Never has the world been more collectively ready for a fresh new year. After the difficulties of 2020, many people are looking at 2021 as their new start. A new chapter to write in better times and better memories. And many people start this writing with New Year’s resolutions. But this year in particular, it’s important to approach resolutions with a more measured mindset. New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, mostly because they stem from something self-critical—losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising more, etc. We are still in the midst of a global health crisis and many countries are still under lockdown restrictions. We just went through nearly a year of an unprecedented global health crisis. We need to be more gentle with ourselves. We need to make resolutions and goals that are kinder and are more helpful to our future 2021 selves. So, what are some goals we can make for the new year without losing our minds?
1. Stop ‘doomscrolling’
‘Doomscrolling’ is a recently popularized term in which you cannot help but continually scroll through your phone as you sink perpetually deeper into the doom and gloom of news and media. In 2021, less screen time can make a positive impact on how you feel. l. This kind of goal is an obvious one for sure but it’s something that can really make a difference for our mental health this year. Excessive screen time can impact sleep and disrupt how deeply you can fall into your REM cycle. But more than that, it can affect your mental health by the sheer overwhelming amount of information you are taking in every day. In 2020, many of us found ourselves spending more time in front of our phones and computers, constantly refreshing to check on what new federal health mandates were being made, what our state and local officials were requiring of us. We had to stay plugged in. But there is a point when it becomes excessive. By using the need to stay informed as a justification, we were digitally drowning ourselves in information and problems over which we had no control over. And in a time like 2020 when you already feel so helpless, it only exacerbates the problem. In a study done in Japan of Japanese health workers and their mental health, they found that workers who replaced ‘excessive information seeking’ with new activities they enjoyed or some physical activity saw an increase in their mental health. So how can you break this addictive habit? Set up a timer. Many phones and computers have apps that will automatically lock you out after a set amount of time has passed. Have intention when you approach a screen. Go in, do what you need to do (e.g., emails, work, etc.), and then get out. And finally, as simple and obvious as this suggestion may be, find an activity that you can do to replace the time spent in front of a screen. Any small activities like a puzzle, reading, or even cleaning can help you slowly break away from your dependence on the screen.
2. Practice gratitude
This goal may sound a little less scientific and therefore provide less of a payoff but in fact, people who practice gratitude show a significant and reportable increase in their mental well-being. In one study of 300 adults, one group was assigned to writing gratitude letters every week while another group focused on only writing about bad experiences. A month later, the gratitude group reported significantly better mental health. But the results weren’t just temporary. Three months later, researchers scanned the brains of all participants and the gratitude group showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, believed to be related to both reward and higher-level cognition. Gratitude also has more concrete effects as well. In a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, people practicing gratitude experienced fewer aches and pains and reported feeling healthier than other people. They were also more likely to take care of their health and engage in more physical activity. And in 2011, a study from Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being reported that gratitude exercises can help improve sleep. Spending just 15 minutes writing down grateful sentiments before bed may help you sleep better and longer. 2020 was a difficult year and many of us have probably suffered some form of loss—whether it be a job, a loved one, or ten months of your life stuck at home. It can be hard to feel grateful when it has been such a rough year. But finding those moments of gratitude help us remember that it is not all bad. And it will not always stay bad. A bad moment can pass into something better.
3. Turn daily care into self care
According to the latest Gallup Poll, America’s latest assessment of mental health has been the worst it’s been at any point in the last two decades. And that can drive many people to make dramatic new year resolutions to combat these negative feelings. But one of the main reasons new year resolutions fail is because you are asking to add on new routines into your life. You need to find extra time to exercise or cook or practice a new hobby. And that can be difficult. Where do you find that extra 30 minutes or hour in your day? It is hard to reorganize a set routine. A better way to go about a lifestyle change is by incorporating smaller changes into existing routines. Instead of trying to carve out an extra thirty minutes out of your day to get in more steps, find a new route on your commute to work. Instead of trying to overhaul your eating habits completely, swap out an ingredient or two for something healthier for one meal. While these changes might feel small at first, they can add up in big ways. So what are some ways you can make existing daily care into self care?
Physical activity is one way. Fitbit Inc reported there was an average decrease in step count following March of 2020, with larger decreases reported across the world. And given the different restrictions many of us had to live with for most of 2020, it was difficult for many people to exercise regularly and safely even if they had wanted to. But it is important to find some form of physical activity you can perform, even if it is only for a short burst of time. In fact, several studies have shown that small bursts of exercise (a few seconds to a few minutes) can have a big impact on health. In a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 11 overweight men and women were asked to sit for nine hours a day in cozy recliners, where they worked or watched television. They were all served three meals while sitting in their chairs. One day the participants never left the chair except to go to the bathroom. On another day, they left the chair just once an hour to race up three flights of stairs which took about 20 seconds. Among the overweight participants, adding a 20 second burst of stair climbing to an otherwise sedentary day led to improvements in insulin sensitivity, a sign of metabolic health. And these short bursts of exercise can easily be incorporated into any lockdown scenario you may currently still be in. You can walk around while you talk on the phone. You can do a few jumping jacks before you go to the bathroom. Dance to a song. And studies have shown people who were more physically active were less likely to spend more time on their screens, thus improving mental health from two fronts—endorphins from exercise and less mental dread from doomscrolling. When our bodies feel good, so do our minds.
