What a year 2020 has been! I don't want to use the word unprecedented (because its overuse has become quite irritating), but 2020 has certainly challenged us all. So as we come to the end of this year, it's a good time for us to recalibrate.
There are many strategies we can use to recalibrate - but to keep things simple and not overwhelm our COVID-19-fatigued brains, here are four.
Yes, I know this is an obvious one. If we could measure our average breathing rate (which is closely linked to our heart rate) in 2020, I suspect it would have been elevated. Our breathing rate is closely linked to our body's fight, flight or freeze system - that is, when our breathing rate is low and resting, we feel safe and can enjoy being in our world without constantly scanning for danger. When our breathing rate is elevated, our brain senses there is danger and is on the lookout for threats around us. We also produce hormones including adrenaline and cortisol when our breathing rate is elevated in anticipation of having to flee or react. As helpful as this response is when we have to escape a dangerous situation, it is not helpful in the long term when there is no immediate threat.
For the tech-savvy, many breathing apps are available. If you want to keep things simple, though, you can take five deep breaths, or count as you breathe (four seconds in, four seconds out), or close your eyes and imagine the cool, clean air filling your lungs and the warm air being exhaled. Some people like to visualise colours when they breathe - blue, fresh air coming in, and orange, warm air coming out.
Is there anything you have taken on this year that might be useful to remove now? An example that immediately comes to my mind is "doom scrolling". This is a habit that I developed in 2020. Essentially, this practice is when we scroll on our devices looking for negative news. At the height of the pandemic, this was associated with the daily death toll, job losses, lack of incubators and the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had (and sadly continues to have) on our world. When we look at this type of media, adrenalin fills our body because, again, our brain is signalling to us that the world is dangerous. This habit may be useful in the short term - particularly when we need to monitor the news to look after our health and wellbeing - but again, it's not great over the long term. It may be time to start reducing or regulating your use of social media. It is certainly something I am working on.
Maybe this habit wasn't one you acquired, so what new not-so-helpful habit did you commence in 2020? Don't get me wrong, I am not demonising the practices we may have developed to help us get through such a tough year - but their usefulness may now have expired. It could be that you increased your alcohol intake, your comfort food habits, developed a baking addiction or binge-watched too many episodes of your favourite series. Alternatively, you may have removed things like a gym membership, walking the dog or hobbies or other activities that are good for physical and psychological wellbeing.
Another word that comes to mind concerning 2020 is disappointment. We were disappointed that the things we were looking forward to were postponed or cancelled. This may have been an overseas trip we had been planning for many years, a special celebration - maybe an anniversary, wedding, graduation, reunion, concert, 50-kilometre run, performance or significant birthday. Some people missed out on seeing their newborn grandchild or attending a funeral of a dearly loved family member or friend. We have experienced both individual and collective grief and loss in 2020.
As we acknowledge those challenging situations and the associated emotions of loss and grief, we can also reflect on our individual and collective resilience. What have we learnt about ourselves and each other in 2020? How have we grown? What new skills have we developed? Yes, most of us are experiencing Zoom fatigue, but what a useful tool it has been. I had never used telehealth until this year, and once I adjusted to using it, I found it very useful. Now may be a good time to reflect on whether 2020 provided you with a new insight or helped you reconsider what is important in your life.
At the end of this year, perhaps more than any other, it may be a good time to reconnect. A good starting point may be to reconnect with yourself. You could reconnect with your values, beliefs and things that link to your identity or sense of self. You might do this by reconnecting with your body through exercise, meditation, massage or a haircut. You might find now is the time to get back into your hobbies that have lapsed - playing an instrument, painting, dancing, knitting, or building Lego. Another favourite is reconnecting with nature - go for a bushwalk, plant something in your garden, swim in the ocean, listen to birds, smell the roses or go to the countryside. Whatever brings you a sense of joy and calm. These activities also help us to regulate our alarm system and reduce the stress hormones in our body.
We are social creatures and many of us love to reconnect with others. It may be a while before we can all reconnect face-to-face with those we love due to border restrictions, expensive flights and other barriers, and we will have to continue FaceTiming with those people in our lives for a while. For now, it is about reconnecting with those in our immediate zone of proximity. Maybe you are coming back into the office, classroom,or local shops, or you are noticing your neighbours starting to leave their homes. It might be smiling and waving, or having a socially distanced chat. You might even meet with a friend or family member for a walk or coffee - whatever we can do to reconnect with others. Maybe you could intentionally connect with someone who may not be able to reconnect with their loved ones - particularly at this time of year.
It is important to recalibrate - to breathe, remove, reflect and reconnect in preparation for 2021. We have certainly developed strength, determination, resilience and patience in 2020, and will take those traits with us into the new year.
- Dr Jo Lane is a clinical psychologist and research fellow at the Research School of Population Health at the Australian National University.