- A new year is often a time for self-reflection and thinking about what we may want to change in our lives.
- 2020 was a year like no other, so naturally how we decide to move forward from it will also be different from previous years.
- It’s important to reframe the way we think about New Year’s resolutions in the context of a pandemic, and it’s possible to make healthy, attainable goals for the year ahead.
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It’s safe to say that most people won’t be sad to leave 2020 behind.
As we prepare to ring in 2021 and look forward to a new year, it’s a natural time to reflect on our lives and what we might want to change.
But after a year that’s been anything but “normal,” it’s fair to expect that many of our New Year’s resolutions will look different this year, too.
“Previously, many of us looked to the new year with traditional resolutions like losing weight or quitting smoking,” said Jane Pernotto Ehrman, a behavioral health therapist at the Cleveland Clinic. “This year has been like no other, and it provides an opportunity to reflect and move forward in a new way.”
Amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people have realized the importance of relationships and connections with family and friends, while others are coming to terms with being stretched too thin and aren’t caring for themselves properly.
Of course, collective and personal losses have taken their toll, too.
“There is the grief and loss we have experienced with so much change to our routines and daily life,” Pernotto Ehrman said.
“For many, family and friends have been gravely ill or died from the virus. Perhaps the frenzy of having or getting ‘stuff’ now isn’t quite so important as appreciating our health, home, family, time together, and time alone,” she said.
Taking all of this into account, it’s probably a good idea to rethink some of the traditional resolutions we tend to make.
If you have one of the seven common goals below for the new year, here’s how mental health experts suggest you approach them differently in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a year as stressful as 2020, it’s natural that many people may have put on a few extra pounds.
“Sheltering in place has made it easier for us to eat our way to comfort, snooze instead of move, and numb out with sitcoms, movies, alcohol, or other substances,” Pernotto Ehrman said.
But rather than beating yourself up and committing to a strict diet and exercise regimen as soon as the clock strikes midnight Jan. 1, she suggests a different approach.
“Given all the stress and challenges of this year, perhaps a better way to approach and live in 2021 is with kindness and compassion toward ourselves as well as others,” Pernotto Ehrman said.
What does that actually look like in practice?
First, it means acknowledging that everyone is stressed and hurting. Then, rather than using on food or substances for comfort, look for healthier ways to cope.
Pernotto Ehrman recommends journaling, talking with a friend, engaging in physical activity, or watching a movie or reading a book that will help you laugh, cry, motivate, or inspire you.
It will also be beneficial to prioritize sleep, healthy eating, and making space for calm and quiet time to breathe, self-reflect, and meditate.
Most importantly, though, go easy on yourself, and go at your own pace.
“Maybe you’ll decide that you’re going to exercise 1 day per week in January and slowly build so that you’re regularly exercising by the end of the year, or maybe you’ll stick to 1 day per week for the year because that’s enough for you,” said Paraskevi Noulas, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health. “It really is up to you and your personal wishes for your future.”
Given all that’s happened this year, it’s easy to lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms that may temporarily ease stress, such as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or even biting your nails.
“Whether it’s a bad habit you picked up this year or one you’ve been dealing with for longer, the ability to change your ways is always readily available to you,” Noulas said.
“There is never a better time than the present to set an intention to improve your life and learn to manage stress in a healthier way,” she said.
One of the most successful ways to eliminate these types of coping mechanisms is to replace them with healthier ones.
“So, instead of biting your nails when you’re anxious, practice diaphragmatic breathing instead,” Noulas said. “Or, drink water or tea throughout the day so you have a physical object to hold on to rather than bite your nails.”
“Instead of having that extra drink after work, go for a 15-minute walk to clear your head and if need be, keep walking until the urge passes,” she said.
Another technique is to gradually reduce the behavior you wish to change. For instance, cut down on the number of cigarettes or alcoholic drinks you have by one or two per day or week, and continue each week until you eliminate the substance.
“If the addiction is significant enough that titrating on your own isn’t possible, turn to professional help for support,” Noulas said.
Finally, stay accountable to someone, whether it’s a friend checking in on your progress or a weekly session with a therapist.
