What good things did you do for yourself in 2021?
This year on Well, we suggested a number of small habits that can make life just a little better. It’s not too late to try them, and pick a few you’d like to continue. Here are nine of our favorites.
Give the best hours of your day to yourself. What time of day do you feel your best? For some people, we may feel most energetic during the first few hours of the morning. For night owls, evening might be our best time of day. Now ask yourself, “Who gets those hours?” Do you spend your best hours checking emails, catching up on work or doing tasks for your family? Try giving that time to yourself instead. Use it to focus on your priorities, rather than someone else’s. You can use that hour or two for anything you want — it might be for a hobby, a project that you feel passionate about, time with your children or even to volunteer and help others. Setting aside your best hours to focus on personal goals and values is the ultimate form of self-care.
Enjoy exercise snacks. Too often we think of exercise as a formal activity we have to do for an hour at the gym each day. But a number of studies show that short bursts of exercise several times a day lead to meaningful gains in fitness and overall health. Just as you might grab a handful of chips or nuts to break the monotony of your day, an exercise “snack” is a quick movement break. Get up and pace when you’re on the phone. Do jumping jacks, lunges, a wall sit or walk the stairs for 20 seconds. My go-to exercise snack is 10 wall push-ups.
Take a gratitude photo. If a gratitude journal isn’t your thing, make a plan to take one photo a day of something special in your life. It can be a cute picture of your dog, a sunset or a delicious meal. Take a moment to study the photo, sit with your feelings of gratitude, and then share it with a friend or post it on social media. When we make an effort to notice our surroundings or show appreciation for the people, places or things that make us happy, it’s called “savoring.” Scientists know that savoring exercises can lead to meaningful gains in overall happiness and well-being.
Print a “feelings” list. Every day when you brush your teeth or make your coffee, ask yourself: How are you, really? Think of a word that describes exactly what you’re feeling. Unsettled? Energetic? Delighted? Frazzled? (Avoid standard answers like “good,” “fine” or “OK.”) This simple labeling activity is surprisingly effective for calming stress and taking the sting out of negative thoughts. Studies show that when we label our feelings, it helps turn off the emotional alarm system in our brain and lowers our stress response. Click the link for a list of words, from the Hoffman Institute, to describe how you’re feeling and put it on your refrigerator or your bathroom. Ask your kids to pick a word from the list every day too. It can be a surprisingly fun family routine.
Do a five-finger meditation. This is an easy way to calm yourself, no matter where you are. Use the index finger of one hand to trace the outline of the opposite hand. As you trace up a finger, breathe in. As you trace down, breathe out. Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand. Now reverse directions and do it again, making sure to inhale as you trace up, and exhale as you trace down. (Click on the link for a simple animation showing how it’s done.) I’ve used this method on airplanes, before getting my Covid vaccine shots and during stressful meetings, and it works every time.
Make it easy: In the scientific study of habit formation, the thing that makes it harder for you to achieve your goal is called friction, which typically comes in three forms — distance, time and effort. The friction-free habits you’ll keep are those that are convenient, happen close to home and don’t take much time or effort. For example, one of my goals this year was to cook more and stop ordering take out or buying expensive grocery-prepared foods. I hated going to the grocery store, and I found it difficult to cook for one person. Then I read a Wirecutter article on the best meal kit delivery services and realized I could make home cooking a lot easier on myself. I started using the Martha Stewart & Marley Spoon meal kits, and it was like having my own personal sous chef. By removing the friction, cooking is now fun, easy and delicious.
Watch the jellyfish. One of the best mindfulness tips I came across this year was from Cord Jefferson, the television writer who thanked his therapist on national television when he won an Emmy Award. Mr. Jefferson told me he struggled with traditional meditation, but he enjoys watching the feed from a web camera showing the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Bookmark the jelly-cam on your phone or laptop browser and get lost in the gentle pulses of the jellyfish for a short mindfulness break during your workday.
Find a health buddy. Choose a friend who shares your health goals and make a plan. Meet each other once or twice a week for a walking date. Or it could be a daily text check-in to see how you’re doing on a diet, or a Zoom call to work together on a decluttering project. Studies show we’re more likely to reach our goals when we bring a friend along for the journey.
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When grief doesn’t go away
Prolonged grief disorder is a syndrome in which people feel stuck in an endless cycle of mourning that can last for years or even decades, severely impairing their daily life, relationships and job performance.
The disorder was recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Symptoms of P.G.D. can include emotional numbness; intense loneliness; avoidance of reminders the person is not there; feeling that life is meaningless; difficulty with reintegration into life; extreme emotional pain, sorrow or anger; a sense of disbelief about the death; and a feeling that a part of oneself has died.
In the immediate aftermath, or “acute” phase of a death, such feelings are considered normal. But when three or more of these symptoms persist nearly every day for a year after the loss in adults, or for six months in children and adolescents, grief counselors say it can be a worrisome sign of prolonged grief disorder.
The disorder, which was previously known as complicated grief and persistent complex bereavement disorder, isn’t new. But before it was listed in the D.S.M. as a condition for further study. Preliminary studies suggest that it affects around 7 percent of those in mourning, though estimates vary. With the coronavirus claiming nearly 800,000 lives so far in the United States alone, grief counselors are concerned about the ongoing fallout. Each Covid death is projected to leave a ring of nine bereaved: That’s roughly seven million grieving parents, children, siblings, grandparents and spouses. And the losses cast a shadow over many more.
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