by Dr. Kimberly Murray, LMFT
No one could have predicted how 2020 would go. We all entered the year, noting how neat the year number of 2020 was, and got excited at the new decade inviting fresh hopes and dreams. No one knew that it would unfold into one of the hardest years of many people’s lives with a once-a-century event, a global pandemic. Suddenly, the excitement we all felt for the year 2020 turned into disgust, pain, disappointment, and confusion. The challenges were unprecedented, including extreme social isolation, confinement to home around the clock, judgment of and by our neighbors, intense financial struggles, many business closures, learning to home-school our children and work from home simultaneously, losing loved ones to a mysterious disease, and so much more.
Many of us thought that with the first day of 2021, the pandemic and its havoc would all finally come to an end, simply becoming a distant painful memory. But it didn’t. Disappointingly, not only did this magical moment not happen, things actually hit an all-time low at the beginning of the year, creating more pain, stress, and chaos going into 2021 than we saw all of 2020. The holidays, a once joyous time of the year, became a period of unprecedented sickness and death, leaving lifelong scars that will far outlast the virus itself. As a nation, COVID-19 tore us apart in a division of opinions on how to handle the virus and restrictions, pitting families, friends, and neighbors against one another.
Ascertaining understanding from our hindsight perspective is likely not going to yield the clear lessons we typically expect. There is still so much pain, confusion, and turmoil indicating that the lessons have yet to be completed, and thus we are still unsure of what to do from here. You are not alone in these experiences and this crazy journey.
Time to Shift
So, where do we go from here? The harsh reality is that 2021 will likely look similar to 2020 with the continuation of the pandemic, large-sweeping social restrictions, and political and economic challenges. Despite this, our mindset and personal impact can positively change starting right now. While we cannot control the virus, our government, or even the economic impact, we can discover where we do have choices and choose a more positive path for ourselves from here.
Fact: our happiness is completely within our control. I can already hear the “ya but…” arguments from many, but hang in there with me. For example, while we cannot control the impact the virus had on our household income, we can control our reaction to it. We can choose to focus on unexpected gains over losses, hope over dread, gratitude over hurt, connection over divisiveness, perseverance over quitting. We control our mindset, behaviors, and even emotions in all situations in life, including this one. When we choose to proceed in confidence and strength, rather than victimhood and anger, we can truly change our daily experiences, interactions, and mood.
As a therapist, I have seen countless people’s lives radically and positively change by simply choosing happiness, no matter what is going on around them. Their increased happiness and contentment with life did not come from making more money, creating more time, or becoming the most popular person in the neighborhood. Their mindset shifted drastically and permanently. Happiness came from a conscious choice to embrace all of life’s ups and downs, finding the good in each day no matter how tough some moments had been. It is done through learning new tools to capture and embrace our well-deserved happiness. So how can we do this at such a challenging and unprecedented point in time, one rightfully marked with confusion, anger, turmoil, anxiety, and sadness? Let me help.
Since we cannot control that the pandemic remains and our world has been turned upside down, let’s discover what we can control. Instead of setting ourselves up for failure with unrealistic new year’s resolutions or impossible expectations, let’s instead set an intention at the start of the year to put ourselves and our mental health first, no matter what this year throws our way. We can do countless things to quiet our anxious minds and let joy and peace become our new normal. It should be noted that many of the tips I have provided can be used for anxiety and stress anytime, not just during the pandemic.
• Gratitude: Wake up each day focused on the positive things that lie ahead and hope for what is to come. At the end of the day, write down in a journal at least five things you are grateful for that day. These can be as simple as “getting a shower” to something like “a meaningful conversation with a friend.”
• Choose joy: Remind yourself multiple times a day that you are the only one in control of your happiness. No one else can determine how you feel, no matter what they say or do. If anger, sadness, or other challenging emotions creep in, pause and say out loud: “I deserve and choose happiness.” Let yourself fully embrace this mentality.
• Deep Breathing: Sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Take a slow deep breath, focusing on breathing into your belly, pushing your belly button away from your spine. When you breathe deeply, your hand on your chest should not move; only your belly hand should move. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for one second, and exhale for 8 seconds. Repeat at least five times. Try to focus only on your breathing, staying present in the moment and on your breath only, not yesterday, or what you have to do today. Try saying “inhale” as you breathe in and “exhale” as you breathe out to keep your mind on your breathing, nothing else.
• Grounding: Place your feet flat on the floor while sitting in a chair, and close your eyes. Focus on deep breathing. (See above.) Think about the feeling of the pressure of your feet on the floor, connecting your feet with the ground. Think about the feeling of your booty in the chair and the feeling of the chair under your hands. Think about the connection of your spine to the chair and the weight of your shoulders. Breathe deeply and imagine yourself sinking even deeper into the chair. Try to stay in the present moment and let your body fully relax.
• Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Lay or sit down, and close your eyes. Start with focusing on your toes. You will work your way up through your head and then out your arms. Tense your toes as much as possible for 10 seconds and then fully release for 10 seconds. Think of your muscles melting like butter when you release. Move your way throughout the body, focusing on one small muscle group at a time.
• Affirmations: Write at least three affirmations and say them daily while looking at yourself in the mirror. A couple of examples could be: “I am in control of my body and my emotions” or “I deserve to feel calm.”
• Embracing the Extra Quiet Time: People thrive off of connection, but they also need time alone with little stimulation. Sit alone in a quiet space, without your phone, music, another person, or any other distractions. Practice some deep breathing while embracing the quiet. Allow yourself to rest without a sense of guilt or urgency to “do” something. Let your heart rate and mind slow down, embracing the time just to be.
