As we prepare to usher in 2022, it seems striking to realize that we have been mired in a world defined by pandemic for nearly two years. From that vantage point, it can be hard to recall those earlier times when travel, conversation, shopping, and daily activities were casual, spontaneous, and quite carefree.
Today, we have a new virus vocabulary (think “quarantine”; “immunocompromised”) and a different conceptual vocabulary: we know about and think about infection, about masking, about lock-down, social distancing. There were times a relatively short while ago when such words and concepts would not have made it onto a crossword puzzle. But here we are on the brink of this new calendar year with the accumulation of pandemic realities, peering into the mist of life ahead, carrying with us this infection-consciousness and health vigilance.
Stress, illness, troubling news reports, and uncertainty are all objective factors contributing to personal distress levels. From the clinical trenches, it is clear that many people show increased anxiety, flattening or deepening of mood, feeling overwhelmed and worried, and apprehensive about the unfolding future. Yet, as we mark the onset of a new year, many might draw on a cultural history of utilizing this time of calendar transition for “new year resolutions”, which means making psycho-social changes and creating opportunities for growth.
Alongside all the more “typical” resolutions that we might all be considering ahead of January 1st (think weight loss, more quality time with family members, better management of our budgets) it’s beneficial and protective to take a moment to consider adopting a specific plan for self-care and mental hygiene as we face the many challenges that we know we will confront in 2022.
While specific approaches to addressing mental health challenges will differ among individuals and environments, there are several psycho-social lessons we can glean from the last two years. When utilized, these tools can enable us all to better cope with the overall emotional stresses of the pandemic.
- Maintaining one’s routine, schedule and structure provide the foundation for coping. When mind and body return to familiar and productive life rhythms, a greater sense of calm is achieved and we think more clearly.
- Making time for exercise, deep calming breathing, regular sleep cycles promotes health and resilience. These are natural pathways for positive brain chemistry.
- Self-awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behavior alerts us about where and when we need to de-stress and take a break from pressures. Checking in with yourself regularly – a self-scan – allows early identification of emerging tension before you become overwrought.
- Tuning into one’s spiritual strengths – hopefulness, transcendence, optimism, mindfulness – prompts adaptive coping and inner composure. These practices open up brain pathways to clarity and resilience.
- Sharing thoughts and emotions with trusted, caring friends creates empathic bonding. We cope best when we have harmony with others, as opposed to going it alone.
- Identifying and expressing feelings of gratitude broadens appreciation for others, and for life itself. Appreciating others and verbalizing admiration boosts positive attitudes and lessens critical perceptions.
- Challenging ourselves to be better and nicer people ripples within with virtue, and flows outward to shape others’ attitudes in positive ways.
There are many elements of this pandemic that are beyond our control. While science seeks solutions, each one of us can seek resolutions. Resolving to take better care of ourselves, our loved ones, and those in our lives will facilitate better mental health and wellbeing for this new year.