The new year is a chance to start fresh for many of us. While this looks different for everyone, often it centers around making improvements to our bodies. We monitor our eating and exercise regimens and regularly check the scale to see if we have dropped a few pounds. Our goals usually center on better physical health.
Unfortunately, we can neglect to take stock of our mental health and make proactive plans to improve it. But how do we know if we need a change? Is it when anxiety paralyzes us? When sadness overwhelms us? When addictions cloud our judgment?
Some of the indicators that signal a possible decline in mental health are changes in sleep and appetite. Maybe you are suddenly eating more or less than usual. Or you’re sleeping more than normal but still not feeling energized. It might be that you’re tossing and turning, unable to nod off because your brain is busy racing with repetitive thoughts. These all signal that you might need some support.
According to Chris Tuell, Ed.D., the clinical director of Addiction Services at Lindner Center of HOPE, the holidays can distract us from the things in our life that we’d rather avoid. Come January, however, a mood disorder can suddenly resurface. While the start of a new year may signal fresh promise and new beginnings for some, others fall prey to unhealthy patterns in the post-holiday period.
The New Year’s resolutions themselves can also psychologically derail us if we’re not careful. Annie Ward, staff psychiatric nurse practitioner at Lindner Center of HOPE, notes that these resolutions tend to be drastic changes, and drastic changes often don’t stick. “The goal should be progress, not perfection,” Ward says.
It comes back to setting reasonable, obtainable ambitions. So instead of declaring that you’re going to run three miles a day, perhaps set an objective of walking 20 minutes before work. If you’re running short on time, do 10 minutes in the morning and 10 in the evening. Even little things count.
Zachary Pettibone, M.D., staff psychiatrist at Lindner Center of HOPE, suggests going easy on yourself. “Don’t make resolutions a ‘make or break’ sort of thing,” he says. “If you vow to work out and three months later, your gym membership has expired, be flexible and ask yourself what goals are practical in your life.”
Keep in mind that we are only human. While it’s important to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, it’s equally essential to grant ourselves grace when we misstep; after all, nobody is perfect.
“Sometimes when people break their New Year’s resolutions, they beat themselves up because they feel like a failure,” Tuell says. “It’s better to ask what you can do to be kinder to yourself.”
Perhaps that kindness comes by taking up yoga, engaging in breathing exercises or exploring meditation, all of which serve to soothe anxiety. One way to proactively take care of our mental health is by being aware of the amount of screen time we engage in each day.
“There is the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to the Internet and social media. Some people use these electronic devices as an unhealthy way of coping with life stressors,” Tuell says. “The truth is that for a lot of people, excessive use of screen time can be problematic. It can disrupt the sleep cycle, which makes people more vulnerable to falling prey to depression.”
Think of it like alcohol. Some can use it without any issues, while others abuse it and fall into addiction.
For the last two years, some of us may have developed bad habits, whether that’s overusing screen time, misusing drugs or alcohol, adapting poor eating choices, or neglecting to spend time on hobbies or activities we once enjoyed.
“If you’re entrenched in a new routine that may not be as healthy as one you had before, think about things you used to do that made you happy and healthy,” Pettibone says. “Try to let that inform how you approach this next year.”
When people struggle with mental health or addiction, there is a natural tendency to pull away from others. The pandemic served to disconnect us even more, and there are ramifications to that.
“When we’re disconnected, we don’t have the same supports in our lives,” Tuell says. Those supports are critical because we need to be in unity to build community. Human connection is valuable as it makes us feel loved and supported. Connections matter, and over the course of the past two years, many relationships were lost.
In addition, the pandemic completely upended our lives as our daily routines were obliterated. Before COVID-19, we had our schedule of going to work, the gym, kids’ activities, etc. Plus, we reserved time to socialize with friends and family. When the world shut down and our lives pivoted to online schooling, meetings and even holiday celebrations, routines went out the window. Now as we face a new year, it’s a good idea to focus on recentering ourselves.
One of the most significant ways to improve our mental health is to understand it better. That means becoming familiar with signs and symptoms that may indicate potential issues, but it’s also essential to know the steps we can take to get help. Just as we work with a trainer to improve our physical health, working with a psychologist or counselor strengthens our mental health. These professionals make excellent sounding boards when we are feeling defeated, confused or just need to vent.
“Starting those conversations is probably the best New Year’s resolution you can make, especially if you’re having any difficulties or challenges,” Ward says.
Do you need mental health support for yourself or a loved one? Contact lindnercenterofhope.org or call 513-536-HOPE.