Updated: Jan 6
Forget the yo-yo diets and impossible weight loss goals. Here's how to build your New Year around brain health and mental wellness!
Let's face it, at one point or another we've all set out to "lose 20 lbs" or "hit the gym every single day" at the start of the New Year. By February, 43% of us have given up (and 95% of us by April). What the heck is up with that?
Well, there are a lot of reasons we fail at New Year's resolutions. Unrealistic expectations, lack of support, the "yo-yo" effect of trend diets, etc. But one big reason these resolutions can fail is that we're not prioritizing our "mental wellness" first. Think about it! One of the most frequently reported symptoms of something like depression, is "difficulty getting out of bed or completing day-to-day activities". If we're already struggling to even get up and go to work or school, how realistic is it to workout for an hour every day on top of that?
Furthermore, issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD and other common mental health struggles often negatively impact something called the "executive functioning" of the brain. Executive functioning is the mental process that allows us to plan, focus, and juggle multiple tasks at the same time. More importantly, it allows us to "override" emotional impulses, filter through distractions, prioritize, and set and achieve goals. Spoiler alert: we need all of those things to set and stick-to New Years resolutions.
So forget the trendy Keto diet and ignore the numbers on that scale. Let's take a look at 10 resolutions for prioritizing mental wellness!
#10 - Practice Self-Compassion
Who do you talk to most on an average day? Your partner? Your boss? Your BFF Rachel?
Nope. We talk to ourselves most frequently. For that reason, it's of paramount importance that we pay close attention to HOW we're talking to ourselves. People commonly report that they talk to their partners, bosses, friends, and coworkers with more kindness and compassion than they talk to themselves. If you spoke to your friends like you spoke to yourself, how long would they continue to hang around?
The key to mental health is realizing that strength lies in getting softer with ourselves, not harder. Ditch the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it" mentality. It's making things worse, not better. We don't need to compare our suffering to others as a way of invalidating our own struggles. There's no suffering Olympics! Unfortunately, there's plenty of pain to go around. Our feelings are meant to be "felt". Only when we allow ourselves to feel what we're going through can we heal from it.
Try these phrases instead: "It's okay that I'm having a hard time" or "This is really difficult and that's okay".
#9 - Connect With or Build Your Community
We're social creatures. Period. There's no fighting millions of years of brain evolution. We are wired to live in close-knit community with other people. It doesn't matter if people are coming into my office to work on depression, anxiety, trauma, or psychosis, one of the most distressing and frequent symptoms of mental illness people report is that their symptoms are disrupting their important relationships: romantic, friendships, work relationships, family relationships, etc.
Mental health symptoms often negatively impact our important relationships, but disruptions in our important relationships and feelings of isolation also significantly exacerbate mental health symptoms. So which came first: the chicken or the egg? It doesn't matter. We need to be investing in our relationships and our community. When we have people we care about and who we know care about us, we're healthier for it.
What does "connecting with community" mean exactly? Well, it starts with mutual engagement with real people, face-to-face, for at least a few minutes every single day. Not texting, not DM-ing. Our relationships are investments: we get returns on what we put into them and we're wired to connect most easily in person.
Here are some tips for improving relationships we already have:
Use the GIVE skill: Be Gentle, Act Interested, Validate, Use an Easy Manner
Plan ahead. If you wait until Friday to make plans for that night, it's less likely to happen. Create some regularly scheduled, mutually enjoyable plans together well ahead of time.
Go small and frequent, not big and unsustainable. A cup of coffee with a friend every Friday has more impact than a once-a-year vacation/reunion
And here are some tips for building brand new relationships and meeting new people:
Join a therapeutic group, like our DBT skills group.
Start or join a book club or gaming group
Lean into community service opportunities. Join groups that focus on causes you're passionate about!
#8 - Set and Enforce Effective Boundaries
"No" is not a bad word!
Sometimes people worry that if they say no, their relationships will suffer. We worry about upsetting loved ones or letting our co-workers/bosses down. But this isn't how boundaries work! Boundaries exist not only to protect us, but to protect the relationships that we care about the most. Have you heard the expression "you can't pour from an empty cup"? Boundaries ensure that we have the space to recharge by helping us get what we need from the people in our lives. People often report a deep sense of respect and admiration for the people in their lives that have clear and well-balanced boundaries.
An effective boundary is one that's clear and well defined. Don't rely on mind reading! Your loved ones will not know what you need unless you tell them clearly and assertively.
New to boundary setting? Try DEAR MAN. "DEAR" is an acronym that helps us figure out "what to say" when we're setting a boundary. It stands for: Describe the problem, Express how you feel, Assertively ask for what you need, Reward the person ahead of time for respecting your boundary.
The "MAN" part of DEAR MAN helps us remember "how we're going to say" what we want to say. MAN stands for Mindfully (don't get sidetracked), Appear confident, and Negotiate (be willing to give in order to get).
#7 - Eat Real Food
Ever heard the phrase "go with your gut"? There's a reason for that!
Our digestive system is considered our "second brain" because the brain and the gut are inextricably connected. For example: we have butterflies in our stomach when we're nervous. If we're listening, our gut will try to tell us something important!
"Good" bacteria and "feel good" chemicals are produced in the stomach and digestive system. In fact 95% of our body's serotonin (our most important "feel good chemical") is produced in the stomach. Not the brain! Isn't that weird?
We need to fuel our bodies so that we feel emotionally good, not just physically good. Avoid the "yo-yo" and fad diets that focus on restriction. Our body needs fats and carbs, so quit starving it!
Remember: if you struggle with disordered eating patterns please consult with a professional dietitian. Don't rely on blog posts or your trainer at the gym that only wants you to eat chicken and rice. Look for a licensed dietitian or an eating disorder specialist to get the support you need.
