If you rang in 2021 thinking, *now* I will prioritize my mental health and productivity, then fell into a social media doom spiral when rioters stormed the Capital just six days later, you'd be forgiven for your false sense of optimism.
Of course, this probably wasn't the first time you've been duped since the start of the pandemic. Record-high deaths from COVID-19, a much-needed reckoning about racial inequality, job insecurity, a never-ending election, and now, an attempted coup demanded so much of our energy and attention over the last year (and rightfully so) that it became nearly impossible to focus on anything else, including our own well-being. Half of Americans say the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, with many struggling with eating disorders and substance abuse.
If this collective onslaught of stressful events taught us anything, it's that we're wrong to think these issues will magically disappear at the start of a new season, a new year, or even a new presidency — sorry to break it to you.
"Everyone has been saying, "I'll feel better when…', but that 'when' might not come," says Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, chief of clinical services at The Dorm, and an adjunct professor at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work. At least not right away, because even though the COVID-19 vaccines and Biden victory are a big deal, change is sure to be slow. "It's dangerous to rely on external factors, like XYZ happening in the world, to feel better because you could be anxious and hopeless when things don't go according to plan." See: all of 2020.
That's not to say you're doomed to repeat the worst parts of last year all over again, and hey, it's okay to be excited about the inauguration! And the vaccine! But you'll need a feel-better plan beyond that. Start here:
Prioritize your power.
In psychology, there's a little something called the locus of control, Fialk explains, which refers to how much power you think you have over the events that influence your life and your feelings. "If you feel in control over what's happening in your life, then you have what's called an 'internal locus of control,'" she says. "But when you feel you have no personal control, you have an external locus." (Example: Feeling confident at work because you know you're good at your job = internal. Needing praise from your boss = external.)
Most people have a mix of both (we all like praise!), but as you might guess, it's healthier to lean toward the internal side of things: "Too much focus on the external makes you feel powerless," says Fialk.
Problem is, the pandemic has thrown a million external challenges into our lives—layoffs, pay cuts, illness—but setting goals you can reach regardless of the economy or the state of the world will point you toward energy and empowerment, and away from despair, Fialk says.
So, maybe now's not the time to strive for a promotion (more external since it relies on your company), but you can take small steps toward that project you've been putting off. Take a similar approach to the news: "The vaccine rollout may be slow, but unless one of us is appointed to the task force, we need to be okay with not having control over it," Failk says. Focus on the things you can do in your own house instead.
Don’t confuse information for action.
There's this idea on social media that if you're not looking at the news 24/7, then you're hiding in a cave, a bad citizen of the world. Mental health experts disagree. "There's a difference between being informed and sitting in front of a screen to the point that you're so anxious that you can't show up for yourself or others," Fialk says. And it's counterproductive: This constant scrolling cycle leaves you feeling overwhelmed and immobilized, making you less likely to create meaningful change.
Fialk's suggestion: Instead of reading about an issue for ten hours, digest a few stories, then ask, 'what can I do about it?'" This has two benefits: giving back to the community, obviously, but also reclaiming some of your agency. "You may be powerless over some things, like the pandemic, but you're not completely paralyzed." You'll need to step away from the screen to truly feel that.
Remember: Productivity begets more productivity.
On that note, taking one action has a way of leading to more action. Think about it: Isn't it weird that many of us have more time in the day — no commutes! no happy hours! — and yet we get less done? That's (at least partially) because we're in a doom-scroll paralysis cycle, and you can break it by doing something — anything — that's important to you. That could be going for a morning run, calling a friend, or outlining a project you're excited about. While it's a good idea to be easy on yourself if you're having a hard time, the reality is, we're in this for the long-haul, so it pays to have a productivity plan.
"Positive action increases your confidence and self-efficacy, which gives you momentum since you feel better about who you are," Fialk says, noting that you shouldn't wait to feel good to do something good. "It's a lot easier to act your way into feeling differently than it is to feel your way into acting differently," she says. "Sometimes you just need to take the next step and more positive feelings will follow."