Good riddance, 2020. That’s no doubt how many of us feel about the past year and the challenges it has presented. And who could blame us, given the crushing coronavirus pandemic, record forest fires, racial injustice and a divisive election?
But we can’t jettison the stress of managing so many difficulties as easily as we can ring in a new year. Many of 2020’s challenges are still with us, and stress can have serious mental health consequences.
“We’re hearing from a lot of patients who are more anxious and depressed,” said Shannon Suo, a physician and health science clinical professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “We’re hearing from patients whose depression and anxiety were in remission and those symptoms have returned this year due to stressors.”
As we welcome 2021, Suo and other UC Davis Health experts say it’s an opportunity to refocus and make your mental health a priority.
Here are 10 tips to get started:
1. Skip the big New Year’s resolutions.
“Be gentle with your resolutions this year,” advised Angela Drake, a clinical neuropsychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis Health. “Set small, realistic goals and reward yourself for small wins or changes.” Two examples: Find one positive thing each day to focus on or make time for a five-minute silence break every day — and get the kids in on it, if you can.
2. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt.
It’s easy to get angry and frustrated, especially when we’re already dealing with anxiety and pressure related to the pandemic or its accompanying economic struggles. But that can add to our own unhappiness, said Suo. “Remember that everyone’s fuses are shorter. Maybe that person who just invaded your space or yelled at worker just found out a relative died, or lost their job, or their kid is failing sixth grade,” she said. “Try to be kind when you can, keep your distance and don’t judge others too harshly. People are better than we give them credit for.”
3. Be kind to yourself.
— Shannon Suo
It sounds simple, but it’s one of the toughest things to master. “Acknowledge that this is a difficult time. Not being hard on yourself is so important right now,” Drake said. “Don’t beat yourself up for the weight you may have gained, due to lack of exercise, or the dust bunnies around the bed. Self-care is important and essential to feeling recharged.”
4. Small steps make a big difference – literally.
Exercise is not only good for our physical health, it can have a profound, positive impact on our mental health, too. “Focus on moderate exercise that you can do consistently. No need to train for a marathon, but maybe commit to being able to walk or run a 5K or even a 10K, and slowly build up to that,” Suo said. “Make a commitment to moving more and to balancing that with good food choices and the occasional indulgence.” Find a type of exercise that you enjoy and start small. This short video from our sports medicine program includes several great ideas for squeezing exercise into your day, even while working from home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of physical exercise weekly for greatest health benefits. “Calculate how much exercise you get each week now and set a goal to add 5-10 minutes per week if you’re short. You can use a fitness tracking app to log your activity, so you know when you reach your goal!”
5. Explore meditation, art or other calming activities.
“Mindfulness meditation can be great for many people, but some patients prefer other methods,” Drake said. “There are many forms of meditation – including one specifically for fidgety folks – so be open to different strategies until you find what works for you! I know of one patient who found painting very calming - it even helped ease her chronic pain.”
“Meditation works great for some people and would probably benefit most if they took the time to do it,” Suo said. There are lots of apps that can help, including this free one from UCLA. Suo also recommends scheduling regular virtual meetings with friends or family members – and post-pandemic, regular walks or coffee dates. “If you schedule it in regularly, you’re more likely to do it.”
6. Focus on the joy.
When we are grieving the loss of normalcy – of play dates, dinners out, movies in a theater, large family gatherings and much more – it helps to find other things that bring us real happiness. “Whether it’s video streaming, podcasts, reading, outdoor activities, board games, video games, hobbies, chatting with friends for hours — if it brings you joy, that’s what you should do in moderation, of course,” said Suo.
“I am a firm believer in the restorative powers of baking,” Drake shared. Try to focus on the fun activities that are available to you, rather than the ones that aren’t. That mind shift can do wonders.
7. Rediscover a hobby.
— Angela Drake
Channeling time and energy into a new – or newly rediscovered – hobby can be an effective way to improve your outlook. “I have used almost everything in my craft room, including the carefully curated things I’ve bought over the years but never had the time to figure out how to use!” laughed Suo. She says she’s used all those supplies to make decorations and homemade gifts for loved ones. “I love seeing and hearing people’s reactions to what I’ve selected or made for them, so it brings me joy to work on their gits and enjoy the new decorations around our house,” Suo said.
8. Stop putting things off.
“2020 has taught us an important Buddhistic lesson in impermanence,” Suo explained. “Stop putting things off. If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but kept putting off, do it in 2021 – once it’s safe to do so, if it involves travel or being with other people, of course.” Making plans can help, too, as it gives us something to look forward to. So while it’s not yet a good time to take that international trip you’ve always dreamed of, you could start researching and planning it for the future. In the meantime, think about the little things you’ve been wanting to do – learn to bake bread, reach out to an old friend, learn calligraphy or start a journal – whatever you’ve been putting off.
9. Do what you can to sleep better.
“Insomnia is a major problem for many adults, and I have even seen kids struggle with sleep,” Drake said. “Sleep is essential to health and is influenced by stress – but also activity levels. Staying inside at home has made many of us less active. Increasing your activity level is a good start, and light therapy can also help to reset your internal clock. Check out these tips for fighting “coronasomnia.”
10. Don’t put off seeking help.
This is most important of all. Seek help if you are struggling. Telehealth appointments are safe and can be very effective. “We have evidence that the increased isolation of the pandemic is leading to more people using substances and delaying seeking help,” Suo said. “Don’t delay. There is hope and there are professionals who can help you through this.”
If you or a family member are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.