The dawn of the new year is often a stressful and sorrowful time. Not always immediately; it can take a few weeks to kick in. Consumer debt spikes in January, just as the credit card bills for the "festive season" start to arrive. Then there is also the issue known as "the broken promise effect", when the holiday season fails to live up to one’s expectations, and the return to routine is imminent. By the second week of January, most of us will have trashed our New Year's resolutions. Empty cigarette cartons or junk-food packaging, staring up at us, remind us of our ill-disciplined imperfectability. Worst of all, for those who have lost hope, the new year can represent a warped, self-imposed deadline: "If things are not better by 2022, they never will be".
January can be a challenging time of the year, so we need to go easy on ourselves and one another. It is important to refrain, as best we can, from adding stress to stress. Kindness, of course, should be a year-round thing, but during January, it seems, we need it most. So what can we do to safeguard our wellbeing as we pass through the gateway month into the new year?
One evidence-based approach suggests that we give more attention to what is going on internally and externally in the present moment. What are we feeling? What is here right now? What is this? These are questions that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) instructors ask all the time. MBSR, and its close cousin, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), have proven hugely successful in promoting psychological wellbeing and preventing relapse in depression. But how can being more attentive to present moment experience help?
Attention and curiosity about what is going on, within and without, allow us to notice things. But, unfortunately, we are often stressed without even being aware. It just kind of sneaks up, and the first casualty of stress is kindness. This unkindness takes the form of negative self-talk ("I'm such a loser") or hostility and impatience towards others.
Negative self-talk brings us down, and being horrible to others damages valuable relationships. If we are going to have any chance of reducing our stress, we need to notice that we are stressed in the first place. This is where paying attention helps. Some practitioners even refer to mindfulness interventions as "attention training".
Paying attention to the present also helps us become more aware of pleasant experiences. We might notice the refreshing winter breeze on our skin, the diversity of birdsong or the way the trees dance in the wind. We might also become aware of delightful absences – those unpleasant things that are not here right now: toothache, illness, noxious smells, lockdown.
Such awareness frequently leads to gratitude – a sense of thankfulness for what is. The scientific evidence describing the health benefits of gratitude, physical and mental, has increased rapidly over the past decade. A study published in the neuroscience journal Cerebral Cortex back in 2009 established a link between gratitude and the neurochemical dopamine, also known as the "Kardashian molecule" or the pleasure hormone. Subsequent studies have found that just pondering the question "What am I grateful for?" increases dopamine and serotonin, even if an answer is not forthcoming.
Simply paying attention to present moment experience helps us notice when we are stressed or becoming stressed. It also helps reopen our eyes and hearts to the many uplifting gifts of existence.
This awareness is the mother of choice. If we know that we are stressed, we can perhaps choose to do something about it. However, the problem here is that we often unthinkingly rush to "fix" things, chase them away, or avoid them altogether. This is habitual stress reactivity rather than a mindful stress response.
Eight times out of 10, stress reactivity makes things worse or at least prolongs the distress. What is called for is the ability to simply let unpleasant feelings such as anger, sadness or anxiety run their course. MBSR instructors talk about acceptance and "letting be". I like the Arabic word “sabr” – usually translated as “patience”. To be clear, though, this "letting be" is not a form of cowardly resignation. It is more like allowing the dust to settle, so we can see clearly before mindfully choosing a course of action. This approach usually results in wiser, more compassionate choices.
Perhaps more than any other month, January is when we need to be especially compassionate towards ourselves and others. For some people, the new year can be a time of extreme psychological distress. There is a spike in suicide in January in many nations, especially on and around New Year's Day. For example, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders explored suicide data in England over a 15-year period, finding a consistent spike for January. Similar data are reported in other nations, such as Australia, Mexico and the US.
Let 2022 be the year of kindness. And if we can't be kind, let's at least be curious about why not?