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Kathy Whelan

Posted on January 31, 2024

“Happy New Year!” we wish one another as each December slides into January. But sometimes it’s hard to believe a “happy” year lies ahead. Wars, extreme climate events, shootings and contentious politics, among other things, are bound to test our optimism.

The state of the world makes it easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. This is uncomfortable, but it can be hard to justify feeling another way when so much misery surrounds us. Over time, though, stress and anxiety will damage our physical and mental health, which does no good for us or anyone else. By prioritizing practices that buffer against these states, we build the resilience we need to keep our spirits up and our hope alive without denying or retreating from the challenges we face.

To do this, we need to focus on the things we can control in our lives and the world around us and not those we can’t. Keeping in mind that much about the world is beyond our control allows us to conserve our physical and emotional energy for the parts within our control. And in a healthy state of body and mind, we can do our best and be more effective because we are at our best.

A good place to begin is healthy eating, which is well within our control. The now-established connection between food and mood – between gut and brain – goes two ways: what we eat impacts our feelings, and our feelings impact what we eat. By paying attention to whether we are eating in response to hunger or a feeling like anxiety, frustration or anger, we can give our bodies what we need and not what we don’t.

Engaging in physical activity is another area we can control that affects both body and mind. Exercise not only builds strength and agility but also releases calming chemicals into our bodies, diverts attention from our worries, and decreases the muscle tension that combines with worry to create anxiety.

Yet another key to physical and mental health is sleep. While we can’t make ourselves sleep in the same way we can make ourselves eat well and exercise, we can help ourselves sleep by practicing sleep hygiene. This is the part we can control. I, for one, will work this year on putting away my phone and laptop an hour or two before bed and going to bed and waking up at the same time throughout the week.

To safeguard my mental health, I will also bear in mind the negativity bias: the brain’s tendency to notice and dwell on the negative more than the positive. A survival mechanism for early humans, this gets in our way when media outlets capitalize on negative news, knowing it is more attention-grabbing than positive news. Limiting media consumption and attending to positive events should help me avoid what has been called “election stress disorder” and other forms of anxiety.

Being connected to others is central to good health and longevity. While we can’t control what other people do or think, we can control how we communicate with them. With some, we may want to avoid discussing politics or world events altogether. If we do discuss such matters, we should do so skillfully.

All too often we engage in “self-focused listening.” This means coming to a conversation with a busy mind, thinking about other things; filtering another’s words through our own beliefs and experiences, judging and categorizing them; thinking we know what they will say before they say it; or listening with a specific goal like changing their mind.

“Other-focused listening” is based on an intention to hear another person from their own perspective, not presuming to know what they will say beforehand. This doesn’t mean we have to agree; it simply allows another’s perspective to be heard just as we would like ours heard when it’s our turn. We should test our understanding with curiosity and questions. In speaking, “I” statements make it clear we are speaking from our perspective only. This kind of respectful communication can go a long way toward preserving relationships even through difficult conversations.

Approaching the new year in a healthy state of body and mind will make us better able to accomplish the many things that lie within our control. Whether we help get out the vote, donate our time or money, volunteer, write, speak or contribute to the world in another way, we can be peaceful in the knowledge that we’ve done what we can to make 2024 a good – perhaps even happy – year.

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