Eating less and exercising more are likely on many a to-do list for 2017. But in between meals and after working out, we all can identify ways to improve our mental health as well. Below are seven new year’s resolutions I’ve devised to help me take better care of myself in 2017. What are yours?
1. Adjust the settings. While fixing my leaky faucet, the plumber blurted out: “I’ve lost my passion for this work. I’ve been at it for so long, and the passion just isn’t there anymore.”
We commiserated, and before he left, we had concluded that at some level, every job is just a job. We also spoke about how important it is to balance work with leisure time. And we agreed it’s important to evaluate our work lives from time to time. Even if we can’t make dramatic changes, we can tweak this or adjust that, in the hope of finding more satisfaction on the job.
I did, and it worked. I enjoy writing about the arts more than stories with political angles, and said so often — to all the wrong people. One day, I simply called the editor. “Arts stories and profiles — assign those to me,” I said. Inspired by my own moxie, I added, “Also, I am not accepting any more assignments about cancer. Just because I’ve had it doesn’t mean I want to write about it. I don’t.” The editor learned something new — and so did I. Life is too short to be subtle!
2. Embrace green therapy. Looking at nature — at the edge of the continent, in a state park or in your own backyard — beats looking out a window any day. Stand in the sun. Let the wind mess up your hair. Breathe deep.
Letting your mind play outside for a while is good for you. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, told National Geographic in January 2016 that our brains are not “tireless three-pound machines.” They get fatigued, he said, but when we slow down and take in beautiful natural surroundings, “not only do we feel restored, but our mental performance improves too.”
Strayer promotes three-day getaways in nature, but even shorter visits can refresh your mind and your spirit. Grab a jacket and go.
At least once a week, I drive three miles to the Pacific Ocean. Regardless of the varying hues of the water — metallic green, slate gray, shining silver — the waves are relentless. I watch until the sight and sound lull my busy mind and wash away any heightened sense of false significance I may have about present circumstances, allowing my “three-pound machine” to take a break.
3. Take a time out. When the battery in my bathroom clock died, I took a good look at the clock. It was decades old, and the white plastic frame had yellowed badly. Impulsively, I threw it out. Along with the clock, I discarded the notion that my every moment must be tracked, relieving the stress that builds when I think I don’t have time or won’t have time — even when I do.
Four months later, I still glance at the clock’s former spot on the bathroom wall. The inexpensive framed print of the Golden Gate Bridge that hangs there now does not tell me the time, but it reminds me that I do not need to rush while showering, putting on makeup or filling my pill organizer.
That makes for a more peaceful morning and helps me start the day with a softer focus. How do I stay on schedule when I must? I set my bedroom clock 12 minutes fast.
4. Downsize emotional reactions. Looking at the big picture is important — except when that’s too overwhelming. One day long ago, I cried in a therapist’s office, mourning the death of a friend and obsessing about a crisis at work.
“You’re looking at your life on a giant IMAX screen,” the therapist said, handing me more tissues. “Bring it down to a TV set in the living room. Sit with that a few minutes. Now, imagine how everything that’s going on would look when viewed on a small black and white TV on your kitchen counter. Is that more manageable?”
It was. To this day, after that first emotional rush of an upsetting moment, I try to remember to adjust the perspective to lessen the emotional intensity.
5. Rethink the closet. When I open the closet door, I see clothes I wear, clothes I once wore and clothes I will never wear. I see boxes I never open, full of stuff I can’t seem to part with. I see bags filled with gifts I bought too far in advance. Worse, I see bags full of bags, just in case I need more bags.
This is a not a closet that simply stores clothing. It has evolved into a storage locker, housing memories in a holding pattern and silly stuff, all stashed among too many pairs of black pants. What if I tossed the spare bags, pared down the sentimental items and donated the clothing I never wear?
For one thing, I would feel better organized and experience a victory over stuff — always a good feeling.
That victory may even extend to making peace with losses we all suffer in the course of a life. Patty de Vries, director of the Stanford Health Promotion Network, told U.S. News & World Report late last year that some people “collect clutter to make up for some sense of loss in other areas of their lives.” I need to remember that clutter does not minimize losses, and then fill a bag or two — I have plenty of those — with donations.
6. Find more teachers. When people come along who know more than I do, especially about things I want to know, I do whatever it takes to learn what they have to teach.
Sometimes great wisdom is revealed in a quick conversation with a stranger on a bus or in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Other times, a casual encounter leads to a decades-long relationship. That’s what happened when I met Ross.
A close friend of my boss, he was artistic director of a dance company and a choreographer. When I learned that, I knew he had much to teach me about creativity and vulnerability. But Ross also was an introverted loner who was not inclined to make time to get close to anybody new.
After meeting him a time or two at the office, I pestered him for attention. The day he asked me — somewhat testily — what I was doing in his life, I replied, “Learning things from you that no one else has taught me.” We were close until he died, some 22 years ago. I continue to talk to strangers, looking for new teachers.
7. Take the short view. Worrying about what may or may not come to pass may help me prepare for an uncertain future, but it also propels me into a time beyond my control.
“There is no broom big enough to sweep up debris accumulating in the future,” a wise friend once told me.” When I start imagining the worst that could happen, I visit there for a while and then make myself return to the present.
Do I have clothes to wear? This month’s rent money? Food in the fridge? Family and friends to call on for help? If so, I am OK just now. If not, I can devise a strategy to improve the situation — and then I can head outdoors for some free green therapy. (See resolution No. 2.)