A Gentle Reminder That 2021 Isn't Going To Be A Magical Cure For 2020

Here's how to protect your mental health so you can (even slightly!) handle the COVID-19 pandemic next year.
Many of us are hoping for 2021 to be a reprieve from the hell of this year, but thinking that way may set us up for disappointment.
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Many of us are hoping for 2021 to be a reprieve from the hell of this year, but thinking that way may set us up for disappointment.

The year 2020 is definitely one that will go down in history books ― and one that many would like to forget.

As we inch closer to New Year’s Eve, people are already touting 2021 as an instant reprieve. But while things are looking up— the COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out, the presidential election nightmare is over ― it’s important to know that when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, the problems of 2020 will not just go poof.

For many of us, 2021 will still come with questions riddled with strife: When can businesses safely reopen or how can people survive without having a job? How can we continue to address racial injustices? How can we give kids as much structure as possible? When can we stop being so isolated from each other?

The answers, unfortunately, won’t materialize right away. Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, said that, in terms of the pandemic, there’s still a lot that needs to happen before things can go back to “normal.” Until then, we’re likely going to have to keep doing what we’re doing: wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings ― you know the drill.

“If we are waiting for things to improve drastically in a short time frame, we will be disappointed,” added Marla Vannucci, an associate professor of psychology at Adler University in Chicago.

Vannucci said that when we reach 2021, people may be let down by the lack of improvement it’ll bring right away.

“This will happen at a time that is generally a vulnerable time for a lot of people mental healthwise, so it’s very concerning,” she said.

Cheryl Fulton, an associate professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University, noted that holding out for a better future “not only robs you of living fully now but may also rob your future present when it doesn’t live up to its promise.”

That’s why it’s important to manage expectations going into the new year. It sucks, but it’ll (at least incrementally) improve your mental health. Here are some tips on how to reframe your thinking so that you’re ready for whatever 2021 looks like:

Realize that 2021 will likely have some of its own challenges.

Grace Dowd, a psychotherapist based in Austin, Texas, has many patients who wish to write off 2020 as “the worst year ever” and want it to be over soon, without realizing that 2021 is going to have its own struggles.

“This mentality paints the world in black in white ― this year was either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad,’” she explained.

By focusing on the negative from this year, Dowd said we negate or minimize any potential positives ― and set next year up on a pedestal it likely won’t be able to stand on for long. A more productive way to look at 2021 is to acknowledge that, like most things in life, the year will hold both positive and negative outcomes.

“This mentality gives us space for the year to hold some good while increasing resiliency for the bad,” she explained. It can also help us manage expectations and ward off potential feelings of helplessness that may arise whenever 2021 inevitably brings challenges.

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View 2021 as a “mental” reset.

It’s going to be hard, but don’t view Jan. 1 as a complete overhaul to the hell we’ve just gone through. The reality is that there’s a lot we can’t actually start over or change right now.

“While it can be helpful to think about 2021 as a reset, that mindset is only relevant to what you have control over. The reset needs to be a mental one,” said Heather Z. Lyons, a therapist in Baltimore and co-founder of WithTherapy.com.

Lyons suggested beginning new traditions in the new year that serve to strengthen your ability to cope with the pandemic and all that comes with it.

“That might include reflecting on what you’re grateful for in the midst of the pandemic or creating boundaries in your day that were previously set by the drive home from work or kids leaving for school,” she explained.

Focus on what you can control.

“Learning what’s within our control and what’s outside of it can help limit stress,” Lyons said.

For example, you can’t control the overall outcome of the pandemic. However, you can control the health measures you take to keep yourself and your family safe by wearing a mask, getting a vaccine when it’s your turn and limiting gatherings.

“In the areas where you don’t have control, it can be helpful to practice acceptance,” Lyons said. Remind yourself of the things you can do something about any time you start to stress over the things you can’t.

Celebrate the victories.

Katie Lear, a counselor in Charlotte, North Carolina, said this past year has led to people feeling disempowered or hopeless when faced with all the challenges. To fight this, Lear stressed the importance of managing expectations and celebrating small wins.