Protect Your Mental Health:
• Choose patience over judgment: Try to be patient with yourself and others as we navigate completely uncharted territory. Resist the urge to judge and instead practice compassion and empathy. We are all human, and we all deserve a bit of grace, including you.
• Let go of what is truly outside of your control: When anxiety or stress creep in, take a mental inventory of the source. Take a moment to pause and truly consider if the stressor is something you have control over. If the answer is “yes,” plan out the next steps to resolve the stress. If the answer is “no,” it is time to let it go!
• Turn off the news and clean up your social media: Nothing good comes from continuously consuming news, the chaos of the world, or people’s negative outlooks. Allow yourself just a few minutes a day to update yourself on current events and then shut the news off until the next day. The same goes for social media. Only engage in social media for a few minutes a day and then redirect your energy to something more productive and positive. Furthermore, delete any social media connections that focus on the negative and fill your social media with people who embrace their own positive mindset.
• Choose to be Teflon, not Velcro: Let things slide off your back that do not serve a positive purpose in your life or that bring you down. You choose where to put your energy and what input and emotions to let in. Don’t waste your mental space on pain, negativity, and anger.
• Seek Out Support: We all need additional support or tools at times. I challenge you to consider trying out therapy. I have been on both sides of this table and know how challenging seeking out therapy can be. Take the plunge! Trust me, it will be oh, so worth it, and you will not regret it!
• Get Ready Everyday: Regardless of your plans for the day or if you have to leave your home, wake up each day as you typically would before the pandemic, following your routine as normal. Commit to getting dressed, brushing your teeth, doing your make-up, or whatever it takes to fully get ready each day, even if the furthest place you will go is your living room. When we look good, we feel good.
• Revisit Happy Times: Scroll through your photos and videos on your phone daily. Let yourself remember those good times, reminding yourself that those times will once again return in the future. Practice patience and mental presence in the meantime.
• Family Time: If you are isolated at home with your family, use this time to discover new things about one another, play games together, learn about one another’s needs and interests, and truly embrace this time together. Set aside one day a week just to focus on and connect with one another with all work and schooling set aside. One day, this time of extra connection will be gone, and I can almost guarantee you will miss it when that time comes.
• Stay connected: Commit to calling, texting, or video chatting with at least one friend, neighbor, or family member each day. Reach out to those that bring you joy or could also use that moment of connection in their day.
• Reinvest in Lost Connections: Reach out to old friends or distant family members to restart those once treasured connections.
• Date Night In: The pandemic is no excuse to stop dating your significant other! Take turns planning a date night in each week. Some examples could be: testing out a mailer date box, watching a movie on Netflix, trying a new meal, or taking a romantic bath together.
Practice Healthy Habits:
• Sleep Hygiene: Create a set routine each night to get ready for bed, including the time you go to bed and behaviors you engage in to get ready for bed. Stick to it every night. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Stop eating at least two hours before bed, and stop drinking anything besides water one hour before bed. Discontinue all screen usage at least one hour before bed, including looking at your phone, tablet, TV, iPad, or computers. Your bed should only be for sleep and sex, not work or watching TV. Keep your room cool and very dark while you sleep, and consider using a sound machine. If you follow these things, I can guarantee you will notice your sleep improve within the first couple of days!
• Movement: Find what you love for moving your body and do it daily!
• Nourishment: Time to put down those holiday treats and shift to fueling our bodies. When reaching for a snack or making a meal, ask yourself, “Will this nourish my body with the healthy nutrients I need?” If the answer is no, perhaps consider eating something else or adding a more nourishing component to your plate.
• Faith/Spirituality: Set aside time every day to invest in your faith or spirituality, depending on whichever most resonates with you. It could include prayer, reading the Bible, meditating, connecting with nature, reaching for guidance from a spiritual leader, etc.
• Get Outside: Commit to going outside every day, no matter the weather, your to-do list, or your desire to stay inside. You need fresh air every single day.
Redirect Your Energy
• Learn a new skill: What is that one thing you have always wanted to try to do? Go learn about it and do it!
• Take a free class: Take a look at your local community resources, including the local college or library, and see what free courses they offer. You are never too old or too busy to learn something new.
• Read a book: Take your mind somewhere else, and immerse yourself in a new or favorite novel.
• Adult Time-out: Kids are not the only ones that need to take a time-out sometimes. If you notice your thoughts or emotions getting away from you, call a time-out. Leave your current space (ensuring your kids are safely taken care of first) and go to a place that brings you a sense of calm (either within or outside your home). Take some deep breaths and focus on relaxing each muscle in your body. Give yourself at least 15 minutes to regroup and recommit to a positive mindset and a calm body.
• Volunteer: There are still plenty of volunteer options available, even with the pandemic. Giving back to others who may be less fortunate than ourselves reminds us that we are not alone, and there are many things to be grateful for. When we give to others, we create a connection and raise our own joy simultaneously.
These tools are some of many that can help adjust our expectations while embracing the current moment for exactly what it is, rather than resisting it each step of the way. Each and every one of us need additional support at times, free from judgment and shame. As a marriage and family therapist with Safe Haven Family Therapy, LLC, I offer support to individuals, couples, and families struggling with a wide variety of concerns, including managing expectations and navigating this very challenging time. I provide this support virtually, making it convenient and easy for you and your loved ones to get the support you deserve. If you have further questions about mental health, how to improve your mindset and mood, or the supportive resources available to you, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I can be reached at (970) 460-8015 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to connect you with exactly what you uniquely need, even if it isn’t with me. No one deserves to live in suffering, not even for one day!
Dr. Murray is a licensed therapist and can be reached at (970) 460-8015 or at email@example.com.