Putting the Year to Bed

Five Strategies for Dealing with Tough Times

We all know what 2016 was like: celebrity deaths, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, the uniquely contentious campaign season ending in, for many people, an unwelcome surprise election. It all led to an especially nasty case of demoralization that earned 2016 the label “worst year ever.”

Mental and emotional burdens like that created, in part, by the zeitgeist of this single year can be especially difficult to sort out for those who work solo — freelancers, contractors, work-from-home folks. Communal workplaces provide a shared social context within which a group of people can commiserate and trade support daily. Lacking that shared work experience means having to come up with other coping strategies. Here are five practices that helped this freelancer deal with the year that was.

1) Reflect on the good points. To write off an entire year as terrible is, of course, irrational thinking, a form of cognitive distortion often signaled by absolutes such as “all,” “everything” and “nothing.” And it can suck you into a hole of despair if you linger in that mental space too long. To combat this negativity, consider that, in fact, the odds of every minute of an entire year being terrible are low enough to be near impossible. So what went right? If you have a tough time with this one, make a list. This is a practice related to gratitude journaling, which researchers have found lowers stress.

2) Put it to bed. Most freelancers maintain several physical manifestations of the year: a budget spreadsheet, an expenses and income folder, a planning calendar. It is incredibly cathartic and refreshing to close these out, file them away and set up new ones for the new year. In effect, you are objectifying the negative thoughts and emotions associated with a terrible year and then physically getting rid of them. An interesting study on this topic concluded that doing so decreased the effect of the negative thought.

3) Anticipate good times. Think of this as the inverse of number two. If putting away negative thoughts decreases their effect, then “getting out” positive ones should increase their positive effect. Specifically, a 2014 study in Psychological Science demonstrated that more happiness resulted from anticipating experiences versus material purchases. So what fun trips or get-togethers are scheduled for the coming year? What happy occasions will you celebrate? Again, it can help to write these down. I highlight them in my fun color, pink, on my calendar. It’s always a pleasant reality check to see how much pink each month holds when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

4) Engage in self-care. Self-care is the first thing we tend to neglect when we get too busy or stressed. Guilty! We pick up more takeout, work through workouts, and lie in bed at night reading on our phones and tablets about all that worries us. Never mind making time for meditation, massage or even refilling the aromatherapy diffuser! If your healthy regime has slipped away, remind yourself how refreshed and energetic you are when you eat lots of veggies instead of fat-, salt-, and sugar-laden takeout. Think of how strong and capable regular exercise makes you feel. Remember how clear-headed you are after a full night’s rest. Reflect on how those good habits increase resilience, and get back into them. Who has time to be sick, tired and stressed anyway?! For more about the importance of self-care, especially sleep, I highly recommend Arianna Huffington’s books Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder and The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time.

After re-incorporating the basics, make time and mental space again for creativity, calmness and joy. Meditation, mindfulness, and intentional observation make you more productive and just plain nicer! They’re not expensive or time-consuming either, a plus for most freelancers. My favorite daily joy is playing with my dogs — now there’s a species with a firm grasp on living in the moment!

5) Get out. Being with nature is a must in my arsenal of funk-conquering strategies. A boatload of scientific studies show that, in addition to boosting mood, spending time in nature strengthens the immune system, reduces stress, improves focus and sleep, and so much more. This is the evidence behind Nature Deficit Disorder, a concept presented by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. Though Nature Deficit Disorder is not officially recognized, it is at least widely accepted now that vitamin D deficiency leads to multiple negative health effects. The best way to get vitamin D? Spend 10–30 minutes a day in sunlight. And since endless hours peering at a computer monitor aren’t good for the eyes either, getting outside in the sunshine and looking at distant trees and other objects several times a day is a welcome two-for-one part of my workday.

Of course, these strategies could just as easily be used to process a bad month, week or even day. What are your favorite strategies to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive?

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