#6 - Prioritize Sleep Hygiene
Harvard states that 50% to 80% of patients in an average psychiatric practice experience sleep challenges. That means that mental health issues interrupt predictable and recharging sleep routines. But it also means that interruptions in our predictable and recharging sleep routines can also exacerbate mental health issues.
Sleep allows our brains to recharge, refuel, and to "clean out" all the bad junk that negatively impacts our functioning. This is crucial for our mental well-being!
So how do we improve our sleep? Focus on "sleep hygiene". No, it doesn't have anything to do with how you smell. Sleep hygiene is all about setting ourselves and our environment up for a night of restful and recharging sleep.
Here's some quick tips:
Turn off your electronics. No TV, cell phone, computer, or tablet before bed. The "blue light" produced by these devices has an alerting affect on our brain that disrupts sleep patterns.
Stick to a consistent schedule, even on the weekends. You cannot "catch up on sleep". When we stay up too late or have a bad night of sleep, it's better to try and get yourself back on schedule than it is to "catch up" on sleep. Don't sleep in or go to bed extra early, stick to your routine.
Create a relaxing environment. That means a clean, relaxing room. Use scented lotions or oils you find calming and play calming sounds or white noise.
#5 - Focus on Movement, Not Exercise
The body and the brain are inextricably connected. So often in the new year we try to commit to going to the gym, running a certain number of miles, or working out for a long, grueling period of time. This year, let's focus on joyful movement!
What is joyful movement? It's movement that you find enjoyable and replenishing, not punishing. This can be something as simple as getting outside by walking, hiking, playing with your kids, doing some light stretching, or yoga. The journal of American Medical Association found that 30 to 45 minutes of movement (not exercise) 4 to 5 days a week can benefit mental health just as much as therapy and medication. That's a big impact! This is because movement increases serotonin levels in the brain, which is our feel good chemical. We get much of the same mental health benefit from moving our bodies regularly as we do from hardcore exercise.
Looking for new ways to move your body? Engage in a little bit of play! Experiment! Go for a walk, try out birdwatching, dust off the old bicycle or skateboard. Find something that's fun for you!
#4 - Learn Your Sensory Needs
Remember learning about the sensory system in elementary school? It's time to re-visit!
Our sensory system receives input literally 100% of the time. We all know our basic five senses: hearing, smell, taste, touch, insight. But we also have three extras! Proprioception, which is how we know where our body is in space. This sense relies on input from our muscles and joints and is stimulated through heavy work and movement.
Our vestibular sense is the sense that tells us how we are moving through space. This is provided through movement such as walking/running, rocking, swaying, or swinging.
Lastly, we have interoception. This is our internal body sense, like how we know when we're hungry or tired or thirsty. This sense in particular has a big overlap with our emotional state. Have you ever heard the term "hangry"? That's when we get angry because we're so hungry. Our body sends increasingly loud "hungry" signals to the brain via hormone changes. These same hormone shifts can contribute to us becoming emotionally dysregulated. Interception is our bodies primary language for telling us we need to pay attention to a problem.
Being mindful of our sensory system can help us recognize when we're feeling over or under stimulated. You can learn to use your sensory system to your advantage instead of it working against you.
Need help navigating this new world? Occupational therapy can help!
#3 - Build Mastery by Learning Something New
Mastery experiences are any experiences that we find challenging in a way that results in a sense of achievement. When we search for mastery experiences, we're looking for the "just right challenge". That means we want an activity, task, or hobby that is hard, but not so hard it feels hopeless or discouraging.
For some people, these mastery experiences occur at work, but some of us may need to find something that can provide a sense of mastery in our personal or recreational lives. Mastery experiences improve self-esteem and confidence, as well as feelings of resiliency to negative emotion.
How do we find mastery experiences? Start by learning something new. It might be an instrument, a new language, how to cook, or anything that you find enjoyable. We want an activity we can engage in regularly and get progressively and noticeably better at. With learning an instrument, for example, we can start by learning different notes, then different scales, then whole songs. All along the way, we can see ourselves getting better and better at the task and this improves our emotional resiliency.
#2 - Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is defined as "paying attention, on purpose, without judgment". It's that last part that's often the hardest.
People hear the word mindfulness or meditation and think that this means "relax" or "be considerate". But that's not what it's all about! Relaxation can be a wonderful side effect of mindfulness, but it's not the point. Mindfulness is like going to the gym for the brain. It's about attention, focus, and the ability to step back when we get pulled in to overthinking.
Mindfulness is tied to all kinds of important mental and physical health outcomes. It's great for things like:
intrusive trauma symptoms
age-related memory problems
Looking to get mindfulness a try? Try a formal group like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), or local mindfulness drop-in groups. There are also a lot of great free apps out there, like Insight Timer or Headspace.
#1 - Learn To Ask For Help
Here it is! The number one most important tip of the new year. Ask for help.
We can't do it all by ourselves. We all have blind spots! While we rarely hesitate to go to a medical doctor when we're feeling physically ill, there's still a lot of stigma around getting help with your mental health. Remember this: going to therapy doesn't mean that something is wrong with you, it means that you're willing to invest in taking care of yourself.
Try reaching out to a therapist for someone to talk to, a psychiatrist or nurse practitioner for a medication consultation, or leaning more heavily on your support system by clearly asking for the support that you need. You don't have to do this alone!
Happy New Year!
Want to hear more? Check out our interview with The Roundtable Podcast where we discuss these resolutions (and other important mental health information) in more detail!
So that's it! Our full list of ways to prioritize your mental health for the New Year. We wish you all the best and hope you have a fantastic 2023. Happy New Year!