With 2020 behind us, it is time to look back and reflect on what we have learned about ourselves and what is most important to us. Many will remember the past year with mixed feelings – some of fear, isolation, and loss, and others with a sense of reflection, of a pause that helped them slow down in a chaotic world.
So what can we do to keep us mentally strong, stable, and happy in 2021? Here are a few science-based strategies for the mind, body and spirit.
- Be aware of you inner dialogue: On the outside, you may appear like life is fine, but what is the conversation that is happening on a daily basis in your head? Are you worrying, complaining or angry? Or are your thoughts about being grateful, happy, satisfied? The thoughts that you have, affect what neurotransmitters are released in the brain, which in turn determines our state of our mood and happiness. Negative thoughts can dampen the release of hormones such as serotonin and dopamine and increase stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Observing the constant chatter in your brain gives you the first clue of where you can start to shift the conversation.
- Challenge your negative thoughts – Is it always true? Could it be an assumption? Is it absolute? The process of challenging your thoughts starts to take their power away. The moment you think “well maybe that’s not completely true” or “ things won’t always be this way ”, the intensity of the negative thought and its subsequent affect on the body is lessened. Stopping, challenging and reorganizing negative thoughts helps to create different neural pathways in our brain that prevent us from spiraling down the negativity rabbit hole.
- Create positive emotions – Positive thoughts release neurochemicals that stimulate healthy emotions. Intentionally replacing the negative thinking with alternate thoughts of hope, gratitude, acceptance and love, helps to rewire and redirect the brain circuitry to a happier state. You don’t always have to believe the positive thoughts, but merely by stopping the negative trajectory you gain access to a different, healthier perspective that supports mental stability.
- Breathe – Slow down and breathe deeply into your belly. Deep belly breathing activates the relaxation response in the body and sends a signal to the brain that all is ok. This helps to reduce the fight and flight response and keeps us feeling calm, less anxious and clear in our mind.
- Exercise. Numerous studies repeatedly demonstrate the positive effect of exercise on mood. It is associated with decreased anxiety, depression and improved cognition. Interval training has been shown to increase brain neurotropic growth factor – a hormone that helps produce new healthy brain cells.
- Get enough sleep – Binging on Netflix or working on the computer till late at night may not be the best for your sleep. Sleep deprivation is shown to have significant negative effects on cognition, mood and energy. Work with the body’s natural circadian rhythm of 7-8 hours between 10-6 to get the most restful sleep and wake up refreshed.
- Connect to your spiritual IQ – Who are you? What do you stand for? What do you value? What gives your life meaning and purpose? Reflecting and connecting to ones’ higher self allows a person to experience higher motivation, energy and joy in their life. When we are not aligned with our values, it creates a deeper unhappiness and conflict in our emotions.
- Have faith – having faith in yourself, in others, or in a higher power allows your brain to access the feeling of hope, positivity, motivation and safety. It helps to deal with the primitive emotion of fear. Research shows that people connected to a faith-based or spiritual practice have less anxiety and depression, and higher coping skills with improved health outcomes.
- Expand your heart – opening your heart to love, changes the whole neurochemistry of the body, from enhancing dopamine to improving your immune system. Learning to love and accept yourself, is the first step to healing. Then expand your love to those around you, your family, and your community. Having loving relationships has been shown to improve depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
- Evaluate your social connections. Take a good look at your social media and relationships – Are there some that drain you? Are there ones that uplift and inspire you? Ones that give your life meaning? Nurturing healthy relationships, and keeping boundaries on those that bring you down, is a great way to start 2021 on a positive note.
- Use your support systems – the Covid pandemic has opened the hearts of many to help others. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who can help support you. Studies show that the “feel good” hormone, serotonin, is increased in both the person helping and the person being helped. So reach out when you need it – you can always pay it forward to someone else.
- Make a difference – Use your talent and skill set to make a difference in your community. This expands compassion, increases self-esteem, and adds meaning to life. It doesn’t have to be big, it just needs to bring you and others joy. Sometimes it’s just a smile or a helping hand.
The Covid Pandemic has shown us that we all live in an interconnected world. So spread your positivity and light to those around you. We are all in this together. Happy 2021!