Gut health also improves our mental health. Along with physical activity, improving our gut health has also been shown to lead to better mental health. More and more studies are coming out, revealing how interconnected our gut health is with our mental health. You may have heard of the terms recently like ‘gut biodome.’ Researchers are finding that certain nutrients found in the gut can affect how our brain functions, namely in regards to depression. Zinc and magnesium have been most commonly studied with respect to depression. Zinc is involved in countless enzymatic reactions, both systemically and in the brain. These include pathways that regulate biosynthesis, neurogenesis, antioxidant defense, and the immune response. Magnesium is essential for healthy brain function. Magnesium has been likened to that of the glutamatergic regulator ketamine, which has a fast acting antidepressant effect. The lack of nutrients such as these can throw off the delicate balance of the brain, which can affect the development of major depressive disorder. By eating a healthy and varied diet, we can naturally incorporate these crucial nutrients into our bodies, helping to reduce the development of depression. Pick a new vegetable or ingredient you’ve never tried before and have a hand at a new recipe. Or add a new ingredient to an existing recipe for a new twist. Like with short burst exercise, a little bit can add up to big payoffs.
4. Learn to say no.
With so many of us still having to work and learn from home these days, the four walls of our homes have become everything—home, office, classroom, restaurant, movie theater, etc. Some of us have found working from home an easier transition and have perhaps even learned to prefer it but there is a downside to a new home office, which is that you may feel that you are always on call. And even in 2021, it is looking like many work from home orders will be extended well into the new year. It can be physically and mentally draining to constantly feel as if you are on the clock in the same place you sleep and eat. So it is important to set boundaries for yourself. For the sake of your mental health, it is important to learn to say no. But how do you separate your professional and personal life when both reside in the same place? First, set a literal boundary. Designate a place as your workspace. When you are in that space, that is your office, your place of work. But once you have left that space, you are done for the day. That kind of clear boundary will help you mentally clock out even when the office is in your home. Don’t do chores while you work. You may be tempted to multitask because, hey, you’re home! Why not kill two birds with one stone? But once you muddy the division between work and home, you’ll find yourself working during home hours as well. Keep the line clear. These are steps to not only aid in your productivity but to also aid in your mental well-being as well.
5. Think of others
Sometimes, one of the best ways to help ourselves is by helping others. Helping other people, whether one person or a whole community, helps us pull us out of our own heads and engage with others. And this kind of engagement is not without its rewards. Through MRI scans, there is neural evidence that suggest generous activities such as donating money to charity activates the same mesolimbic region in the brain that respond to monetary rewards or sex. In one study, over the course of three weeks, participants were provided an anonymous online forum where they could share personal stressful events in their lives. They could also provide emotional support to other participants by replying to their entries with short, empathetic messages. Participants helped others by identifying potential distortions in their thinking, suggesting reappraisal strategies (helping others think about their situation in a different way), or providing words of acceptance. The results showed that helping others to regulate their emotions predicted better emotional and cognitive outcomes for those participants who were giving the help. For example, depression commonly causes a heightened level of self-focused attention but the more depressed participants helped others, the more their helping behavior reduced their own depression due to using and discussing reappraisal strategies on a regular basis. While this all sounds quite convincing, you might be wondering how to possibly incorporate such strategies in the current world we live in where social distancing mandates are still in place. Helping others can be done in a wide range of methodologies. You can donate old books you might have to your local library. Or donate food to a local food bank. With so many schools still doing remote learning and with quite a few students struggling to adjust to this new environment, some districts are asking for online tutors to help students keep up. And if you are a healthy able-bodied adult who wants to more directly help people, the Red Cross needs volunteers more than ever right now. Most states have an online resource outlining on how to best volunteer to combat this health crisis, whether it be volunteering at clinics or test sites to handing out meals to frontline workers. Sometimes it’s fighting back against what has hurt us the most that can bring us the most healing and closure. 2020 gave us a very rare experience where nearly all of us struggled through the same crisis. Let’s use 2021 to redirect that struggle into strength by helping others and ultimately, helping ourselves.
6. Reach out for help
But sometimes, despite doing some or all of the above, we can still feel overwhelmed by a new year. If there’s one thing 2020 taught us, it’s the importance of connection. So many of us felt that cold grip of isolation and loneliness while we quarantined and social distanced from our loved ones. Mental health plummeted across the globe as we all tried to adjust to this new norm. But luckily, living in the day and age we do, we don’t have to be completely alone. Many of us have learned to adapt to video chatting. Reaching out to see a friend through a zoom date can do wonders for your mental health. And it is a good reminder that we are all in this same fight together. But if your struggles are becoming overwhelming, there are other options available. Many of the online platforms that offer tele-health counseling have gained in popularity this past year. Therapists who previously only offered in-person counseling are now offering tele-health or text counseling. And with so many different platforms, you can find a therapist for most budgets, whether you have insurance or not. It is okay if in 2021 you are feeling the same struggles and difficulties you felt in 2020. There is no sudden deadline by which you should miraculously feel better by. There are people ready and more than happy to help counsel and listen to you as we navigate this uncertain time for ourselves. If 2020 was a hard year for you, reach out so that 2021 can be better.
As ready as we are for a new year and a new start, remember to pace yourself. We’ve all been through a tumultuous year and for that, we need to be kinder and gentler to ourselves this year. Be understanding and patient with yourself as you work to make this year better than the last. Make sure that the goals you set for yourself will create a happier, safer, and overall healthier you.