Finding Hope in the New Year

By Joanna M. Ronnau, LPC
Behavioral Health Therapist | Unity Health – Clarity Health and Wellness

What a start to the New Year! Most of us just spent the holidays making merry, reconnecting with others, and focusing on the important things in life. Now it’s the season where many reflect on what happened this year and look ahead to what next year can bring. In years prior, taking stock of our latest trip around the sun has provided us growth and a renewed sense of purpose which is important to our mental health and well-being. But let’s take a moment to be genuine and honest.

The past year, for many of us, has been incredibly difficult.

Last year had more than its fair share of worries, hardships, and concerns that impacted most every facet of life in a way that the world has not seen in about a century. The challenges continue into the New Year, and require a lot out of each of us, necessitating many of us to find new ways to adapt to everyday living. Last year also ushered in fresh ways of seeing and doing things, and brought with it opportunities for innovation and growth. I expect this year to be more of the same, at least at the start.

The last year has also brought with it grief on a wide scale. We are all experiencing something called “collective grief”. It is a particular type of loss that can be difficult to put into words. Wishing things were different, longing for gatherings that can’t be, not being able to go and see loved ones, and desiring a sense of normalcy. The collective grief right now is present and sometimes feels immense and overwhelming. And whether you are there for a few moments or a few months, it’s tangible and has an impact.

And so many times we have more questions than answers: How are we going to manage if we get sick? Who will watch after my kids if the schools close? What if I get laid off? How will I pay my bills if I do get laid off? Many of us have been left with more questions than answers, and have been saying, “If only…”

If only….
If only we weren’t having to deal with COVID
If only this wasn’t happening…
If only I could send my loved ones to school or work without worrying…
If only I hadn’t been laid off…
If only my loved one or I wasn’t at increased risk for illness…
If only more people would/wouldn’t (fill in the blank)…
If only the government would/wouldn’t (fill in the blank)…

The above concerns fall on a wide range from somewhat to totally outside of our realm of control. And it’s real, and scary, frustrating and also exhausting. It can often feel like we’re navigating blindly, not sure if the steps we take are the right ones. Even more alarming than the concerns themselves is the fact that feeling out of control can often lead down precarious paths.

When people are scared they can act in ways that are unlike their typical character, or that can impact their better judgment. They might make rash decisions. They might engage in destructive behaviors. They might take out their frustrations on a loved one or a stranger. They might have trouble concentrating or have their performance at work or home impaired. They might have a lot of mood swings. They might engage in behaviors to attempt to escape or numb out, which can include overuse of substances, video games, screen time, or any other thing to help make them “numb” from whatever they may be dealing with.

Although most things in moderation are just fine, and in fact useful for maintaining one’s mental health and well-being, many have been defaulting to using these breaks all too frequently and find it has impacted functioning in their relationships and responsibilities. Small issues become bigger problems the longer they are put on the backburner, and over time, have detrimental deficits on one’s mental, emotional, and even physical well-being.

So, you might ask, “What do we do?” What do we do when faced with such challenging times and scary circumstances? We often turn to what we know, and when what we know can no longer serve us in a helpful way, we start seeking information about what additional knowledge might be out there that we haven’t yet accessed.

During a recent Sunday service behind our building, sitting around a fire in camp chairs spaced 6 feet or more apart, my pastor encouraged us to ask some different kinds of questions:

What if… What if things don’t go as badly as I fear they might?
What if I focus on putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next right thing?
What if I learn a new skill, to help me in the now, or just for fun?
What if I intentionally focus on the things I have to be grateful for, and not just the negative?
What if I start taking care of myself, listen to myself, and stop ignoring my needs?
What if, even though everything is crumbling all around me, I can grow in spite of my circumstance?
What if I recognize I’m doing all or the best that I can, and allow myself to rest in that?

Many of us continue to have a difficult time, and the truth is, it’s not likely to instantly change once 2021 starts. But the good news is, there are others in your family, friend group, faith group, church, and community that know what you’re going through, and that can be there for and with you. You don’t have to weather the storm alone.

And perhaps the most important thing I want to convey is this: It is okay if you’re not okay, and that you are not alone in that experience.

