COVID-19 transformed our lives in all aspects in 2020 — from how and where we work to how we socialize — and it will surely affect our New Year's resolutions for 2021, too.
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"The pandemic has given all of us new perspectives that make resolutions of past years like losing 10 pounds or getting to the gym three times a week seem irrelevant," says Tina Tessina, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together.
This year, she stresses, the focus needs to be on your mental health, and how to keep yourself on an even keel until the waves of the pandemic subside.
Here, nine psychological self-care resolutions to put on your radar today.
1. Set Limits on Screen Time
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns about what screen time was doing to our health. But now, the average American's screen time has gone up by about a third, to an average of about six hours daily — as opposed to four before COVID — according to a survey released this past September by glasses company Foster Grant.
While on the one hand, screens have become our window to the outside world, including work, friends and family, they can also prevent you from being fully present around the loved ones you do live with, says Courtney Hart, LCSW-C, a social worker in Bel Air, Maryland.
She recommends designating a spot for your phones — like on a tray with your car keys — during the times you're with others, like at dinner or while you're all watching a movie or playing a game.
"It's harder than it seems, as technology is made to keep pulling us back in," she explains. "Stick with one small change until you find that it works — like purposefully taking off an app on your phone that's particularly addicting — and then add another one in."
2. Focus on the Positive
When it comes to both your physical and mental health, it pays to be positive: "You're likely to have reduced stress, a healthier immune system, lower blood pressure and a feeling of happiness and greater self-confidence," says Ellen Diamond, PhD, psychologist and owner of Ketamine Wellness Centers in Chicago.
One of the exercises Diamond recommends is to create a list, aka a "cheat sheet," of the positive things you're grateful for in your life. Keep the list handy and read it multiple times a day.
"You want to train your brain to focus on the positive," adds Diamond, who even recommends that you read your list out loud while in private.
3. Talk Up Someone at the Grocery Store
But while about half of us speak to loved ones daily, 1 in 10 also say these chats exacerbate their feelings of loneliness.
"Think about all the casual conversations you used to have throughout the day before the pandemic — chatting with people in line at the grocery store, or neighbors on your block," says Diamond.
If 2020 was the year people kept much more to themselves, make 2021 the year you find ways to replace the social interactions you used to have more often.
"This is especially true if you live alone," Diamond stresses. It can be as simple as asking the cashier or takeout guy how they are doing — every interaction counts.
4. Prioritize Sleep Over Productivity
Almost 70 percent of people report that their sleep habits have become inconsistent during the pandemic, with over 40 percent admitting that they stay up later than they should, according to a survey released in September by mattress company Leesa.
"Sleep is especially important during the pandemic because this is the period in which both our bodies and brains heal," says Leah Rockwell, LPC, a licensed professional counselor in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.
Making sleep your number-one focus doesn't mean you have to neglect your "to-do" list. In fact, sleeping more might help you work through it more quickly, Rockwell says. (Ah, the power of a well-rested brain!)
"You'll also have the fortitude to readily adapt and cope with the inevitable stressors that elicit far more anxiety that they merit," she says.
While the conventional wisdom is to get seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night, Rockwell recommends instead that you do a two-week study of your sleep patterns, noticing when you go to bed and wake up on your own without an alarm.
"This will give you a framework to learn your ideal number of sleep hours as well as the optimal times to catch them," she says. "Your body is giving you data if you listen closely."
5. Practice Body Affirmations
When it comes to resolutions for food and fitness, most of the goals we set for ourselves aren't sustainable because they're too aggressive and put us at risk for a disordered lifestyle of obsessive eating and exercise, says Alexa Shank, LPC, therapist and owner of Relief & Recovery Psychotherapy in Houston, Texas.
Instead, she recommends implementing daily gratitude affirmations about your body.
"By saying out loud to yourself what you are thankful for and why (e.g. 'I'm thankful that my belly carried my children'), you are rewiring your brain to focus on the positive aspects of your body image and less of the negative aspects," she explains.
When you feel better about your body, you're more motivated to treat it better, which includes naturally being more active and tuning in to its satiety clues, which can help prevent overeating.
"By saying out loud to yourself what you are thankful for and why, you are rewiring your brain to focus on the positive aspects of your body image and less of the negative aspects."
6. Take a Deep Breath Before You Snap at Your Partner
Long days and nights spent with your significant other makes it more likely you'll take out your frustration on each other, Tessina says.
This year, she advises that the moment you begin feeling edgy, take a break, whether it's a solitary walk around the block, closing yourself in your private space (you can even use the bathroom as a refuge) or journaling to let off steam.
If none of that is possible, you can de-escalate the situation immediately by taking three deep breaths.
"This brings in plenty of oxygen, which helps burn adrenaline and instantly calms you down," she explains. "It's a simple exercise, but it promotes kindness, which is the WD-40 of relationships. When you think not only about your own feelings, but your partner's, it goes a long way towards making your relationship run smoothly."
7. Schedule Weekly Gripe Sessions With Your Significant Other
After months in lockdown together, you've probably catalogued a whole bevy of resentments toward your partner. But working through them is vital.
"You can't be friends or want to have sex with someone you resent," says Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a psychologist and marriage counselor in Boulder, Colorado.
He recommends vowing to sit down and air your grievances toward one another once a week.
Start by acknowledging how your partner has improved on the area you have resentment toward, then make your complaint without using words such as "you," "always" or "never," which can cause your significant other to become defensive.
Then have your partner summarize the complaint to ensure they heard it correctly, search for the kernel of truth in it that they can own without excuses, empathize with how it's made you feel, then apologize and suggest some changes so it doesn't happen again.
While you're at it, schedule some time for fun, too.
"Shoot for four mini dates per week for about two hours, where you focus on providing affection, cultivating emotional intimacy and doing something fun, like going for a hike or bike ride," Fisher says.
"Safe and supportive people can help us feel anchored, and maintaining connections can help us get through the next few months."
8. Cultivate a New Friendship
This year, make a resolution to develop a new relationship with a safe, supportive person.
"Developing relationships as adults isn't always easy, and it's certainly made harder because of our current circumstances with the pandemic," says Saba Lurie, LMFT, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist.
But given how overwhelmed, fatigued and uncertain so many of us are feeling right now, it's important to stay connected.
"Safe and supportive people can help us feel anchored, and maintaining connections can help us get through the next few months," Lurie says.
Consider folks you have met in the past: maybe someone you were curious about, or someone who you felt particularly at ease around. Then consider how you would want to start deepening that relationship.
"It could be as simple as a quick text that they crossed your mind and you were wondering how they were doing," says Lurie.
From there, you can ask questions about how they've been coping, and you can share your experiences as well. Feel like you've achieved a rapport? Ask them now if they'd be open to going on a socially distanced walk, or at least having virtual cocktails or a meal over FaceTime, to continue to establish your new friendship.
9. Spend More Time Doing Nothing
"Our minds need breaks," says Paul Greene, PhD, a psychologist in New York City. "But so often during the day we're on a computer or a phone or watching TV."
While these are all OK to do, he notes, it's important to spend some time each day doing absolutely nothing — which means sitting, standing or walking without reading, watching or listening to anything.
"Meditation is the best type of 'do-nothing' time because it helps us get better at not having an activity in a given moment, which in turn improves anxiety," Greene says.
He recommends gradually increasing your do-nothing time — start with five minutes and see if you can incrementally build up to an hour every day.
"If it feels uncomfortable, that's a sign you need to do it," he says.