Let’s not sugarcoat it; 2020 was pretty brutal. A worldwide pandemic, bubbling racial tensions, record levels of unemployment, and an attempted coup, taught us how quickly life can change. And also, how quickly an intolerable situation can start to feel normal.
The past twelve months taught us how resilient we can be, but they also forced us to adopt certain survival mindsets to keep us sane. You might not have noticed them seeping into your thinking as you grappled with 2020’s endless challenges, but now that we can look back, it’s much easier to notice them and let them go.
Hindsight is 2020 after all. (Yes, I’ve been waiting for months to use that pun).
“Everything is awful”
Nobody could blame you for picking up a little cynicism on your way through 2020. The trials of last year revealed humanity’s most childish and selfish instincts, highlighted the incompetence of our leaders, and challenged our faith in the institutions meant to protect us. But while all of that was going on, communities pulled together, they supported each other, and they found all kinds of ways to add a little magic into each other’s lives.
The way we feel about the world is quite literally a question of how we look at it. Focus on negativity, and you’ll see more of it. Look for the positives, you’ll find plenty of those too. If your outlook has gotten skewed towards doom and gloom over the past twelve months, the good news is that the damage is reversible.
Visualization techniques such as the Best Possible Self method, have been proven to increase optimism, mood, and well-being in just a few minutes a day. Tools like these work because the mind doesn’t distinguish particularly well between real and imagined events. Expose it to an ideal world often enough, even in your imagination, and you’ll come to see the world that way.
“It’s better to avoid people”
I still remember how awkward social distancing was at the beginning of the pandemic. It felt unnatural and even rude to avoid shaking hands or to turn down invitations. Now I go into a quiet panic if a stranger is within six feet of me. It’s going to be a while before we need to get used to rubbing shoulders in crowded venues again, but while it might even have begun to feel normal to be alone, it’s worth bearing in mind that social contact is essential to our physical and mental health.
Professor John Cacioppo, a leading expert on the effects of loneliness, found that acute loneliness releases the same amount of the body’s stress hormone, cortisol, as being punched in the face by a stranger. So it really is in our best interest to avoid it. But how do we do that in a world where isolation is the only responsible option?
While it’s still going to be difficult to get the face-to-face contact we need for a while, numerous alternatives have sprung up to bridge the gap including virtual choirs, book clubs, language exchanges, or just like-minded people to share your story with.
Studies have also shown that making healthy choices like reducing caffeine consumption, staying hydrated, light exercise like yoga or walking (especially in nature), and making sure you get a good nights sleep, all help to reduce cortisol levels. Keeping your stress levels under control won’t make you less lonely, but it will make it easier to cope until you can mingle with the unwashed masses again.
“There’s nothing I can do”
When faced with an emergency, the natural response is to take action. There are very few problems we can’t deal with once we know what to do. But the pandemic is different. The most useful thing most of us can to do is sit at home twiddling our thumbs. Neurologist and author, Sam Harris, summed it up beautifully back in March:
What is so unusual about this situation is that unlike almost any other crisis, the thing that is being asked of us, unless we happen to be doctors and nurses, or working directly to keep the supply chain moving…is to do nothing.
Numerous studies have shown that being useful to others favourably impacts depression, life-satisfaction and well-being, so if you’ve spent 2020 feeling like a spare part, you might try seeking out ways to give back in 2021.
Contributions don’t just have to be financial of course. You can donate moral support, skills, or even blood to those in need. Not only is this a great way to be useful again, helping others helps us regulate our own emotions more effectively, meaning you’ll get a much-needed boost too.
“It’s pointless to think about the future”
Remember when you could book a trip or plan a birthday party, even if it was months away, and feel confident that everything would work out as planned? Acting as if the future were a known quantity was something we took for granted in the “before time", but in 2020, it became a luxury we couldn’t afford. Even at the beginning of the year when it first became apparent that there was a real problem, most of us assumed that life would be back to normal by Christmas. Yeah, about that…
2020 forced us to focus on what was directly in front of our nose. Schools closed and re-opened at short notice, business laid off staff or folded completely, people got sick or had to self-isolate with no warning. We needed to take a “wait and see” attitude with even the smallest aspects of our lives, but maintaining this attitude takes a psychological toll. Human beings thrive when we have things to look forward to, and the fact that that was so difficult in 2020 is at least part of the reason why it felt so gloomy.
If you don’t yet have enough faith in 2021 to book something (which is probably wise), how about a general plan for when the pandemic is finally over? Why not plan a holiday or arrange a well-earned get together with friends and family? Or maybe you could just make some more ambitious plans for Christmas 2021 than you did in 2020. I mean, everything will be back to normal by Christmas 2021, right? RIGHT?
New Year’s Day has always been a time to reset, but it feels like we’re in particularly desperate need of one this year. 2020 hasn’t just been difficult, it’s changed the way many of us live, work and interact with each other.
For most of last year, the only thing we could predict with any confidence was that things were going to get worse. But that’s been turned on its head this year. 2021 might look like 2020 right now, but it’s all uphill from here.
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