Some of us are dealing with the heavier grief from a lot of losses. From losing loved ones, to jobs, to schooling, to a routine where you have any time to yourself at all, to a life with breaks from kids, to a loss of normalcy, to losing your home, these things weigh heavily on our hearts. We have all been dealing with collective losses that have had a huge impact on most, if not all, of our relationships with others. The following proverb has been making the rounds on the internet recently from an unknown author that says, “We are not in the same boat, but simply in the same storm.” We are all facing this pandemic, yet we do not all have the same resources.

I think the above sentiment explains why it seems that some of us are riding the struggle bus, while others seem to be affected very little, if at all, and why others appear to be thriving during this time. If you are having difficulty, you might feel that at any moment, you could sink, and feel helpless and hopeless. If you are maintaining the status quo, I encourage you to keep going and I hope you can look around and see where you can find a place of safe haven, even if it’s just for a short time. If you are one of the ones thriving, may you be of help and make a difference for others in your community who are having a harder time, answering distress calls where you’re able.

This article feels especially weighty for this time of year. Why do I bring this up, during a time of year that’s supposed to be hopeful and looking ahead towards the possibilities to come? Because I believe that by bringing out of the darkness what is scary or painful is the beginning of healing. Exposing things to light will always improve your vantage point, and it’s in our best interest and our best hope, both as individuals and as a community, to take the next steps on firm stable ground. Truth and hope are the lighthouse for the soul, and can guide you out of the storm to shore.

Here are some helpful tips that I hope can assist you:

First, don’t try to do this alone. Find a trusted friend, family member, faith based group, or professional to support you in this endeavor. And many times, by giving to others you receive as well, so reach out to those who might have a need. Giving to others doesn’t have to be monetary. You can give your time, your talent, your advice, your concern, your ideas, your service, or even give your presence. These are all different forms of love, and I believe that by doing so, you can light the path for someone while also illuminating your own.

Second, please remember grace. Both grace for yourself and grace for others. Remember that everyone really is doing the best they know how to right now, and none of us are perfect. When you’re going through something it can be easy to think you’re the only one messing up, but I guarantee you’re not the only one struggling and feeling you’re falling short. Be gentle with yourself. Breathe, regroup, reach out to others, and utilize self-care.

Embrace the different, the new, and the change. The coming year will likely not be the same as what you are used to. Keep what you’re able to, discard what isn’t serving you, and modify what you can. Send a letter, picture, or video! Do a drive by parade for birthdays or other celebrations. Do a Zoom meeting. Sync a movie on Netflix with your friends and watch it together. Call each other on the phone and do an online scavenger hunt. Drive around in separate cars and look at the sights around your town and neighborhood.

If you feel out of control, try focusing on what you can control. Do a task that is within your control. Do a house chore you’ve been putting off. Clean out your garage or attic. Clean out your closet or dresser drawers. Rearrange your furniture. Do some deep breathing. Count backwards from 10. Focus on a proverb or scripture or quote that gives you peace, hope, or happiness.

Stay with the present moment. Use your 5 senses of sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste and immerse yourself in this experience. Drink your coffee or eat your lunch mindfully for a few minutes. Sit in the park and notice your experience. Check in with your body and notice any sensations that come up for you. Don’t judge it as good or bad, just notice it, and reflect on it.

Another thing to consider; adjust your “bar”, your measuring stick, or standard for how things are “supposed to be” this time of year. Simplify and seek quality over quantity. Seek connection over entertainment. Get back to the simple pleasures. Share a funny or favorite movie. Call your family. Make some gifts instead of buying them (this in and of itself is often quite therapeutic). Cook something and bring the extra to a neighbor.

Also, think small. Doing big tasks broken up into smaller bite-sized pieces or steps yield big results. Cleaning an entire room can feel overwhelming, but can you clean your table? Your sink? The top of a dresser? Unload the dishwasher. Take a shower and put on fresh clothes that make you feel good. Moisturize. Pamper yourself in simple ways. Stay hydrated. Cook something simple.

