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If it wasn’t the pandemic, it was the social unrest. And if not that, there was the loss of employment for many, more goodbyes than we cared to have, a growing sense of anxiety and a tumultuous election. As we navigated through it all, many of us did so in isolation—from our jobs, school, our families or friends. Some of us faced this year trapped inside with an abusive partner. Advocates report a jump in domestic violence hotline calls.
If you’re hoping 2021 could feel like a fresh start, a new morning, the first blank page of a brand-new journal or, simply, the first full breath you’ve taken in some 365 days, you’re not alone. There is something psychologically hopeful about January 1st, and this year, the desire to pin hopes and dreams on the New Year is stronger than ever.
Here are five ways to start fresh in 2021. We also included an easy homework assignment for each one which may prove more fruitful than making yet another list of New Year’s resolutions that’ll just stress you out.
1. Focus on What’s Going Right
“At some point in 2020, you probably lapsed into a fight or flight response to the world. But you can’t live in fight or flight mode. It causes stress on our bodies and health deterioration,” says Ned Presnall, LCSW. Presnall, a professor at Washington University, is also the Director of Clinical Services at Plan Your Recovery.
If you feel like the world has become a scary, dangerous place, your body will react as such, ready to fight danger, or run from it, 24/7. That’s the shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat and sense of dread that you may have felt in much of 2020. “It’s just not a pleasant way to exist in this world,” says Presnall.
Instead, try to refocus on what’s working, he says. “The election was stressful, but now it’s over. A promising vaccine is in the works. And though the headlines on major publications are frightening, we have to remember that even in the best of times, they’re rarely positive—good news doesn’t sell papers.” Presnall says many of us are experiencing a thought distortion called “discounting the positive.”
“When we see good things happening, we consider them to be silly or insufficient in comparison to the bad things happening in our world,” he explains.
Homework: Celebrate accomplishments big and small. This week, try to jot down two to three things you’re proud you did each day, no matter how small. Examples: Read a book instead of turning on the news. Helped my kids with their homework without any of us crying. Drew a clear boundary with my partner.
2. Allow Your Body to Unwind from Trauma
Katie Lear, LCMHC, is a licensed therapist who specializes in trauma treatment, especially with kids, through her private practice in North Carolina.
“Trauma symptoms are stored in the body, so therapy that gets your whole body engaged is more likely to help than talk therapy alone,” she recommends. Even though trauma can be draining, and maybe all we want in 2021 is a nice, long nap, what our bodies need is actually to move.
Lear says gentle, rhythmic movement such as walking, dance or yoga can help the nervous system relax and recalibrate after trauma or stress.
Homework: Pick a gentle activity like one we just listed and try it out for just 5-10 minutes today. If you notice a feel-good jolt, go again tomorrow. Need a relaxing place to start? Consider a walking meditation or find a trauma-sensitive yoga class near you, pandemic-allowing (you can also just try some of the poses at home).
3. Expunge the Trauma
The traumas of 2020 aren’t just going to fade away like a regrettable spray tan. Unfortunately, we need to deal with it. Talk therapy can help (online would be a great option right now if budget allows), and for those dealing with domestic violence, advocates are waiting to listen on helplines across the country. But not everyone’s a talker.
“Sometimes, trauma feelings can be too overwhelming for words alone, and art can help to convey feelings that words can’t,” says Lear. She suggests trying a creative activity like art, journaling or music. Maybe all at the same time.
“Writing down experiences by hand helps us to be more physically engaged as we express our feelings, which encourages mindfulness and helps us to process the trauma experience,” says Lear.
Homework: Start with a blank piece of paper and a space where you can be alone and undisturbed, even if that’s your car and a parking lot. Press “play” on our latest Survivor’s Playlist and begin writing or drawing something that’s weighing heavy on you from last year. Be as messy and free and unfiltered as you want—no one has to see it but you.
4. Manage Expectations About 2021
I don’t know about you, but I’m going into 2021 cautiously optimistic. I am encouraged but prepared for what may come. Lear agrees.
“Although I’m hopeful that the worst of the pandemic and our political situation is behind us, there will inevitably be bumps in the road in 2021. That’s normal and ok—and not a sign that we should give up or feel hopeless.”
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The first obstacle we face in 2021 should not knock us out. Let’s assume there will be some hardships this year, but given what we all just collectively went through, now we know we’re strong enough to face them. You can find some good tips on building up mental strength in “Building Resilience After Trauma: Lessons from Chile.”
Homework: Create an emotional safety plan to prepare for your first roadblock of 2021. Even if you haven’t endured an abusive partner, our guide at the link can help anyone dealing with the aftermath of trauma.
5. Say “No More” to Abuse
For those in relationships with abusive partners, separating from an abuser during a pandemic and possibly financially crushing year can seem as likely as climbing Mt. Everest. But it can be done. You deserve happiness and freedom in 2021. If you’re reading this article on this site, you’re already thinking about it. Now it’s time to make a plan. In our article, “How Leaving Looks Different During COVID-19,” we outline what’s changed for survivors. When you’re ready, carry on with your homework.
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