New year's resolutions: Experts say to 'set small goals' and 'find the joy'

Pandemic has taken a toll on mental health, but resolutions may be helpful

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After the most disruptive year in generations upended the social, financial and mental well-being of billions across the world, the question many face with the arrival of the new year is: What’s next?

For some, the tradition of new year’s resolutions may serve as a natural springboard for considering that question. It’s not easy, though, when “fatigue” has been the buzzword defining many people’s collective state of mind for months.

That includes “Zoom fatigue, pandemic fatigue, compassion fatigue,” said Cynthia Grant, the chief clinical officer for AllHealth Network, a nonprofit mental health organization in the south metro area.

“I think everyone is trying to stay safe and sane, but the prolonged nature of what we’re dealing with leaves many emotionally depleted, overwhelmed, feeling guilty, uncertain, helpless and exhausted by the choices we have to make every day to keep ourselves safe,” Grant said.

In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life similarly to how a natural disaster does, affecting people’s mental health on a wide scale.

“The toll that a natural disaster takes on individuals, families, and communities is well-known in the mental health field,” said Grant, who is also a licensed clinical social worker. “They disrupt our daily lives and remind us of our lack of control in the world. COVID forced us to change our routines and disconnected us from our social supports. The quarantine and safer-at-home regulations stripped away many of our coping mechanisms that help tame mental illnesses. We couldn’t see or hug our friends, go to the movies or even work out at the gym.” 

But the pandemic has reshaped life in unique ways, too, according to Shawn Worthy, a clinical psychologist and professor of human services at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Natural disasters “are events that are sudden — they have a big impact and then you can respond, so they’re very acute situations,” Worthy said. On the other hand, the pandemic is “kind of the chronic situation. This has been going on for almost a year now, about 10 months now. So the length of the difficulty, I think, impacts people differently.”

Short bursts of traumatic experiences can be harrowing, Worthy said, noting that comparing trauma can be problematic.

“But what I can say is that the long-term, chronic mental health drain that the pandemic is having on most people certainly is creating this kind of slow-rolling but intense trauma for most people,” Worthy said.

On top of that, the pandemic has affected some vastly more than others in a financial sense, Worthy noted.

“If you have a job you can do at home or is relatively safe, that’s one thing,” Worthy said. “But if you have a job in the entertainment industry, restaurant industry, travel industry, hospital industry, (the effect is great). A lot of them are thinking of how to pay the bills, how to have a holiday dinner — all those very basic-level things.”

The start of the pandemic was marked by a “great solidarity” in fighting the coronavirus, but as the crisis continued to rage, “it hasn’t been the same boat for all of us,” Grant said.

“It’s been said that some of us are hanging on to a life raft while others are on a yacht,” Grant added.

For many, a natural disaster leads to post-traumatic growth with reflection and opportunities to make positive change, Grant said. 

But “others (face) job loss, the burden of remote work and remote school, grief over the loss of a loved one, or being isolated for so long it had bred loneliness, depression, anxiety, sleepless nights and increased substance use,” Grant said. “These are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.”

‘The relational factor’

Those wondering how to navigate the hurdles may be reshuffling their priorities. Asked how the pandemic could tend to affect the goals people set, Worthy said there’s no specific research to guide that answer.

But “what I’m guessing is that typically, when people have faced trauma, their response is one that is more focused on the more fundamental kind of issues,” Worthy said. “So like, spending better quality time with family, not taking for granted your grandma and grandpa who you haven’t been able to see (consistently) in a long time.

“Hopefully for a fair number of people, it’ll be those kinds of fundamental things — the relational factor in our lives,” Worthy said.

Still others have been unable to go out and enjoy their passions — fitness and travel may be high on the list of people’s priorities, Worthy said.

Even something as basic as saving money could be a popular goal so that people can prevent ending up in a compromising situation again, Worthy continued. Some behavior may harken back to those who went through the Great Depression and kept money in their shoeboxes and other obscure places to guard against financial hardship.

“You’d find money in their mattress, people from that era,” Worthy said. “It was fascinating.”

Set small goals, help others

Grant thinks that in the new year, many will set goals related to making physical and mental health a priority.

“We are also seeing people set priorities with a focus on making time to connect in our relationships with friends, family, neighbors, and even the server at our favorite restaurant or the person we used to see on at the gym,” Grant said. “I also recommend that people prioritize setting goals that are fun and bring joy — whether that is something small like dancing in the kitchen, taking a sunrise walk, an aspirational goal like reading 52 books in a year or taking a long-awaited trip with friends. Find the joy!”

Grant’s advice is to set goals that are “reasonable, do-able and something you can look back on and know you hit it and checked the box.”

“I encourage people to set small goals — what Arianna Huffington calls `microsteps,’ a big idea that’s too small to fail. For example, if your goal is to cut your social media use in half, start by not having your phone with you when you’re eating, then try not to have it in your bedroom,” Grant said. “There’s a little bit of pride in each step that gets accomplished that makes us feel good about achieving our goals.”

Worthy emphasized the dual benefits of focusing on helping others.

“If you can turn the focus away from yourself and onto potentially helping other people who are less fortunate, that is always a good thing, because it makes you feel good and it makes someone else feel good,” Worthy said, using the example of volunteering at a food bank or a similar establishment that helps others.

Sunlight can be another tool: Take advantage of the Denver area’s 50-degree winter days when they happen. Just getting out and walking around in the sun is good for the mood, Worthy said.

Asked about any new year’s resolutions of his own, Worthy laughed and replied that his goal is to live well every day.

“It’s really trying to strive for balance in my own life, and balance means between financial balance, physical-fitness balance, social balance — all of those things,” Worthy said, “to keep working on that and trying to find a positive center.”

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