It's mid-January, and maybe you've resolved to lose 20 pounds this year, exercise every day, or quit drinking. And — so far — you have failed. So you give up. Sound familiar?
Every new year, we are bombarded with messages like "new year, new you," but for many of us, just living through the last several months has been a major accomplishment.
This year, it's OK to give ourselves a break, says Dr. Rachelle Scott, director of psychiatry at Eden Health, a concierge-style health care start-up with offices in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
"There are days we're just getting up and showering and, you know, just doing basic activities of daily living. And that's OK," she says. We are far too hard on ourselves. "There are periods in time where we really need rest and we really need to heal. And I think we're in a time where that's certainly the case."
Recharge your body
It's a particularly trying time to be a human right now.
A Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll conducted in mid-July 2020 found 53% of adults in the U.S. reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to stress over COVID-19. That's up from 32% in March. Many adults also report difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), and are increasing their alcohol consumption or substance use (12%).
For health care workers who see COVID-19 patients every day, that percentage may be even higher, according to a survey by the University of Utah Health published this month, and higher still for those who fear they don't have enough food to eat.
And then there's the added stress of recent racial unrest and political riots at the U.S. Capitol. "You've got the chronic COVID-19 [stress] response and then you've got the acute layer on top of that," Scott says. "If you're just trying to be more productive on top of exhaustion, that only leads to one place, and that's burnout or depression," she says.
And yet, many of us are still pushing. It's how we're wired. We want this kind of "mental accounting" every new year.
So after you rest a bit, if you feel ready to work towards some big goals, these mental health experts offer some ideas for how to approach them in a calmer, gentler fashion for 2021:
Reset your expectations
This year might be a good time to look internally for goals, says Jacklynne Marder, an associate family and marriage therapist in Los Angeles. Marder works with a lot of Millennials who define themselves by their productivity and their ability to hustle. Because of the pandemic, many of them are now isolated from family members, out of work, or juggling small children who are learning from home. Sometimes they're doing all three.
So try "practicing mindfulness or practicing having a more positive attitude with the current state of the world," she says. Instead of focusing on external values, ask yourself: "What makes someone a good person ... beyond how much money they make, beyond their Instagram followers, how many sit ups they did in a day?" she says.
Everything that's going on can actually be a gift or a blessing in disguise, Marder says. "It can be an opportunity to really practice being more present."
Science suggests that small acts of kindness — like actually listening to someone else — can make them feel loved and supported.
Also, think about why you're making these resolutions or goals, says psychiatrist Scott. Think about what and who matters to you most. What is it that you think losing 20 pounds is going to achieve? Maybe your doctor told you to lose the weight because of your cholesterol, or maybe it's just that you think you'll be happier, she says.
Try practicing gratitude, which improves our relationships and is good for our hearts.
Say thank you — even if it's only to yourself. Gratitude is not pretending everything's great, it's just a way of looking at the positive side, says Scott — a reset. For example, instead of berating yourself for not completing four tasks on your to-do-list, try focusing on the fact that you accomplished six of them, she says.
If you've got a big goal, consider breaking it down into smaller parts. "Break it down into 12 steps so that the beginning of each month is an opportunity to continue to work on that goal," Scott says.
Choose something specific, short-term and positive, agrees Randi Kofsky, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist who is also a somatic psychotherapist focusing on the mind-body connection. Let's say you want to eat more healthfully, "plan to eat more vegetables for three days. Then plan for another seven to 10 days. Assess the pros and cons of eating more vegetables. Then add another segment of days," she suggests.
"The more we can stay engaged in the moment-to-moment process, the more our system notes the shifts we are attempting to make and works to maintain them."
Reframe how you see success
"Goals are not a program we follow," Kofsky adds "They are not a task master. They are a destination. When we map out the path to take one step at a time, goals become our guide in the process."
We live in a very outcome-oriented society, so we don't always see that the journey to reach the goals can be rewarding, too, she says. For example, sharing a new skill with others or getting support from people who are working with you towards the same goals.
With all the stress we're carrying right now, "just meeting ourselves where we're at is important," says Marder.