2020 quickly turned itself into a battlefield. Not only were humans grappling with the invisible nemesis that is COVID-19, but also the utterly transparent construct of systemic racism that's often passed off as an invisible virus of sorts. Both are factually evident and easily traceable, yet constantly denied their validity. As we navigated the heaviness, the loss, the fear, and the pain, it became even more evident that our mental health is more precious than ever. Things that were once routine and ordinary, like a hug or a trip to the store, were new sources of anxiety—compound that with a doomsday news cycle, and it's no surprise the demand for mental health services has spiked. Our minds are built to handle trauma, and yet at the same time, it feels outrageous to bear so much at once.
At year's end, so much hope grew for 2021—as if by chance, once the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, a shift in the cosmos would absolve us of the worst from the year prior. True, help is on the horizon: vaccines are (slowly) being rolled out, and a new administration is upon us, but we're still passengers on the same rollercoaster. So while we've harnessed a few coping mechanisms we'll bring into this year, we thought it would be helpful to ask experts in the field of mental health to share the feasible steps they're taking to protect their peace and happiness in hopes that it will inform a better state of wellbeing for all.
Prioritize Sleep and Speak Gently to Yourself
For Perri Shaw Borish, MSS, LCSW, BCD, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia, being sure to get an adequate amount of rest every day is what sets her up for a better headspace the following day. "The one thing I am holding steadfast to, and the thing I consider the number one ingredient for my recipe for overall wellness and health, is sleep. I am prioritizing getting eight hours of sleep each night. I find without it, there is a spiral cycle that takes hold and can negatively impact everything I do and everything I tell myself in any given day." This negative stream of consciousness is something we're all too familiar with. "If something happens during the day that might cause tension or anxiety, it can feel much larger than it actually is if I’m not well-rested. That can then feed into whatever the next challenge is that arises. This causes frustration and negative self-talk to build throughout the day. For example, if I am well-rested and I lose my keys (which happens all the time) I tell myself it’s okay, and I’m especially gentle and kind to myself. I remind myself to take deep breaths and retrace my steps until I find the keys. If however, I’m not well-rested, I might quickly go into panic mode about being late, beat myself up for losing my keys AGAIN, which then turns into blame and shame that’s hard to shake quickly. This could then impact the rest of my day (if I don’t catch myself and do the work to get grounded again)."
Use Reading as a Form of Active Meditation
Despite being a quiet and calming time for ourselves, the act of meditating can feel intimidating. However, sitting still with yourself certainly isn't the only way to center your mind. "Reading has proven to be my simplest and most successful mode of self-care," says Michele Koury LMHC; Ed.M; M.A., and founder of Know Yourself Counseling in Manhattan. "I've always kept up with the latest psych research or theoretical texts to integrate into sessions with clients. But lockdown helped me rediscover the reader I'd been as a curious and tender teenager, parched for human stories (the same drive that ultimately brought me to counseling). Now I'm back into novels, memoirs, and even some philosophy (Baudrillard is my favorite). Reading can induce a 'flow' state that is almost like a natural high. It's an opportunity to practice basic mindfulness, imaginative immersion, and healthy emotional escapism—all while exercising the brain. So I think I'll continue this, along with regular walks. We sit too much in this business!"
Make a "Start, Stop, Continue" List
You've likely seen people posting these three-tier lists all over Instagram in the first few days of the new year—and while they serve as excellent social media fodder, they're a helpful tool for setting (and achieving) goals. "For me, making a commitment to my mental health is a form of self-feedback," shares Vaneeta Sandhu, PsyD, Head of Emotional Fitness at Coa. "My favorite approach to get real is to make a 'Start, Stop, Continue' list: I reflect on one thing I can start doing to improve my mental health, one thing to stop doing because it has not supported me, and one thing to continue doing because it has helped improve my mental health.
"This year, I’ve committed to the following:
- Start: I am going to start to look for the bigger picture as a way to help me let go of those pesky perfectionistic tendencies. I’ve done work to understand why they exist (thanks, therapy!), and have learned that asking the following questions helps me see the bigger picture: “Will this still matter tomorrow? Next week? Next year?”
- Stop: No more apologizing for late responses to personal text messages. I find myself starting my texts with “Sorry this is so late!” or “Sorry this is a few days since your text!” Not responding means that I’ve likely been respecting my boundaries of unplugging. No need to apologize for that!
- Continue: Celebrate the small wins along the way! Last year, I found that celebrating gave me a sense of progress in a year that could have easily felt stagnant. For example, I get more motivated to keep reading a book if I talk about it while I’m still reading it rather than feeling like I need to complete the whole book before sharing my thoughts."
I am going to start to look for the bigger picture as a way to help me let go of those pesky perfectionistic tendencies.
Create a Goal Word
"I always spend time at the beginning of the year reviewing the weeks of my previous year’s calendar to make note of my accomplishments," says Erin Wiley, MA, LPC, LPCC, a licensed clinical psychotherapist. "I also spend some introspective time reflecting on what I learned during the year, what my top successes and disappointments were, and then I see if that reflection leads me to any thoughts about how I’d like to tackle the next year. I set some basic goals, and then I choose a word for the year. It’s a word that I come back to over and over that centers me on my intention for the year. This year mine is 'ease.' I have decided that everything will come to me easily this year, and if it doesn’t, I’m just going to slow down, reassess, and try again (as opposed to doubling down in frustration and pushing harder). Last year, my word was 'discipline.' I have a daily morning ritual that I do as well: Upon waking, I chug a big bottle of water with lemon and electrolytes, make my bed, track my gratitudes on an app on my phone (Gratitude!), write a positive memory from the previous day in my journal (to cement that memory in my neuroframework), and I share an affirmation with my online group of gals (Manage Your Shift on Facebook)."
Finding 15 Minutes of Nothing
"This year, I am really hoping to find 15 minutes for myself," says psychologist and Byrdie Review Board member Sanam Hafeez. "The year of the pandemic has blurred so many boundaries between all of life’s engagements that we will all have to work hard to find work-life balance again (that is, if we ever had it before). I had, kind of—sort of—found it. Or devised it. And just when I had hit that sweet spot, COVID hit.
"While there were some perks to this new life we were all thrust into, I find that there’s no time left for just me after my own work day; my children’s remote schooling and homework; hikes and outdoor activities; and all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping is done. (Except the shower, but even there, I find myself planning out work or kids’ activities or what I’m making for meals that day.) And let’s not forget the news cycle that I couldn’t disconnect from the past few months—pretty sure I’m not alone. And from the New York Times to my Instagram where I mostly follow politicians, news, or activists, I can’t catch a break, even when I’m just scrolling 'mindlessly.'
"I have always found it hard to meditate, but I am trying to integrate it into stretching or light yoga. The idea is to find ways to ‘quiet the brain.' I’m realizing that fitness for me can’t just be about getting exercise in (or drinking my greens and collagen powders, or the 15 supplements... honestly I don’t know how I became that person!) but figuring out a way to just do NOTHING. That’s it—15 minutes of nothing."