Making positive change happen in 2021

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D.

Dr. Mike

On a societal and global level, COVID-19 has made this year a difficult one in so many ways. Worldwide, close to 1.7 million people have died, and close to 80,000,000 people have become sick with the virus. Statistics on COVID-19 are also imperfect given testing limitations and the lack of consideration of those who may have it but are asymptomatic, so the number of cases is likely higher. And the virus has impacted us all individually in so many profound ways – how we work, how we go to school, how we socialize, how we have fun or vacation, how we celebrate holidays and how we feel. There is no denying that this has been an emotionally exhausting year, and for many, perhaps the worst year ever.

As a psychologist in private practice, the topic of COVID-19 and its impact has come up in my work in various ways with patients all year, with self-care being a main area of concern. Understandably, it is hard to take care of yourself with all of the adjustments and changes we have had to manage, but it is important to try. One approach to improve self-care and wellness is to eliminate something bad in your life and to replace it with something better…and to make that something a habit. 

Research on habit formation has shown that achieving a goal takes practice and repetition, where eventually the goal becomes less important and the new behavior becomes an acquired habit. For example, if you watch too much TV and want to get in shape physically, you may have the goal of going to gym every day, which will probably take great effort initially. However, after consistently going daily for a few months, working out will become automatic or second nature. Is it because you are more in shape? Is it because your spouse tells you that you look better? Is it because you have more energy? Is it because you are two belt holes thinner? Is it because you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment? It is all of those things inasmuch as putting the TV remote down and throwing yourself into something new, created an unfolding process of change.  

So, as we enter 2021, I invite you to think about one thing that you would like to change about yourself and one thing that you plan to do to replace that behavior in the coming year. Here are a few things to consider:

Drinking too much alcohol has become a way to cope with things this past year for many people, so perhaps abstaining from alcohol for a month would be a good goal. Dry January or Sober January has become increasingly popular, and research has shown that there are a lot of health benefits that come with taking a month off from drinking. So, instead of drinking in the evenings or over the weekend this January, think about how you want to enjoy using that time instead. 

For many, taking a break from the news in January might be a good goal. Regardless of your political beliefs, too much CNN or too much Fox News can be emotionally upsetting and tiring. So, instead of getting worked up about the latest “Breaking News” moment, think about how you want to enjoy using that time instead.  

If you find yourself spending too much time on social media or with other forms of technology, taking a break might be the thing to do. So, instead of being preoccupied with screen time, think about how you want to enjoy using that time instead.

Keep in mind that January is only one month, and as you take positive steps forward, you will likely start to feel good about the changes you are making. Your favorite beer or wine or news show, as well as Facebook, video games, YouTube and your smartphone will still be there after January; and, you can return to those things after with a more balanced mindset and with a healthy new habit or two.

I also encourage you to take stock over the holiday season of all that you have to be grateful for and all that you have learned about yourself over the past year. Even in these trying times maintaining optimism and positivity will help you, and those around you, as we wait for life as we knew it to return. With the vaccine on the way, there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, and we have much to be grateful for. 

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He can be reached at 703-723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn.

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