“Let it be known that you’re working on changing your ways,” Noulas said. “It makes the goal more real and gives you more of an incentive and motivation to succeed.”
This is an especially tricky resolution given that the pandemic has forced many to stay separated from loved ones.
Still, there are ways to stay connected even while physically apart.
“Have a board game night together on video chat platforms,” Pernotto Ehrman said. “One person or family has the board and pieces, and facilitates the movements for all. Or try charades or a family scavenger hunt. Be creative.”
Other ways to stay connected include reading the same book or watching the same TV show and discussing it, sending one another care packages, and communicating by “old-fashioned” means, like writing a letter or talking on the phone.
“If there were ever a year for us to value and respect our mental health, this is it,” Noulas said.
One way to improve mental health, she said, is to focus on self-awareness and being as present as possible so that at any given moment, you’re able to check in with yourself and know what you’re feeling, thinking, and experiencing physically.
If you’re anxious about a work project, for example, you may have trouble focusing. Your chest might feel tight, or your breathing rate may increase.
“Be aware of the connection between the three: feeling, thought, and body sensation,” Noulas said.
Reach out to a trusted family member or friend for support, and partake in activities that make you feel good.
If you’re struggling emotionally to the point where it’s affecting your physical health and personal and professional life, seek help.
“Virtual mental health and substance use treatments are available now, so typical barriers to seek professional help like time off from work, commuting, and weather are minimal at this point,” Noulas said.
“If insurance is an issue, other resources are available, such as hotlines, peer support groups, and organizations, as well as doctoral and resident training clinics where patients can often be seen on a sliding scale,” she continued. “There is no shame in asking for support when you’re struggling.”
Traveling for pleasure may not be accessible for most people in the near future, but there are plenty of ways you can stay connected to the idea of travel and look forward to future trips.
Many popular destinations are offering virtual tours of local museums, zoos, animal sanctuaries, and parks that you can take now and look forward to physically visiting when you’re actually there.
Now is also a great time to strive toward becoming a more socially conscious traveler by reading up on the history and culture of a country you’ve always wanted to visit, learning conversational phrases of a new language, and supporting the local businesses of places you’ve loved traveling to.
Noulas recommends seeking out a pen pal.
“I find the best vacations are those when you know a local who can show you the sights and the ‘real’ aspects of the city or country that one rarely sees as a tourist,” she said.
“Just like we used to when we were children, people could connect with locals in a country they’d like to visit and strike up conversations to learn more about the country and local regions firsthand,” she said.
Reflecting on the traumas of 2020 might lead us to a desire to reach out to a friend or family member we have a strained relationship with, or with whom we’ve fallen out of touch.
However, it’s important to be honest with yourself and only do so if you have the time and energy.
“One has to go into a process like that knowing and understanding that you can’t control or predict the outcome,” Noulas said. “So, you have to be ready to be disappointed, to understand that the relationship may not improve.”
She recommends starting slowly and connecting in a way that you’re accustomed to, be it by phone, in person, or through email.
“Keep your language simple, clear, and direct,” Noulas said. “Set your intention and know what your goal is. Give the person time and space to respond. If they don’t respond the first time you reach out, give it another couple of tries.”
After that, it may be time to let it go, at least for the time being.
“Even if they are not ready at this moment to reconnect, you’ve now opened the door, so when they’re ready they’ll know they can circle back to connect with you in the future,” Noulas said.
Whether it’s a big project like learning to play a musical instrument or a less intense one like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, doing something new can do wonders for your mental health.
“Any new hobby you pick up is incredibly helpful, and particularly so at this time when we’re quarantining at home,” Noulas said.
“The monotony of this year with most people working and living in the same space makes it feel like Groundhog Day at times. So, anything new you can add to the routine makes a huge difference,” she said.
And at the end of the day, if you’re not up to making a resolution this year, don’t feel pressured.
“Setting an intention to change can and should be made at any time of the year,” Noulas said.
“If you want to set a goal on January 15 to lose weight, there shouldn’t be any reason to feel guilty about that,” she said. “Your resolutions are yours alone, but they don’t need to be limited to January 1.”