When you hear the phrase ‘New Year’s resolutions’ you probably think of gym memberships, vegetables, or travel. We tend to focus on improving the physical and visible aspects of our lives, when often it’s our mental health that could use a bit of TLC.
“Looking after yourself is absolutely the essence of life. If you’re not looking after yourself, then everything in life becomes difficult,” says Steph Allen, Principal Clinical Psychologist at Life and Mind Psychology.
So in 2016, why not embrace some strategies that’ll help you keep your wellbeing in check? The term ‘resolution’ can be a little loaded; instead, psychologists say the key to setting achievable, sustainable goals is being SMART: Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic, Time-bound.
Here are nine SMART mental health-oriented strategies you can integrate into your life this year.
1. Swap self-criticism for self-compassion
According to Tal Schlosser, Clinical Psychologist at My Life Psychologists, talking to yourself critically is “like kicking yourself when you’re down.” A more effective way to motivate yourself is to cultivate self-compassion, especially when faced with your so-called ‘failings’.
“Treat yourself with the same care that you would a good friend, with kindness, gentleness, empathy, respect and understanding,” Schlosser explains.
“Self-compassion has been shown to be strongly related to mental wellbeing, happiness, increased motivation, making healthier life choices and having better interpersonal relationships, as well as lower levels of depression and anxiety.”
2. Manage your worry
"Worry can have such a big impact on our lives if we don't know how to manage it," Steph Allen says.
The good news? There's a simple, effective way you can achieve this. "Notice the worry when it arrives, let it go — you could imagine the worry floating down a stream — then focus your attention on whatever you were doing when the worry arrived," Allen suggests.
Watch: Meghan Kelly on the importance of good self-esteem. (Post continues after video.)
3. Exercise your personal strengths
Determination, positivity, wit — everyone has a character strength. Clinical Psychologist Louise Morrow from LM Psychology in Sydney says research shows identifying those strengths can increase our motivation and enjoyment, improve performance, and increase our sense of competence.
"Notice what you enjoy, taking a few moments to think about what things you love to do and things which engage you, then look at the common elements that lie beneath," Morrow suggests. You could also ask a trusted friend what they think your strengths are, or identify the characteristics you like in yourself.
Once you've identified these strengths, commit to exercising one of them each week. "If you have identified 'curiosity' you might take a different route to work, try a different gym class, or pay close attention to something you normally take for granted," Morrow says.
4. Don't disregard your needs
Look after your own needs as well as those of others, even if it means saying 'no'.
"If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your demands or if you feel that others take advantage of you, stand up for yourself. Give yourself permission to say 'no' rather than doing things out of a sense of obligation or guilt," Schlosser says. (Post continues after gallery.)
5. Make time for positive activities
Catching up with friends or finding time for the hobbies and experiences that are important to you doesn't just put a smile on your face — it can really aid your mental health and resilience.
"The more positive and meaningful activities we have in our life, the more that protects us from stress and negative emotions, not to mention being able to have more fun," Steph Allen says.
6. Embrace mindfulness
You probably associate mindfulness with meditating on a beach, but that's just one form.
If you find yourself constantly 'busy' and multi-tasking, you might want to give mindfulness a try. "The benefits include reduced stress, increased self-awareness, and improved handling of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings so that you can respond to difficult situations with less reactivity," Tal Schlosser says.
You don't need the "right" environment or a certain amount of time to exercise mindfulness — here are some other techniques Louise Morrow recommends"
- Mindful breathing. "Start by breathing out slowly, then breathe in. Make one cycle last around six seconds, paying close attention to the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your body."
- Mindful observation. "Choose something in your immediate environment. Examine it closely for a minute or two, as if you are seeing it for the first time; note its colour, shape, movement."
- Mindful listening. "Close your eyes and pay close attention to what you can hear. See if you can pick out five distinct sounds and just notice them - their variation, pitch, tone ... follow the sound from beginning to end."
- Mindful eating: "Pop something small into your mouth, close your eyes and really explore the taste, texture, smell of the food in your mouth, noticing where in your mouth you taste it and how it changes form."
Watch: If you are interested in trying meditation, here's how to get started - as demonstrated by Paper Tiger. (Post continues after video.)
7. Cut down on social media
We all know social media is a double-edged sword. It can be a fun and engaging way to stay informed and connected, but in high doses it can be detrimental to your wellbeing or even your relationships. Tal Schlosser says if this is the case, consider setting some achievable limits.
"Turn your phone off when you go to bed so you get quality sleep. Schedule set times throughout your day to check social media rather than being constantly available and connected. Consider unfollowing anyone whose posts make you feel bad about yourself, like your ex," she advises.
Louise Morrow also recommends rather than social media being the first thing you interact with in the morning, take some time out instead to practice mindfulness.
8. Focus on your sleep
Allen says poor sleep is often one of the first prompts for people to seek professional help.
"So many people out there just live with a very poor night's sleep. [It] can lead to increased anxiety, over eating and irritability, and on the flip side oversleeping can make us feel more lethargic and more vulnerable to feeling down," she says.
Ideally, you should be aiming for between six and eight hours of quality sleep a night. Factors like caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol can disrupt your sleep, and Allen also recommends avoiding screen time on and around bed time for the same reason.
9. Give thanks
Acknowledging appreciation of people, events and activities has been shown to improve sleep and foster more happiness. Louise Morrow recommends keeping a hand-written 'gratitude journal' where you record pleasant events in your life. That could be as simple as someone holding the elevator open for you as you race into the office.
There's no 'wrong' way to go about this — and don't feel pressured to journal every single day. "Research suggests that once or twice a week can contribute more to happiness than daily recording, because the human mind ... seems to adapt to positive events very quickly, lessening their impact," Morrow says.
What do you do to keep your mental health in check?