during the pandemic I needed something to aspire to and something I could control. Whatever else was happening outside our farm’s fence, I could control what was happening inside it in a way that was super healthy to me.
It was hard, though. I went from six to eight cups of coffee a day to nothing. I’ve never done hard drugs, but I was in withdrawal. Then, one of my pigs figured out how to eat live chickens. That was stressful.
Making it through the year, however, was worth it. I’m 38. My entire life has been focused on politics, which I got into to try to change the world. The last few years, though, have ground anyone in politics into dust. By doing this challenge, I thought I could maybe recapture the spark of life. And when I sat down to milk my goats, it was thrilling. Seriously. Part of this challenge was trying to claw back my own sense of values and internal relativism and recognize the millions of people lost to history who have gotten us to a place where we can take milk from a goat and turn it into cheese. It’s basically magic. It sounds kind of trite when I say it like that, right? But it’s amazing. —Kelly Maher, as told to Spencer Campbell
A Stitch in Time
At the start of 2020, I decided to adopt embroidery as my new hobby. I was bored with my typical crafts (collaging and knitting), and I’d been interested in embroidery since I was a little girl tagging along to my mom’s quilt group. Before the pandemic was even a blip on my worry radar, I set a goal of one embroidery project per month and stocked up on enough fabric and floss to make more stitched projects than could tastefully dwell in my tiny, garden-level apartment. Although I enjoyed it, I had no idea my needlework would prove so helpful when the world shut down.
Exercising had long been my go-to option for dealing with stress, processing my thoughts, and, as someone with a tendency to overthink things, getting out of my head. With a virus run amok and rampant political unrest and racial violence, a glance at Twitter could send my mind into hyperdrive—and my go-to coping ground, the gym, was no longer an option. (A 20-minute body-weight workout on my bedroom floor wouldn’t cut it.) I needed to concentrate on something—anything—else, so I picked up my embroidery hoop and set to work.
The focused task of pushing the needle through fabric—creating images and patterns and words—quieted my mind and slowed my breathing. After dinner on countless weeknights, I’d grab my zippered pouch, pull out my hoop-in-progress, thread a needle, and start turning disparate threads into a colorful composition. I played with both abstract and lifelike designs; used brightly patterned fabrics as well as plain muslin; tried applique and then swore it off because it was boring. Along the way, every careful stitch brought shape and depth, color and texture to the piece in hand. Meanwhile, my mind had never felt so seamless. —Meredith Sell