Finding Hope in the New Year:
Letter from Joanna M. Ronnau, LPC, Behavioral Health Therapist at Unity Health - Clarity Health and Wellness
What a start to the New Year! Most of us just spent the holidays making merry, reconnecting with others, and focusing on the important things in life. Now it’s the season where many reflect on what happened last year and look ahead to what this year can bring. Taking stock of our latest trip around the sun provides growth and a renewed sense of purpose which is important to our mental health and well-being. But to be honest, the past year, for many of us, was incredibly difficult, and the challenges continue into the New Year, requiring a lot out of each of us.
We are all experiencing something called “collective grief.” It is a particular type of loss that can be difficult to put into words. It is wishing things were different, longing for gatherings that can’t be, not being able to go and see loved ones, and desiring a sense of normalcy. The collective grief right now is present and sometimes feels immense and overwhelming. Whether you are there for a few moments or a few months, it’s tangible and has its impact.
Many of us have been left with more questions than answers, and have been saying, “If only…”
- “If only we weren’t having to deal with COVID”
- “If only I could send my loved ones to school or work without worrying…”
- “If only I hadn’t been laid off…”
- “If only my loved one or I wasn’t at increased risk for illness…”
- “If only more people would/wouldn’t (fill in the blank) …”
The above concerns fall on a wide range from somewhat to totally outside of our realm of control. These concerns are real, scary, frustrating and also exhausting. It can often feel like we’re navigating blindly, not sure if the steps we take are the right ones. Even more alarming than the concerns themselves, is the fact that feeling out of control can often lead down precarious paths.
When people are scared, they can act in ways that are unlike their typical character, or in ways that can impact their better judgment. They might make rash decisions or engage in destructive behaviors. They might take out their frustrations on a loved one or a stranger. They might have trouble concentrating or have their performance at work or home impaired. They might have a lot of mood swings. They might engage in behaviors to attempt to escape or numb out, which can include overuse of substances, video games, screen time, or any other thing to help make them “numb” from whatever they may be dealing with.
Although most things in moderation are just fine and, in fact, useful for maintaining one’s mental health and well-being, many have been defaulting to using these breaks all too frequently. They find it has impacted functioning in their relationships and responsibilities. Small issues become bigger problems the longer they are not attended to, and over time have detrimental deficits on one’s mental, emotional, and even physical well-being.
So, you might ask, “What do we do?” What do we do when faced with such challenging times and scary circumstances? We often turn to what we know. When what we know can no longer serve us in a helpful way, we start seeking information about what additional knowledge might be out there that we haven’t yet accessed.
During a recent Sunday service behind our church building, sitting around a fire in camp chairs spaced 6 feet or more apart, my pastor encouraged us to ask some different kinds of questions this year:
- “What if things don’t go as badly as I fear they might?”
- “What if I focus on putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next right thing?”
- “What if I learn a new skill, to help me in the now, or just for fun?
- “What if I intentionally focus on the things I have to be grateful for, and not just the negative?”
- “What if I start taking care of myself, listen to myself, and stop ignoring my needs?”
- “What if, even though everything is crumbling all around me, I can grow in spite of my circumstance?”
Many of us continue to have a difficult time, and the truth is, it’s not likely to instantly change since 2021 has started. The good news is, there are others in your family, friend group, faith group, church, and community that know what you’re going through, and that can be there for you and with you. You don’t have to weather the storm alone.
Perhaps the most important thing I want to convey is this: It is okay if you’re not okay. You are not alone in that experience.
Some of us are dealing with the heavier grief from a lot of losses. We may have grief from losing loved ones, job situations, schooling struggles, and new routines where you don’t have any time to yourself at all. Other difficulties could include loss of breaks from kids, loss of normalcy, or losing your home. These things weigh heavily on our hearts. We have all been dealing with collective losses that have had a huge impact on most, if not all, of our relationships with others. The following proverb has been making the rounds on the internet recently from an unknown author that says, “We are not in the same boat, but simply in the same storm.” We are all facing this pandemic, yet we do not all have the same resources.
I think the above sentiment explains why it seems that some of us are riding the struggle bus, while others seem to be affected very little, if at all, and why others appear to be thriving during this time. If you are having difficulty, you might feel that at any moment, you could sink, and feel helpless and hopeless. If you are maintaining the status quo, I encourage you to keep going, and I hope you can look around and see where you can find a place of safe haven, even if it’s just for a short time. If you are one of the ones thriving, may you be of help and make a difference for others in your community who are having a harder time, answering distress calls where you’re able.
This article feels especially weighty for this time of year. Why do I bring this up, during a time of year that’s supposed to be hopeful and looking ahead towards the possibilities to come? Because I believe that by bringing out of the darkness what is scary or painful is the beginning of healing. Exposing things to light will always improve your vantage point, and it’s in our best interest and our best hope, both as individuals and as a community, to take the next steps on firm stable ground. Truth and hope are the lighthouse for the soul and can guide you out of the storm to shore.
Here are some helpful tips that I hope can assist you:
- First, don’t try to do this alone. Find a trusted friend, family member, faith-based group, or professional to support you in this endeavor. And many times, by giving to others you receive as well, so reach out to those who might have a need. Giving to others doesn’t have to be monetary. You can give your time, your talent, your advice, your concern, your ideas, your service, or even give your presence.