Stay connected. (I know this has been said, but I can’t emphasize this enough.) Call someone. Call a loved one, a friend, a family member, or even a chat service if you have no one else to call. Talk to a stranger on the street. Have a conversation and listen to someone’s voice. If you can’t bring yourself to call, text or email or whatever, just have some social interaction with another person. Even if you don’t say much, listen to them. It helps. If you’re quarantining or social distancing, utilize technology. There are so many ways to interact in this modern age. You can call, text, email, skype, zoom, Facetime, messenger, you name it! The point is reach out and contact someone. You can combat loneliness with connection. It really helps.

Consider your boundaries. Is there someone in your life that takes more than they give? Is there someone who disrespects your boundaries or adds stress? Set healthy perimeters for yourself, put in safeguards to minimize exposure to these difficult relationships, and, if need be, consider how and to what extent you want the relationship to continue. You do deserve to be heard and respected. How you feel and what you think matters. Expect that from yourself, and expect it from others.

Get outside of your little “box”, literally. Get outside and go for a walk. Go walk down art alley or around the downtown area. Put on your coat and visit a park. Do some yard work, plan for the coming gardening season. Sit on your porch in some sunshine. Breathe some fresh air and observe nature. Even 15 minutes of sunshine a day has been proven to improve your mental and emotional health. Go for a drive and look at the beautiful light displays around town.

Engage in art. It doesn’t matter what kind. Read a book. Write a book. Take a free online tour of a world renowned art gallery. Paint something. Listen to whatever music you want. Watch a play or musical online. Play an instrument. Sing karaoke. There are literally hundreds of avenues open to you if you look for them. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE GOOD AT IT! The point is not to “be good” at creating, the point is to “feel good” when you create, and being creative is healing and helps you feel alive and whole.

Don’t forget to play. Play a video game with your kids. Take them in the backyard or for a walk around the neighborhood. Make a craft, or cook a meal. Play a board game. Play with your pets. Have a dance party. Play wrestle. Be silly. Laugh, hug, and cuddle. Reach out to a neighbor and do a kind act. Put someone’s grocery cart away. Seeking intentional connection in small tangible ways often yields accumulative results.

Know that your best is enough. Everyone has days they’re more or less productive based on internal or external stressors. Be flexible with your expectations of yourself and others on the days that you have more going on as far as challenges. Sometimes instead of gritting your teeth and bearing through something, it’s better to pull back, rest, regroup, and face the challenge at a later time.

Finally, know when it’s time to seek professional support. In our community, there are so many caring and competent providers that stand willing and ready to help others navigate difficult storms in their lives. Know that we are here for you to act as your support and guide in whatever challenges you’re facing. You are not alone. And together when we all partner to take care of our emotional and mental well-being, we not only create health within ourselves, but in our families, our communities and ultimately our world.

And by the way, these are suggestions, but if anything on this list feels overwhelming or doesn’t “spark joy”, don’t feel you must engage in these ways. Engage in things that you enjoy, that make you feel happy, hopeful, or comforted. Make your own New Year’s list, check it twice, and seek out the things that help you feel alive and that have meaning and purpose for you.

Some of the things on this list may not seem like much, but small consistent steps make for a great journey over time. And in the meantime, it keeps you going, keeps you holding on until things get better.

Things will change this coming year, it’s one of life’s few guarantees. And when change comes, you will be better prepared and ready to embrace what is to come, good or bad.

Whatever the coming year may bring our way, may it have laughter, light, creativity, ingenuity, and most of all, hope. So, keep making merry, sing and laugh, reconnect with others, and get back to the meaning of the important things in life. May this New Year bring you and your loved one’s peace, love, and hope.

Unity Health offers Behavioral Health services for ages four and older, including counseling, psychiatric care and medication management. Some specific areas of treatment include depression, anxiety, grief, life stressors, trauma and psychosis. Outpatient services are offered at Clarity Health and Wellness in Cabot, Newport, and Searcy. Inpatient services include Courage – Adolescent Behavioral Health for adolescents ages 12 to 17 in Searcy; Compass – Adult Behavioral Health for ages 18 and older in Newport and Searcy; and Clearview – Senior Behavioral Health in Newport and Searcy for those ages 55 and older. For inpatient referrals call toll free (844) 255-8229 or for more information visit www.unity-health.org/services/behavioral-health.