How to reboot your brain and begin the year with a positive mindset

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Tomorrow morning, when we wake up to the first day of January 2022, who won’t be yearning for that sense of promise and hope that New Year’s Day traditionally brings? 

After the past 12 months of changes – many feeling arbitrary, unfair or just too sudden – it’s only human to want the promise of something better and more predictable. We want to make decisions around our own life, to assess and evaluate our futures –  not be directed what to do like actors in a play.

Looking back, 2020, when the pandemic began, was a disturbing year. But 2021 has been equally – if not more – difficult: from the lockdown months at the beginning of the year, to the devastation of new variant delta, the reopenings, and the off-and-on-again with masks, and now the worry about another type of threat: omicron. We have been through more turbulence in these past two years than most people experience in a lifetime. 

People have needed a lot of mental and emotional energy to navigate this uncertainty, and it’s come at a cost. The physical disconnection has been taxing – of seeing loved ones only through screens, or being unable to travel. Then there are the social divisions and stark opinions. We have fallen into “tribes”. Are you pro-vaccination or anti-vaxx? Cautious, or cavalier? The explosion in social media has seen people writing things to strangers that they would never say to each other in real life. In many ways, the pandemic has amplified pre-existing personal traits. The introverted have tended to hunker down and seclude themselves, whereas extroverts bent the rules and are now excited to take advantage of being out and about again. Other people have “tried on” new identities: the sociable realising the joy of staying at home and cooking, for example. 

The question is: are we happy with where we find ourselves as 2022 approaches?

The new year is an arbitrary but recognisable date to converge around, in the same way we celebrate love on Valentine’s Day. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Dry January” might feel like a bit of a bandwagon, but it’s often easier to try things if others are also involved. These are events we can use as opportunities for change – if that’s what we want. Some people are perfectly happy in their own skin. But most are motivated to make some sort of healthy change at the start of the year: whether it’s physically, mentally, finding a new job, changing bad habits, or improving their relationships. 

Here’s how to find your confident way into 2022.

Mix it up

In the past year or so, many people’s identities have altered, both professionally, and socially. You previously may have seen yourself as a “boss”, or a “homemaker”, for example. But now, the manager may no longer be at the head of a large team, but working solo on Zoom. A father may find himself in charge of household chores, or homeschooling. Some people welcome these changes, but others may not. We can think our identities are “fixed” and unchanging, but they aren’t. Learning to embrace this flexibility is healthy – and in some ways, the pandemic has given us opportunities to do so. The sedentary person might have become a dog walker; someone who was never interested in nature is newly in their garden. This experimentation with “who you are” – to step outside your “comfort zone” – is not to be feared, but encouraged, and we need to do more of it in 2022.

Lean in to your feelings

After the events of these past months, it’s not surprising that people are still feeling worried or unsure. The trick here is to befriend these feelings of anxiety; the outcome of the pandemic is larger than anything we can control. The thoughts are OK, but it’s best not to invoke them, or engage with them. Instead, go with the flow. Therapists talk a lot about mindfulness, but it really can help. If you are paying total attention to the here and now, it’s impossible to anticipate the future, and be preoccupied by it. Enjoy the food you are eating, the conversation you are having, without being nervous about what’s to come. Not everyone finds this comes naturally but with practice, it gets easier. It’s also worth saying that most of the things we’re anxious about never happen. But if they do, we can usually cope.

Reframe your thoughts 

Most New Year’s resolutions are negative with built-in judgments. “I must lose weight” means “ I am too heavy.” “I have to quit smoking” could translate to “I have no willpower”. “I must find a new job” might be “I’m complacent.” A simple trick is to turn these sentences on their heads. So, instead, frame them as the following: “I want to feel healthy and energised. I’d love to be able to breathe more easily, and run without panting. I’m going to work in an area where my talents are recognised.” Resolutions should feel good, not tainted with what you lack.

Take baby steps

New Year’s resolutions can bring self-induced pressure. Some are ambitious to the point of being overwhelming. It’s common, for example, for people to re-evaluate their fitness at the end of a period of Christmas overindulgence. But some of us have had almost two years of consumption, letting our fitness slide during the lockdowns. 

If your goal is to be more fit and energised, signing yourself up to a January boot camp probably won’t be the answer. There’s a very good reason why almost half of people who resolve to exercise kick off their trainers by the middle of the month.

There are two areas to consider here: time, and task. Instead of going all out, spread an exercise regime out into smaller chunks, starting with five or 10 minutes a day. Instead of starting with the massive boulder of 50 press-ups, start with the little chippings, such as press-ups on your knees. Sign yourself up for a doable amount, and you’ll feel good about hitting your goals, which you can later expand.

Respect your resilience 

We don’t know quite when but the Covid period will come to a close: hopefully, next year. And it will have shaped all of us. Of course, people will have had different experiences, 

but for many, the lingering effect will be positive. We’ll have learned an appreciation of little things such as readily available loo paper in the supermarket, and gratitude to be able to go on holiday. For sure, it won’t take us long to get used to our renewed freedoms and take things for granted again. Thus it will be important to remind ourselves of the sacrifices we have made, and the challenges we’ve overcome.

In many ways, the pandemic has been our generation’s war – there have been a lot of terrible losses. But for society as a whole – and for many of us as individuals – it will have been a positive reinforcement. A reminder of how adaptable we are. And the resilience we have to get by.

As told to Miranda Levy

Join leading experts in the new year for The January Health Reset, a series of online events focused on health, fitness and wellbeing throughout the month of January. To book tickets visit telegraph.co.uk/events

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