- Second, please remember grace, both for yourself and others. Everyone really is doing the best they know how to right now, and I guarantee you’re not the only one struggling and feeling you’re falling short. Be gentle with yourself. Breathe, regroup, reach out to others, and utilize self-care.
- Embrace the different, the new, and the change. The coming year will likely not be the same as what you are used to. Keep what you’re able to, discard what isn’t serving you, and modify what you can. Find ways to connect utilizing technology. Get out of the house for a drive. Do a virtual party or drive by parade.
- Try focusing on what you can control. Do a house chore you’ve been putting off. Clean out your garage or attic. Clean out your closet or dresser drawers. Rearrange your furniture. Do some deep breathing. Count backwards from 10. Focus on a proverb or scripture or quote that gives you peace, hope, or happiness.
- Stay with the present moment. Use your 5 senses of sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste, and immerse yourself in this experience. Engage in simple activities mindfully. Check in with your body and notice any sensations that come up for you. Don’t judge it as good or bad, just notice it, and reflect on it.
- Adjust your “bar” or standard for how things are “supposed to be” right now. Seek quality over quantity and connection over entertainment. Keep things simple. Share a funny or favorite movie. Call your family. Make some gifts instead of buying them (this in and of itself is often quite therapeutic). Cook something and bring the extra to a neighbor. If things feel too big, break them down into smaller tasks.
- Stay connected. (I know this has been said, but I can’t emphasize this enough.) Keep reaching out. Even if you don’t say much, listen to them. It helps. If you’re quarantining or social distancing, utilize technology. You can call, text, email, skype, zoom, Facetime, messenger, you name it! The point is reach out and contact someone. You can combat loneliness with connection. It really helps.
- Consider your boundaries. Is there someone in your life that takes more than they give or who disrespects your boundaries or adds stress? Set healthy perimeters for yourself and minimize exposure to these difficult relationships, and, if need be, consider how much access that person gets, or if they should get much at all. You deserve to be respected.
- Get outside of your little “box”, literally. Get outside and go for a walk or drive and see the sights. Go walk down art alley or around the downtown area. Put on your coat and visit a park. Do some yard work, plan for the coming gardening season. Sit on your porch in some sunshine. Breathe some fresh air and observe nature. Even 15 minutes of sunshine improves your mental and emotional health.
- Engage in art. It doesn’t matter what kind. Reading writing, dancing, painting, building, crafting, music. You can even just observe art in others, listen to music, poetry, or a book on tape. Take a free online tour of a world-renowned art gallery. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE GOOD AT IT! The point is not to “be good” at creating, the point is to “feel good” when you create. Being creative is healing and helps you feel alive and whole.
- Don’t forget to play. Play a game with your family and engage them in daily activities, like cooking. Have a dance party. Play wrestle. Be silly. Laugh, hug, and cuddle. Reach out to a neighbor and do a kind act. Put someone’s grocery cart away. Seeking intentional connection in small tangible ways often yields accumulative results.
- Know that your best is enough. Everyone has days they’re more or less productive based on internal or external stressors. Be flexible with your expectations of yourself and others on the days that you have more going on as far as challenges. Sometimes instead of gritting your teeth and bearing through something, it’s better to pull back, rest, regroup, and face the challenge at a later time.
- Finally, know when it’s time to seek professional support. In our community, there are so many caring and competent providers that stand willing and ready to help others navigate difficult storms in their lives. Know that we are here for you to act as your support and guide in whatever challenges you’re facing. Together when we all partner to take care of our emotional and mental well-being, we not only create health within ourselves, but in our families, our communities and ultimately our world.
These are suggestions, so don’t feel you must engage in these ways. Engage in things that YOU enjoy, that make you feel happy, hopeful, or comforted. Make your own New Year’s list, check it twice, and seek out the things that help you feel alive and that have meaning and purpose for you.
Some of the things on this list may not seem like much, but small consistent steps make for a great journey over time. In the meantime, it keeps you going, keeps you holding on until things get better.
Things will change in this new year. It’s one of life’s few guarantees. When change comes, you will be better prepared and ready to embrace what is to come, good or bad.
Whatever this new year brings our way, may it have laughter, light, creativity, ingenuity, and most of all, hope. So, keep making merry, sing and laugh, reconnect with others, and get back to the meaning of the important things in life. May this New Year bring you and your loved one’s peace, love, and hope.
Unity Health offers Behavioral Health services for ages four and older, including counseling, psychiatric care and medication management. Some specific areas of treatment include depression, anxiety, grief, life stressors, trauma and psychosis. Outpatient services are offered at Clarity Health & Wellness in Cabot, Newport, and Searcy. Inpatient services include Courage – Adolescent Behavioral Health for adolescents ages 12 to 17 in Searcy; Compass – Adult Behavioral Health for ages 18 and older in Newport and Searcy; and Clearview – Senior Behavioral Health in Newport and Searcy for those ages 55 and older. For inpatient referrals call toll free (844) 255-8229 or for more information visit www.unity-health.org/services/behavioral-health.