“We can all keep our eye on larger goals, like a vaccine, while also noticing and feeling gratitude for the multitude of small ways that life carries on despite the virus: Babies are still born, work goals are still achieved and hobbies can be nurtured regardless of who is president or the local coronavirus case count,” she said.

“Learning what’s within our control and what’s outside of it can help limit stress.”

- Heather Z. Lyons, therapist in Baltimore

Take it one day at a time.

Risa Williams, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, said that dealing with a lot of uncertainty is contributing to high anxiety and stress levels rise right now. One thing that can help ground you is to focus on the present.

If your mind is thinking about all the unknowns or negatives, try taking deep conscious breaths, meditating, doing light exercise or going for walks. Even taking a few minutes to connect with what’s going on inside your body and tuning in to what’s going on around in the moment can help. Notice your surroundings and mentally label everything you see, hear, feel as you come across it.

“If we take short breaks to connect with what’s happening right now in the present, it makes us feel more anchored and grounded in dealing with what’s ahead,” Williams said.

Another way to practice mindfulness is to hop into tasks that take your full engagement or put you in a “flow state,” Vannucci said.

Try binge-watching shows you love, playing video games, reading, cooking or knitting. “Anything that engages you so that you don’t notice time passing is a flow activity,” she said.

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Explore a new hobby (for real this time).

Maybe you tried your hand at making bread and it wasn’t for you. Perhaps you attempted to learn a new language and gave up after one lesson. If those activities weren’t for you, that’s fine. Just find something that immerses you ― even if that’s spending hours watching mindless reality TV and live-tweeting it. It’s not necessarily about being productive; it’s about finding joy.

“This is a really important time to create meaning in order to ward off depression,” Lear said.

She suggested exploring new activities you wouldn’t normally try or donating your time to an organization you care about. Lear said this “not only passes the time but helps you build your own resilience and self-efficacy.”

Do your very best to be patient.

Lyons explained that we’re fighting against nature to engage in the safety protocols required to slow the spread of the virus.

“We’re hard-wired to be in physical contact with others, and that’s largely been taken away from us now. However, patience is required as we adjust to a new way of life that will likely be around for a while,” she said.

Easier said than done, of course. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t been nailing this. Part of being patient overall is extending yourself some grace in moments when you’re not.

“We need to forgive ourselves for being impatient at times,” Lyons said.

Remind yourself that you’re better at handling uncertainty than you think.

“Life has always been unknown. We’ve never been able to predict the future,” explained Nicole Artz, a licensed marriage and family therapist who serves on the advisory board for the family resource site Family Enthusiast.

What’s changed is that the pandemic has made that reality more salient, she said. Think of it this way: You’ve made it through 100% of the times in your past where you didn’t have control. You’re still here. Remind yourself of that fact, and accept that you will have to ― and can ― continue to deal with uncertainty in life.

“We can continue to live with this unknown by introducing an attitude of acceptance, which serves as an antidote to a false sense of control, into our lives,” Artz said. “When we look forward to 2021 with acceptance, we’re not surrendering complete control, we’re just more realistically evaluating where we have actual control. Mask wearing? Yes. Social distancing? Yes.”

“Life has always been unknown. We’ve never been able to predict the future.”

- Nicole Artz, marriage and family therapist

Start preparing now.

According to Fulton, the best way to limit stress going into 2021 is to start working on taking care of yourself today. She suggested practicing self-care by strengthening your relationships, moving your body in a way that feels good, setting boundaries, taking a hard look at your finances, or whatever else you need to do to feel like you’re ready to tackle a new year.

“Ultimately, investing in yourself and in the present moment, with compassion and gratitude, will yield the best results for coping with an uncertain future,” she said.

Talk to a therapist.

If you’re having trouble coping in your everyday life, try seeing a therapist. Vannucci said many people started therapy for the first time in 2020, and it has provided them with a lot of help in dealing with their emotions.

“One small benefit of the lockdown is that you can access mental health providers all over the country now via telehealth,” she said. And many mental health providers are offering reduced fee and pro bono services during the pandemic.

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