Kicking off the New Year With Intent – 10 Steps to Improve Your Mind

Many of us have had to deal with anxiety, stress, and depression especially over the past year. The uncertainty of today’s environment is enough to make us crawl under a rock and hope that all this nonsense will go away. The thoughts that race in our head as we worry about health, relationships, and finances can often put us in a downward spiral that makes us feel even more worried and stressed out. The good news is that there are evidence-based ways to reduce these anxieties and manage our mental health to improve our well-being. Everyone benefits from different strategies so it’s not a “one size fits all” approach – what works for your friend may be a total dud for you. It’s important to try as many strategies as possible to see which ones are optimal. And remember, none of these approaches will work if it’s not something you’ll stick to and create a habit around. So read on and try adopting some of these approaches in the new year.

1. Breathing

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a collection of neurons that influence the function of many different organs in our body including heart, lungs and stomach. Within the ANS, there are two subsystems that have mostly opposing effects. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated during stress, anxiety and dangerous situations. But when we are at rest, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for relaxation. Using breathing exercises is one of the easiest ways to activate the parasympathic system. Take a few minutes to try out the 4-7-8 breathing technique taught by Dr. Andrew Weil to naturally tranquilize your mind.

Also, there is The Breathing App you can download on the App Store. This app includes timers and sounds to breathe with – along with an inflating/deflating ball to match breathing rhythm. It’s pretty cool.

2. Diet

Try adding these tryptophan (protein building block) rich foods to boost levels of serotonin which will improve your mood and help reduce anxiety:

  • Pumpkins seeds
  • Chicken and turkey breast, beef liver
  • Vegetables like spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, eggplant
  • Fruits like apples, berries, peaches, pineapple and bananas

A cup-a-joe in the morning is an invigorating way to start the day but for some, caffeine can be overly stimulating and lead to increased anxiety and mood swings. So you may want to stick to herbal tea, decaf or dandelion coffee if you don’t react well to caffeine.

Check out these guidelines for decaf coffee selection. Here’s my favorite dandelion blend as a coffee substitute:

3. Exercise

Get your daily exercise – it will release those happy endorphins to keep your mind positive. A hike, a run, yoga or any kind of workout is good as long as you stick with it. Even a brisk 20-minute walk around the block to kick off your day on the right footing would be great. It may be hard to get started on your own so keep it social and exercise with a buddy – ask your buddy to help you commit to a regular schedule so you are less likely to head back to the couch.

4. Journaling

How about writing in your journal before bed to record your thoughts, emotions, challenges and accomplisments for the day? It will help you increase awareness about yourself and reflect on what happened. We often go through the day experiencing many emotions but never take time to take stock of it and why we felt that way. By identifying and labeling your emotional state and writing it down, you can learn and document what steps to take to prevent or minimize any negative thoughts.

5. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that is a great way to gain control of your busy and stressed out mind. This technique will help reduce the feeling of being out of control and ruminating on negative and busy thoughts. Studies have shown how it can help you make it through your busy day in a calm and productive manner. Mindfulness often involves meditation but doesn’t necessarily have to as it is a combination of being present and accepting who you are.

How about this 7 minute mindfulness practice to calm your body and mind and allow stress and fearful emotions to dissipate?

Here are some other meditation tips:

  • Set up visual reminders to create a conducive zone for meditation. It may be a plant, set of beads, sound bowls, or trinkets to help set the mood.
  • Start with a short practice even for 5 minutes and gradually work up from there. You can set a timer for 5, 8 or 10 minutes or try this short meditation to start your day.
  • If you have trouble settling in to meditate, take a moment to question why you are resisting this opportunity for growth? Remind yourself of the intention for meditation. It’s also important to know that not thinking isn’t realistic. Think of thoughts as filling your bathtub, but your drain is open so as it fills, it flows out. Remember that you are not your thoughts – they are just draining through the bathtub. You can focus on your breath or say a positive affirmation to remain in the present moment. 

6. Music/Binaural Beats

Music and sounds are medicine for our mind. This study showed that listening to calming music after a stressful event helped reduce cortisol levels in subjects studied. Cortisol is what our body produces in response to a stressful or anxious situation which is good but when we have too much, it prevents our body from relaxation and inhibits sleep. Here’s some Zen music to help create a peaceful ambience to soothe your mind.

How about binaural beats to increase the energy vibration in your body? Binaural beats are basically an auditory illusion: if you are listening to a sound in your left ear that’s at a frequency of 132 Hz and in your right ear, you’re listening to a frequency of 121 Hz, your brain processes the difference and hears a tone of 11 Hz. It is believed that binaural beats create the frequency needed for your brain to create the same waves experienced during a meditation practice. Want to fall into a meditative state with these beats to improve your mood? Here’s one to try – make sure you have headphone/earbuds in both ears.

7. Positive Affirmations

How about some affirmations for a healthy mindset? Research has shown that practicing positive affirmations helps lower stress and your brain begins to sense that the positive outcomes have already occurred. This also allows you to become aware of your daily thoughts and reduces the chances of negative thinking slithering back into your life. You can create your own or here’s a short 5 minute practice to try.

8. Sleep

Did you know that a lack of sleep can contribute to anxiety and depression? So sleep in! Our society has glamorized the caffeinated, sleep-deprived culture to push ourselves to the limit. But our bodies need sleep to heal and repair our body and mind. Aim to get to bed 30 minutes earlier until you’ve established a habit of getting more shut-eye.

9. Stay Positive and Stop Ruminating

People with anxiety and depression tend to focus on the negative things in their life and ruminate on all things that are wrong – this feeds a continuous cycle of negativity, rumination and more anxiety, depression, etc.  Someone once said, “If you ruminate or worry about something you cannot change, you suffer twice. Why put yourself through that?” This study showed that distracting your attention from negative thoughts to positive and neutral ones helped reduce anxiety. And do you notice how you tend to ruminate when your mind has nothing else to focus on? This happens to me all the time – I’ll worry about an issue (i.e. health, car accident, kid’s problem) more than I should until my mind turns to something else – it could be as mundane as taking the dogs to the vet or paying my bills but I feel a lot better from having distracted my mind and accomplished a task or resolved a simple problem. 

10. Turn off the News, Social Media, and Disconnect

Avoid the news as much as possible as fearmongering keeps people glued to the TV which in turn sells more advertising for the networks. You can ask a friend or family about the latest events if necessary – otherwise, just skip it. The same goes for social media – it can promote negative experiences such as feeling inadequate about your life compared to your friends. Since most people tend to share the good highlights of their life rather than the bad ones, it’s easy to feel envious and dissatisfied with oneself. If you have a fear of missing out (FOMO) and feel like others are having more fun or living a better life than you are, try disconnecting for a week/month and see how much better you feel. I get my news and updates from frequent phone calls and texts with family and friends – it’s private and I enjoy the personal connection with them even though it is virtual.

Hope these tips help put you in a positive frame of mind, despite the chaos and uncertainty in today’s world!

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