The world has changed in many ways. And as we approach the start of a new year, for many it only brings more unanswerable questions. As we look toward the horizon filled with the unknowns of 2021, prioritizing and preserving your mental health is all the more important. Here are eight tips mental health experts recommend you follow in 2021:
1. DO recognize feeling anxious during times of uncertainty is normal.
“Humans are wired to dislike uncertainty. It messes with our evolutionary survival strategies and raises our internal level of alert,” explains Dr. Jennifer Love, MD, board-certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. “We tend to respond the same way to stress each time, so the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
In other words, if you reacted strongly to sudden life changes in the past, you’re likely to feel equally as unsettled if a similar situation arises in the future. Dr. Love advises that you pay close attention to how you feel when new stressors present themselves, as it could be a clue to help lower your anxiety.
“If your reaction is ‘hysterical,’ it’s probably historical,” Dr. Love says. “If my stress response is disproportionate to the stress itself, then I’m likely responding to something in the past. Understanding this goes a long way in taming the internal stress-beast.”
However, it’s important to note that not everyone feels anxious by the unknown. In fact, for some it can be somewhat of a good thing, and there’s science behind that, too.
“On the flip side, those who are risk takers and thrive on an element of surprise or love a high-octane pace, might feel enlivened and excited by what’s new or fresh, and might enjoy the unexpected and unknown,” says Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., psychoanalyst, private practice psychologist, and author. “By acknowledging a lack of control and refraining from trying to fix or change what you cannot, some experience relief.”
2. DON’T assume self-care is one size fits all.
Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT., founder of The Missing Peace Center for Anxiety, says a big misconception people have around self-care is that it happens just because we hashtag the word occasionally. “Self-care is one of the most overused terms and underutilized concepts. Everything from our physical health to our mental health to our overall good moods are dependent on self-care. Yet unfortunately, in my experience, most of us don’t know what self-care really is.”
Which a simple glance at the interwebs will confirm. Nearly every link on the first page of Google when searching “self-care” is a reiteration of the same question, “What is self-care?”
“People often assume self-care is limited to physical hygiene like combing your hair each morning or showering on a regular basis,” Dr. Newman explains. “But that’s just a piece of the puzzle. The term refers just as much to emotional well-being and mental hygiene as to physical hygiene.”
The reason self-care is hard to grasp lies in the fact that, in order to be effective, self-care will be different for each person. Rhodes-Levin prefers to describe self-care as taking time out of your day (every day ideally) to do something that “fills you up and makes you feel good.” For some this might be journaling, making a gratitude list or a hobby that buoys your spirits. It could even be laying in the grass and watching the sun set. The key is to get introspective and figure out which things bring you joy.
3. DO allot just 10 minutes a day for yourself.
Although it’s hard to discern what post-COVID society will be like, it appears some of the changes brought on by the pandemic could actually boost your mental health. Think back to 2019, if you can remember that far; your free time was likely traded in for busy schedules laden with commitments and appointments that left you running from place to place without a minute to spare. 2020 has forced a stillness that turns out is quite good for you; in doses, that is. And according to Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, psychologist and integrative mental health expert, that dose could be as short as 10 minutes.
“People tend to assume you need a lot of time to help your body relieve stress, but just 10 minutes a day of an activity that helps our nervous system to power down can have a big impact on how we feel physically and mentally.”
She recommends activities like deep belly breathing and progressive meditation, which both help the nervous system be less reactive to stress by teaching it to sync into a calmer, parasympathetic state.
4. DON’T lower your working environment standards just because you’re working from home.
Similar to the old saying “you are who you surround yourself with,” as we continue to work from home in 2021, understand that you are what you surround yourself with. Studies show a cluttered environment can negatively impact your mental health and is associated to life dissatisfaction, so if you’re working from a disarrayed dining table, you may need to make some changes.
“Clutter increases the main stress hormone cortisol,” Dr. Love explains.
The good news? Dr. Regine Muradian, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in stress and anxiety, says there are quick and easy ways to reduce anxiety around your work-from-home space. She recommends people move around their working space if they are feeling bored or having difficulty concentrating. If you aren’t able to swap locations due to a lack of room or others in your household occupying space, try adding new elements to your current workspace instead. For example, add a candle or a new pencil holder and refresh the area often so it feels different.
Dr. Love agrees: “I change my home office, which is actually my dining room, décor regularly. A new arrangement of flowers, adding or taking away a table cloth—literally just moving accessories around—keeps it feeling fresh week after week!”
5. DO force yourself to take scheduled breaks throughout the workday.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and certainly not from your kitchen table. Productivity in 2021 should be regarded differently, and collectively we need to take the pressure off of high performance during a global pandemic.
“Very few of us are at home curing cancer,” Rhodes-Levin laughs. “Research has shown that workers who take 10 minutes per hour for themselves are much more productive than those who do not. This can be done by simply walking away from your work area. Listen to some music for 10 minutes, do some jumping jacks or even dance around to get your endorphins flowing. Just make your break completely work free.”
