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The other day I was pondering the way life changes life, as in genetic adaptation to the environment such as skin of people who live in hot sunny places having darker skin, people who live in high altitude having greater lung capacities, and the body composition of people who live in extremely cold places. Over a fairly short amount of time, our genes subtly modify their characteristics to adapt to the changes in the environment in which they’ve lived and within a generation minor changes have already taken place and within a couple of generations major modifications are readily apparent.

Those are primarily physical changes I was describing, but the same changes take place mentally as well, less so generationally of course, more immediate and personalized. There are countless case studies of how being a prisoner of war permanently changed the prisoners for the rest of their lives. The stress and fear of the experience changes what they think and how they think and that change is largely with them for the balance of their time on earth. The same for people stranded or lost for extremely long periods of time, people forced into a horrific situation (soldiers in wartime for example), and similar long-term excruciatingly difficult and stressful situations.

Consider this pandemic. It came essentially out of nowhere. Yes, there were some who find viruses and pandemics interesting who knew one was coming sooner or later. But for the overwhelming majority of people, this came out of left field taking us completely by surprise. And everyone dealt with it differently, especially at first. Denial, terror, anger, and even paralysis were widely seen. We were ordered to stay in our homes, to shelter and quarantine and not see our parents or children or grandchildren. People lost their jobs and their income. Information was wildly unreliable with “scientific” and “medical” advice coming from every possible source, almost all of which was supposition, guesswork, or speculation and was often contradictory from one day to another, even from one hour to another at times. Even the most even-keeled, stable, optimistic people who rode smoothly and calmly through the first couple of months began to buckle under the strain after a while.

Then summer came. Cases and infection rates were declining, the weather transitioned to its magnificent summer state, and various state governments began to reopen bars restaurants. Life began to resume some semblance or normalcy and people began to relax. And for a while life was almost normal for many. But the experts continued to warn us the worst was still ahead – sort of the eye in the storm if you will.

And sure enough it arrived with autumn. Schools opened (some anyway) and then closed back down; much the same with bars and gyms and the like. Cases soared and the world began to go back into lockdown. And the stress and anxiety we had in the late winter and spring came back only doubled and tripled in many cases.

And while we all (or most) look towards the coming year with hope and anticipation of a virus-free year, we also know it will not come overnight and that we still have a long and difficult road ahead. (News media won’t ever let us forget that…) And even as hope buoys us, fear wants to drag us back under. And that weight hangs heavy on us – hourly… daily. It takes its toll; it changes us. It changes how we think how we feel, and how we live.

The change may not be permanent, at least for most, but that will depend on how long it takes to be rid of this pandemic and how bad it gets before it ends. Hopefully, for many of us, the changes will fade away along with the virus. But for some, much like the prisoner of war or the castaway, the weight of the stress from the pandemic will be forever inescapable.

I tell you this not to alarm you, but in an attempt to point out what may not be immediately apparent in hopes that forewarned is forearmed and steps can be taken to mitigate the effects. And also so you are aware of what those around you are going through; of the stress they are under and the fact that how they think and feel and react to you is different because of that stress.

They are changed, as are you, and knowing that may help in your daily interactions. You can avoid triggers, you can alter the topic if needed, and you can forgive more readily once you know and recognize that how they are reacting, what they are saying, is altered and manipulated by the stress and the anxiety that has been hanging around their necks for a year now. Once you know someone is changed by life’s events, you can change how you interact with them with more understanding, patience, and compassion. You can change your tone, bite your tongue, or even change the topic to avoid possible triggers with a stressed family member. Once you recognize it, you can at least try to take steps to deescalate the moment.

So enter this new year with optimism and with hope; and armed with the knowledge that you are behaving differently due to this year-long pandemic, as are your friends and family. Enjoy the final remnants of this vastly different holiday season and cling to the hope that the next one sees us returned to normalcy and together with family and friends. Stay well!

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