The year 2021 was one of emotional whiplash. There was anticipation for vaccines, followed by confusing rollouts. Then, we saw some hope as many Americans were inoculated, only to find new variants, a tumultuous news cycle and widespread confusion around the bend. The good news is that people across the country — including experts, public figures and kids — started talking more openly and helpfully about the importance of mental health. Here at Well, we offered tools to stay balanced in the face of so much stress and anxiety. As the year comes to a close, we’ve collected the top pieces of advice from our most popular mental health stories to help you carry calm and clarity into 2022.
1. Give your feeling a name.
Back in April, Adam Grant had already called it; he said, “Languishing might be the dominant emotion of 2021.” People certainly knew they were feeling some kind of way, but it wasn’t burnout or depression or even boredom. “Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health,” Dr. Grant wrote. “It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being.” He provided some tips to cure languishing, but the powerful first step Dr. Grant proposed was simply naming the feeling. Doing so gave us “a clearer window into what had been a blurry experience,” he wrote, and a socially acceptable response to the question: “How are you?”
2. Give your mental illness a name, too.
While Lily Burana had always been candid about her depression and anxiety, getting a third diagnosis this spring — for A.D.H.D. — made it harder to discuss her mental health clearly, she wrote. So Ms. Burana gave “the whole bundle” a nickname: Bruce. As in Springsteen, a public figure who has been open about his own struggles with mental health. “The nickname allows me to efficiently keep people apprised of my status, as in: ‘Bruce has really been bringing me down this week,’” she wrote. “The nickname helps me lighten up about my own darkness.”
3. Find meaning in everyday activities.
A growing body of research shows that there are simple steps you can take to recharge your emotional batteries and spark a sense of fulfillment, purpose and happiness. The psychology community calls this lofty combination of physical, mental and emotional fitness “flourishing.” One easy way to get there is by doing your everyday activities with more purpose. Something as simple as cleaning the kitchen or doing yard work, or even washing your pillow cases, can build toward a sense of accomplishment. Set a 10-minute timer and go for a short jog, or try a one-minute meditation.
4. Try meditating anywhere.
Your brain is like a computer, and it has only a certain amount of working memory, said Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. That’s why negative emotions like anxiety and stress can make it harder to think or solve problems. “The first thing we have to do is ground ourselves in the present moment so we can calm down,” said Dr. Brewer, who suggested keeping this meditation technique in your back pocket:
Hold one hand in front of you, fingers spread. Now, slowly trace the outside of your hand with the index finger on your other hand, breathing in when you trace up a finger, and out when you trace down. Move up and down all five fingers. When you’ve traced your whole hand, reverse direction and do it again.
5. Allow yourself to grieve ‘small’ losses.
In the hierarchy of human suffering during the pandemic, a canceled prom or vacation or lost time with grandchildren may not sound like much, but mental health experts say that all loss needs to be acknowledged and grieved. We need to give ourselves permission to mourn, Tara Parker-Pope wrote in an article about disenfranchised grief. “Once you accept that your grief is real, there are steps you can take to help you cope,” she said. “Consider planting a tree, for example, or finding an item that represents your loss, like canceled airline tickets or a wedding invitation, and burying it.”
6. If you need one, take a ‘Sad Day.’
When your brain and body need a break, taking a mental health day off from work or school can help you rest and recharge. As one clinical psychologist told Christina Caron: “You wouldn’t feel bad about taking time off when sick. You shouldn’t feel bad about taking some time off when you’re sad.” You don’t need to tell anyone why you’re taking the time off. In most situations, just say that you need to take a sick day, and leave it at that, the experts told Ms. Caron. But try not to spend the day checking your messages or feeling guilty. Make a plan to do something that will help you recharge. Our readers offered their suggestions here.
7. Write down what’s bothering you before bed.
Chronically bad sleep is more than just a nuisance. It weakens the immune system, reduces memory and attention span, and increases the likelihood of depression. Anahad O’Connor, who reported on the rise of sleep disturbances during the pandemic, said that one of the most effective treatments for “coronasomnia” was cognitive behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., because this approach helps you address the underlying thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are ruining your sleep. One C.B.T.-inspired strategy is to write down all of your thoughts, especially anything that is bothering you, two hours before bed, then crumple up the paper and throw it away. This symbolic gesture empowers you and calms your mind, a sleep medicine doctor told Mr. O’Connor.
8. Count sheep … or whatever.
Waking up at 3 a.m.? Anahad O’Connor had advice for that predicament too, like limiting your alcohol intake and reducing caffeine. Our readers had other tips: Maria De Angelo, a teacher in Los Angeles who also renovates houses, said she closes her eyes and thinks of a complicated electrical wiring scheme in a kitchen she once renovated. The mental exercise induces boredom, much like counting sheep, which helps her drift back to sleep. On other nights, to mix things up, Ms. De Angelo shuts her eyes and recites the names of every state in America in alphabetical order. “I haven’t yet made it past ‘N,’” she said. “Either method — or both — will work 95 percent of the time.”
9. If you can, give back.
Well before a pandemic tore people away from their loved ones, experts were warning of “an epidemic of loneliness” in the United States. A potential cure? Kindness toward others, Christina Caron wrote in an article about the benefits of volunteering. Research shows that giving back can improve our health, ease feelings of loneliness and broaden our social networks. Start by setting a small goal, like volunteering once a week, or even once a month, and building from there.
10. Finally, give yourself a break.
During our two-week Fresh Start Challenge, Tara Parker-Pope heard from a lot of readers who were berating themselves for gaining weight or exercising less during the pandemic lockdowns. Her response? “Shaming yourself is counterproductive.” Instead, practice self-compassion. One of the simplest ways to do so is to ask yourself one question: “What do I need right now?”