Ah, New Year’s Eve is fast approaching, and it’s finally time to leave the wreckage of 2020 behind. Except for many people, it seems as if not much will change except the year on the calendar, making the new year feel about as much of a refresh as a frozen browser. There isn’t even another date you can count down to. If you’re wondering how to emotionally prepare for the groundhog-day months ahead — and maybe even find some joy in the coming season — here’s some advice.
Plan small treats.
If you’re the kind of person who delights in creating a spreadsheet on Jan. 1 to plot out the coming year, slow your roll. You can still plan small things to look forward to, said Bethany Teachman, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. Because many of her family’s usual plans for the season have been upended — like everyone else’s — each person gets to choose an activity. For example: At the request of her older daughter, a fan of “The Great British Baking Show,” the family decided to “get a ton of baking ingredients and make something really complicated that will fall apart,” Teachman said. Plan “anything that is going to give you sparks of joy” as frequently as you can during the coming months, she said.
Define what matters.
With months to go until restrictions ease, the pandemic may seem like a never-ending punishment. While staying home and avoiding travel is not even remotely like actual prison time, there is one thing you can learn from inmates who adapt best to long sentences: They define (or redefine) what matters, said Mitch Abrams, a psychologist who oversees mental health services for New Jersey state prisons.
Abrams often asks his patients a series of questions, like what and who is important to you? What would you want your legacy to be? And what are you willing to do to make your reality as best you can under these circumstances? And this one: “We are social beings. Circumstances sometimes make it more challenging to build, foster and nurture relationships. How can you nurture your relationship with yourself, so that you can then do the same for your relationships with others?”
Abrams said working in prisons for 21 years has taught him two things. The first is that humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable; the second is that happiness comes from within. “The more you are able to appreciate what you have, the better off you’ll be,” he said. “I don’t necessarily mean material things. It could be your sanity, it could be your health.”
Stay in the moment.
Endurance sports psychology tells us that the body is capable of far more than the brain believes. (If someone had told you in March how long the pandemic would last, would you have thought you could handle it?) So focus on the moment, not the big picture.
Anxiety comes from casting yourself into the future, but “if you keep your energy in the present moment, and you’re not contemplating how many more miles you have, it can feel easy at times,” said Jo Daniels, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Bath, in England, and an author on a study about what causes anxiety and depression in lockdown.
How do you stay in the moment? There are all kinds of mindfulness exercises, but one is to list five things for which you’re grateful, however small — yes, a hot cup of coffee counts. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, think only about what you need to do to get through the next hour or the next day — not the next week or the next month.
Daniels’ pandemic study found negative coping strategies — like repeatedly overeating and excess drinking — had more of an impact on people’s levels of anxiety and distress than more positive coping strategies, like seeking support. “The message is, ‘Try to do the good things, but definitely don’t do the bad things,” Daniels said. No one is suggesting your end-of-day cocktail or afternoon cake needs to go. Problems arise if you use these things repeatedly to change your mood — and you feel guilty about that afterward, she said.
If you feel as if you’re a hostage to the pandemic, well, that’s because it does have one thing in common with actually being held captive. It presents a fundamentally uncertain fate, said Emma Kavanagh, a former police and military psychologist in South Wales who has taught about the psychology of hostage negotiation. Those who mentally fare best in hostage situations often work to regain some measure of control over their environment, whether it’s declaring, “I will walk 100 steps around my cell today” or “I will do 50 pushups.”
“Having something we can decide upon and activate can help restore that sense of control,” Kavanagh wrote in an email. Exercise is a good choice because it boosts endorphins, but your something doesn’t have to involve sweating. It can be anything that makes you feel in control of your own daily experience, whether that is a routine or a small daily ritual.
Find flexibility and tolerance.
In a case of science confirming common sense, a series of studies published in October in the journal Frontiers in Psychology looked at how uncertainty makes it hard to persevere. In one study, some participants were told they would be giving a speech (meant to be an anxiety-inducing task in itself), others that they would be rating speeches and a third group that there had been a glitch and they’d find out later what they were doing. All the groups then worked on complex anagrams, and the group that didn’t know what task they had to do made the fewest attempts to solve the puzzles. (Those who thought they had to give a speech made the next fewest.)
One theory explains this by assuming that when things are uncertain “people are saving all their energy for the thing they don’t know is coming,” said Jessica Alquist, an associate professor of psychology at Texas Tech University and the study’s lead researcher. “Uncertainty might just be a cue to our brains to lock everything up.”
People who experience the least brain freezing, who handle uncertainty best, are those who are flexible, said Teachman, who has also studied uncertainty. If you find yourself spinning out, ask yourself if you’re jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst. Is there another way you might think about your situation? You can also think about somebody who you admire in terms of the way they handle stress, and ask yourself how they might respond to this situation. Glass-half-empty people, don’t worry: This doesn’t mean you always need to assume things will go well. “There is no one right way to think about situations because our context is constantly changing and the demands are constantly changing,” Teachman said.
Uncertainty tolerance is also something you can improve — even in lockdown. (New Year’s resolution, anyone?) Here’s how: Try something new you haven’t tried before, preferably something that scares you a little. Teachman has tried sky diving and bungee jumping in an effort to push herself, but you don’t have to go that far. It could be something like messaging someone you met who you thought might become a friend but never followed up on, or giving feedback to someone when you’d normally stay quiet. The idea is to do something where you don’t quite know how it’s going to turn out, because this forces you to tolerate uncertainty.
“You can do it,” Teachman said. “It’s uncomfortable but it’s not dangerous.” (Well, not unless you choose sky diving.)