For many of us, a new year offers a fresh start. We resolve to exercise more, to lose weight, to decrease debt.
One of the most common New Year’s resolutions that might not get the attention it deserves is stress reduction. Reducing stress is critically important as the U.S. continues to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. In a survey conducted in August 2020 by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association, 78% of American adults cited the pandemic as a significant source of stress.
So, if you’re among those 78% (or the 22% who aren’t), how can you incorporate mental well-being into your roadmap for 2021?
“Mental health resolutions for the new year can be an important way to start over for many people. We can forget our past mistakes, dust ourselves off and begin implementing positive change,” licensed clinical social worker Ben Barrett says.
With that in mind, how can you actually achieve your mental health resolutions in 2021? Barrett and other mental health professionals offer these four tips.
1. Figure out what you want to change.
Barrett recommends spending time pinning down what your mental health goals are for 2020.
“You may find a few places that need some work. To make the most of your effort, I encourage you to only work on one thing, and at most two things, at a time,” Barrett says.
2. Make a plan.
OK, you’ve narrowed down your mental health resolutions. Now what? A list of resolutions is useful only if you eventually carry them out. That’s why you need to draw up a plan.
“Create a plan for how you’re going to make meaningful change happen. As you’re pursuing this effort, spend time reflecting on how you can make better improvements in those areas and where the plan may need some adjusting,” Barrett suggests.
As part of creating that plan, clinical psychologist says it’s critical to examine the desired outcome of your mental health resolutions.
“Therapists often ask new clients, ‘If you woke up tomorrow and your mental health was magically the way you wanted it to be, what would that look like? How would you know you were better?’” Craigfeld says. “Answering that question can give you important insights on what exactly you’re shooting for, so you can work back from there and break down smaller steps to reach your ultimate goal.”
3. Explore your values.
Pinpointing what’s truly important to you can help you sort out which mental health resolutions will be most meaningful. Craigfeld suggests mulling these questions:
- What aspects of your life do you truly care about?
- What makes your life worth living?
- What do you want to prioritize in your life that you’re not already prioritizing?
“Perhaps friends and family are what you truly value, so you can set goals that would help you improve your relationships with them,” Craigfeld says. “Or maybe your work is another thing you’re passionate about, so you can set mental health goals that would aid you in staying motivated and preventing burn out.”
4. Be realistic.
Licensed therapist Stefanie Juliano recommends setting bite-size goals for tackling your resolutions. For instance, wake up five minutes earlier in the morning to squeeze in guided meditation during that window of time. If you haven’t already been engaging in guided meditation, this approach eases you into the practice and sets you up for success.
“Small changes are progress. Slow and steady wins the race,” Juliano says.
Licensed therapist Katie Lear says these are some of the small changes you might weigh to boost your mental health:
- Spend more time outdoors.
- Participate in volunteer activities.
- Cut back on the amount of time you spend using electronic devices.
Lear suggests being precise about undertaking these changes. For example, rather than simply promising to trim the amount of time you’re visiting Facebook and other social media outlets, establish a goal like this: “I want to reduce my time on social media sites from two hours a day to one hour a day by June.”
Suggestions for Positive Mental Health Resolutions
Wondering what you can do to put yourself in a better state of mental health in 2021? Here are three suggestions.
1. Spend more time with family.
The pandemic has made it easier for us to hang out more frequently with the people we live with. While we may get on each other’s nerves from time to time, we should view this new togetherness as an opportunity to solidify relationships in the new year.
A survey taken this summer by OnePoll on behalf of Juice Plus+ found that during self-isolation, 75% of Americans had witnessed a key moment in their child’s life that they otherwise might have missed, and 41% indicated they were putting a higher priority on eating meals as a family. More broadly, 77% said they had enjoyed spending more time with members of their household during the pandemic, and 66% said the pandemic had brought them closer to their family than ever before.
Bottom line: The pandemic has produced a silver lining for millions of Americans, and that silver lining can easily extend into 2021.
2. Embrace new hobbies.
The Juice Plus+ poll showed that 26% of Americans had picked up a new hobby during pandemic self-isolation. If you haven’t started a new hobby already, maybe you could resolve to do so in 2021. Or perhaps you can rekindle a long-dormant hobby.
The American Heart Association notes the numerous health benefits of pandemic-safe hobbies like gardening, cooking, baking, knitting, assembling jigsaw puzzles or playing a musical instrument. Those benefits include easing stress, improving mood and lowering heart rates.
James Kaufman, professor of educational psychology at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, told the American Heart Association that focusing on hobbies can distract us from fears, worries and negative thoughts. “The process of being creative does a whole bunch of really good things for us,” he says.
3. Focus on your diet.
Stress eating — downing more potato chips than usual or binging on ice cream, for instance — has become a problem during the pandemic. You can commit to kicking that habit (or making sure you don’t stray toward unhealthy eating) as we head into the new year.
Karen Arensmann, a registered dietitian at Alton Memorial Hospital in Alton, Illinois, emphasizes eating plenty of uncooked fruits and vegetables. She also recommends replacing stress eating with “stress walking,” enabling you to work off stress with exercise instead of food.
“Keeping yourself moving is extremely helpful, along with eating sensibly,” Arensmann says.