However, if the 10-minute method doesn’t seem to work for you, Dr. Capanna-Hodge suggests establishing a routine you can follow to bring structure to times of uncertainty.
“If you’re sitting in one location for work, teaching, eating, and relaxing, your brain will not be able to switch gears and instead you will feel the cognitive and physical effects of stress,” Capanna-Hodge says. “It’s a good idea to move around, following a schedule and a routine that incorporates breaks, lunch, physical activity, and in different and designated areas of your home to help your subconscious brain alert appropriately to the task at hand and better switch gears in the future.”
Yet whichever you decide to try in 2021, remember there will be some days when you’re more productive than others and that’s natural. So cut yourself some slack; all anyone can ask of you is your best, and it’s all you can ask of yourself.
6. DON’T ignore your feelings of grief because someone else’s problems seem “bigger.”
Undoubtedly, 2020 has caused trauma—clinically defined as the loss of feeling safe in the world—for many collective groups: those with pre-existing conditions isolating for nearly a year, people of color, those who lost loved ones due to COVID and essential workers, just to name a few. But it’s important to understand we aren’t in a Trauma Olympics—there is no gold medal for who endures the most. If needing to cancel your wedding caused you sadness, don’t hold that in because it feels less important than your sibling’s layoff. Your personal pains matter, so give yourself permission to feel them and grieve without judgment.
“Grieving is not attributed just to a physical loss,” Dr. Muradian says. “Understanding the stages of grief is important as we begin to heal, regardless of the type of loss we’ve experienced.”
The five stages of grief follow the acronym DABDA: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. You can go through these stages all at once and in no order. And if in 2021 you suddenly find your thoughts meander back to past failures or exes for example, you haven’t lost your mind.
“Trauma has a cumulative effect in which old losses (think divorces or deaths of close family members) get stirred up,” explains Dr. Newman. “As negative feelings are compounded over time, it can cause making it through the day to feel overwhelming.”
When moving through complex emotions, all of the experts emphasize the importance of finding someone you can speak to and share your feelings out loud—whether that be a professional or someone close to you that you can trust. A support system is also an essential element of self-care.
“As we end this year, think about what you would like 2021 to be like for you. Hope is important to hold onto,” Dr. Muradian says. “Remind yourself that 2021 will be different and that positive things are coming.”
7. DO focus on what you can control if things feel helpless.
With millions of people struggling to find work, as we approach 2021 many individuals feel burned out or helpless, which makes setting New Year’s resolutions seem futile. But Dr. Love advises there are still benefits to setting small goals, despite the current climate.
“Crisis often takes us out of the driver’s seat, whether we’ve lost a job or undergoing medical treatment. When this happens, focus on what you can control. Make a list of what you can’t control, everything that is under your control, and then list some things you can do about the things you can’t control.”
Some practical steps to put you back in the driver’s seat might be:
- Make it a goal to submit two job applications per day.
- With all of your newfound time at home, make a list of things you always wished to do, like cooking, learning an instrument, knitting—the more creative the better! Try tackling one of these activities per week/month.
- Set a goal to meet a certain step count each day.
As you meet these goals, your confidence will begin to bounce back because focusing on what you can control gives you the trappings of a blueprint to help you overcome the feelings of powerlessness. Although understand that your unease won’t necessarily fizzle overnight.
“Those who feel helpless should grace themselves with room to grieve, while realizing feelings of loss don’t just disappear,” Dr. Newman shares. “Being told we’ve been let go can make us feel like we’re failures or as though we’ve lost a crucial part of our identity. Processing a termination can take weeks, perhaps months.”
8. DO maintain regular mental health upkeep, even in times of joy.
Of course, in 2021 make it a habit of getting seven to eight hours sleep, eating well, exercising regularly. However, year-round you should also build checking in with yourself into your daily practice. Mental health is more effective when on the offensive; don’t undervalue its importance once the world begins to resemble something a little more “normal.”
So what does regular maintenance look like? It can be simple gifts you give yourself that cost $0.00, or perhaps for you it’s something different.
“If you are tired of zooming, overwhelmed by requests for virtual happy hours, but you’re worried about declining (since what else do you have to do?), it’s OK to say no,” Dr. Newman emphasizes. “Slowing down is a way to be kind to yourself, too.”
Incorporating patterned breathing techniques is a quick way to recenter. For example, the 4-7-8 breathing technique has you breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and finally exhale from your mouth for eight seconds; repeating the cycle at least three times in a row. Dr. Capanna-Hodge recommends people complete this two to four times each day.
“Seven days a week, we need to take a few minutes a day to calm our nervous system and connect to our breath and body,” Dr. Capanna-Hodge explained. “A simple, 4-7-8 breath is a good base to regulate the central nervous system so your body is less reactive to stressors.”
Yet perhaps most poetically, Dr. Love shared one final thought. “If you are holding anger, channel that energy into motivation for change; don’t let it seep into your bones.”
Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock.com