Happy New Year?!
It’s a reflexive refrain, but this year, I am honestly not so sure. Is it happy? Or, even new?
None of us thought that 2021 would fix everything or immediately bring a transformed reality. But the levels of loss, fear, chaos and violence in the first few weeks — at the local and national levels — have been deeply disturbing.
I feel sad, overwhelmed, angry and numb. Sometimes within the same hour. Although I was lucky to get good rest over the holidays, I am still sitting with the heaviness of 2020. And I feel tired. Extraordinarily tired.
After the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of talk about silver linings as we “settled in” to our new reality of virtual school and remote work. Our schedules slowed, and we had more time with family. Some of us were cleaning closets, baking bread or growing gardens.
But as the death toll rose, isolation set in, racial injustice became paramount and the vitriol of election season all came to a head — those silver linings started to lose their shine. And the magnitude of emerging mental health challenges came into clearer focus.
The disruptions to our normal lives, as well as the sustained emotional and economic traumas of the pandemic, have led to increased anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance use and household violence. CALM therapists are supporting children as they struggle to manage tensions at home, stay focused with online school, and find ways to have fun and still “be kids.”
So, how do we cope when it feels like we have absolutely nothing left to give?
With so much stress and uncertainty, it is critically important that we build individual and collective resilience. One of the simplest, most effective ways to do this is to cultivate a practice of gratitude.
Harvard Medical School reports, “Gratitude is associated with greater happiness helping people relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity and build strong relationships.” More than just an emotion, gratitude is a frame of mind that allows us to appreciate the present moment.
Grateful people experience more joy, love and enthusiasm, are buffered from negative emotions, and have a reduced lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse. As all of these issues surge during the pandemic, a focus on gratitude seems more urgent than ever.
From personal experience, I know that gratitude cannot be forced or fake. It must be authentic and consistent, and it must be a true priority.
At the beginning of November, my dear friend Max reached out suggesting a daily gratitude practice. For the past 12 weeks, we have exchanged daily texts, each sharing five things for which we are grateful. Some days it is walks on the beach or enjoying a bowl of ice cream. Other days, it is a moment of laughter with my daughters or having heat in our house.
This shared practice has become a bright spot for me. I look forward to reading his list and thinking about my own. It forces me to stop and think about the things I have, rather than the things I don’t. And, during this very isolating time, it keeps me in daily contact with a good friend. What an absolute gift.
For me, it’s important to make these efforts practical and easy. They need to fit into the flow of my day in order to make them happen. Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to make time to highlight the good amid this tremendously challenging time.
Here are a few other ways you can center gratitude in your life:
» Write a list of the people you are grateful for and what they’ve done to support you. Revisit this list when you are feeling down and send a quick text to say “hi” or “thank you.”
» Ask everyone to share three good things during a family meal. Then, talk about what caused those things to happen! This helps children — and all of us — appreciate how other people, things and our own decisions affect our experiences.
» Think about one thing you are grateful for as you brush your teeth in the morning, and then again before bed. Maybe write them down in a gratitude journal.
» Imagine the alternatives. One research-backed gratitude practice is called “mental subtraction.” Spend time thinking about how your life would be different if certain positive events hadn’t occurred.
Celebrating what we have and acknowledging the people and experiences that help to get us through equips us to face the challenges ahead. We know that difficult things are happening daily. But, with gratitude, we can stay “one step ahead” and fortify our resilience as we move through this “new” year together.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.