5 Expert Strategies for a Mental Health Reset This Year
The inward reflection that comes with meditation is one way by which we can help improve our mental health. Photo: Inside Creative House/Getty Images
As we close the book on another year, starting a new one off on the right foot has more to do with our head than it does with our feet.
To get our heads in the game (excuse the sports analogies, but it’s felt like these past few years have been playing for the opposing team), we enlisted Toronto-based clinical psychologist and author Dr. Monica Vermani for advice on the best mindset to tackle the year ahead.
1. Think Positive
After co-existing with COVID for nearly four years, our outlooks may have skewed negative. It’s because, as Vermani explains, we spent more time in our heads than we do normally, ruminating over past negative events or forecasting worst-case scenarios. Changing course to think more positively this coming year — or coming day, hour, minute — requires choosing to do so.
“The reality is that you can’t have two thoughts at the same time. We have a choice,” she says. “We can choose to replace our negative thoughts with more positive, supportive and life-affirming ones, We can look at past events and ask ourselves whether that one-time negative experience was an isolated event, versus a never-ending, repeating pattern.”
And put some stock in yourself, she says, in being able to cope with whatever may come.
“We can focus on what is working well. We can acknowledge that we have always done our best with the resources on hand in the past, and that we have learned and grown with each experience.”
2. Give Thanks
Speaking of what is working well, being thankful for that and other good things can help us reframe negative thoughts.
“What we focus on expands, whether what we focus on is positive or negative,” says Vermani.
Gratitude, she explains, works to reset our perspective by actively looking for the good in our lives. She recommends starting a gratitude log, jotting down a few things that brought you joy at the end of each day.
“A ray of sunshine on a cloudy commute home, the kindness of a stranger who held an elevator door for you, a perfect cup of coffee, a beautiful sunset … Once you start, you will soon be grateful for the benefits of this simple practice.”
3. Banish the Winter Blues
Leaving behind the distractions of a busy holiday season, filled with opportunities to get out and socialize, the quiet of January — not to mention seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — can leave us feeling blue. Leaning into self-care can help.
Vermani recommends good sleep hygiene: limit screen time in the hours before bed; sleep in a calm and quiet environment; and go to bed and wake up at regular times. These habits can contribute to quality rest, and also help combat sleep problems many SAD suffers struggle to overcome.
She also says paying attention to your diet (minimizing carbohydrate-rich and processed foods) can go a long way to managing winter weight gain — something else that can get us down.
And, adding a dietary supplement with vitamin D during the winter months can help make up for the lower levels of sunlight.
“People experiencing even the mildest [SAD] symptoms should also get outside into natural light in the winter months,” she says, adding that artificial lights which mimic sunlight can be very effective for managing symptoms.
“For a minority of people suffering severe symptoms of SAD, it can be critical to seek medical and/or psychotherapy for support and symptom reduction.”
“The balance in your life that you are seeking requires that you learn how to turn inward, rather than focusing on what is outside of you,” writes Vermani in her latest book, A Deeper Wellness. To achieve this, she advocates meditation.
“When you’re spending a lot of time with friends, enjoying their company, and lose track of the time — caught up in the complete presence of this pleasurable experience … Believe it or not,” she tells me, “this is meditation.”
She defines meditation as being focused on one thing with complete presence, and suggests we can easily build it in to each day. Whether it’s during a delicious meal, on our daily walk, reading a good book, listening to a favourite song or engaging in a hobby, allow yourself to slow down and be present.
“The past and the future are simply thoughts, and thoughts are simply our judgments of experiences,” she says, explaining that thought disorders like anxiety and depression “exist when we leave the present moment and judge, analyze, overthink and worry.”
5. Make Friends — With Yourself
Vermani says the most important relationship we have is the one with ourselves. Now, if you dislike spending time in your own company, she suggests reframing it as an opportunity to connect with yourself. And the best way to start is simply by taking a deep breath.
“When we pause, breathe deeply for a few moments and focus on our breath, we connect to ourselves, in the present,” she says. “Our breath opens a portal for us to tune into how we are feeling, and who we truly are.”
And doing it daily strengthens self-awareness. “You begin to trust yourself.” she says. “And you start to connect with what you want, who you want to be and what brings you joy.”
Plus, fostering the ability to enjoy, and look froward to spending time in your own company pays off twofold.
“It is important to have a healthy and positive relationship with yourself,” says, Vermani, “to have positive relationships with others.”
A version of this story was published in December 2022.