The Key to Successful Mental Health Resolutions
Published on 16th February, 2021 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
Do you wish to be a happier person? Or to be less critical of yourself? Of all these times that you promised yourself to work on your inner peace, when have you successfully acted on your goals? We often resolve to improve our mental health and be in control of our own emotions and anxiety, but frequently fail to take the steps to become the person that we hope to be.
Keeping to your resolutions is no simple task. Research have shown that many New Year resolutions last no longer than a couple of months (Oscarsson et al., 2017). Although there are no statistics for Singapore yet, it is highly likely that we similarly stay on track with our resolutions for the first few months only. That’s hardly encouraging news, given that your goals likely stem from troubles you view as crucial to fix.
What’s worse, mental health goals such as being kinder to yourself or saying ‘no’ to others can be even harder to stick with compared to behavioural goals. This is because mental health goals involve altering your ingrained patterns of thought and your sense of self. Mental health goals also tend to take less priority than behavioural goals, because they are more subjective than concrete goals (E.g. practising assertiveness in order to overcome depression vs saving $1000). Evidently, reducing your vulnerability for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues requires more than simply inking them down on a fancy sheet of paper, and thinking about them. Besides the usual commitment, diligence and dedication necessary for any goal, careful thought and a deep understanding of yourself are also essential in striving towards your mental health resolutions.
To help you plan your mental health journey, here are three points that you should always keep in mind to ensure fruitful mental health growth:
1. Create action plans
Setting a goal without planning how to achieve it only sets yourself up for more failure, greater self-doubt and increased negativity. For example, you might aim to be kinder to yourself, if you notice that you are constantly putting yourself down, or wallowing in self-defeating thoughts. However, what does “kind” mean for you, and how much more kindness do you need to meet this goal? We often fall into the trap of being overly vague with our goals, which introduces many uncertainties and inconsistencies in our mental health journeys (Weinberg, 2010). Thus, break down your goals into measurable and actionable steps to ensure that you will adhere to your resolutions for the foreseeable future.
Create a realistic goal plan by first quantifying your goals into measurable outcomes. You might decide to be kinder to yourself through transforming your negative thoughts into positive self-talk at least five times a day. Next, outline the processes step by step to identify the specific actions you need to take to attain the outcomes you desire. You may recognise that catching your negativity may be difficult for you initially. To tackle this, set progressive subgoals by starting with engaging in one instance of positive self-talk a day, and gradually increasing the quota each week. If you jump right into a new goal without slowly easing into it, you might find yourself failing right at the start, since your goal may likely require demanding changes from you. Remember, your goals should be specific, assessable, and attainable!
2. Schedule time for your goals
Let me tell you about Mary. Mary has decided to practise gratitude this month, and has devised an action plan to write down three things she is grateful for each day. However, she has been very busy with work and family. Thus, she keeps putting off her gratitude action plan as she feels that there is never a good time where she can sit down in a quiet space to reflect on her day, although she knows that her daily writing exercise should take no longer than 10 minutes a day. At the end of the month, she realises that she only did her daily gratitude exercise 3 times out of the 30 days. Sounds familiar? Unfortunately, many people struggle to get started with a new habit, and struggle even more with sustaining this habit over the long run.
Hence, to follow through with the action plans you made for your mental health resolutions, it is crucial to schedule time to work on your goals. Treat these blocked out periods as important engagements, and make a commitment to focus solely on your goals during these periods. Perhaps, you might think that blocking out time is only necessary for time-consuming activities like a trip to the gym. However, even little acts such as complimenting yourself or meditating for 5 minutes a day should have a place in your schedule too. You may be surprised at how easy it can be to overlook and procrastinate on these small goals, since they are the easiest tasks to shift around in your daily schedule.
Do allocate your time wisely and not overstretch yourself by squeezing in more activities on days that are already long and exhausting for you, or at times where you predict that you will have difficulty following through with your new plans. It is common for us to overestimate ourselves, and block in more than we can realistically handle that day. For example, if you are not a morning person, it may be taxing for you to wake up early in the morning to meditate and journal. Instead, consider doing it at night. Proper and realistic allocation of time is vital to creating the right opportunities for you to work towards your goals each day. Your mental health is of utmost importance, and you deserve dedicated time to focus on your thoughts and emotions.
3. Don’t allow slip-ups to discourage
More often than not, your resolution journeys are never as smooth as you hoped. Perhaps, you are just too busy at night to sleep for 8 hours every day. Or maybe, you just can’t think of anything positive to say about yourself recently. When slip-ups happen, don’t beat yourself up. It is common for you to fall behind on your goals occasionally. Take failures in your stride, reflect on what went wrong, and view them as learning opportunities to keep in mind the next time you work on your goals. People who show compassion for themselves are more likely to persist in the face of difficulties, and conquer their goals (Wilson et al., 2019).
Besides reflecting on your progress when slip-ups happen, you should also schedule time to assess your progress at regular intervals in your resolution journey. These regular reviews help you evaluate if your current methods are effective, or if you need more time for a certain segment that is unexpectedly difficult to overcome. After all, your initial action plans are only theoretical, and may not cover all the possible hiccups in practice. If a certain routine is not working well, brainstorm other possibilities. If a goal is progressing better than expected, congratulate yourself and take pride in having done well. Regular rewarding helps encourage yourself and sustains your motivation to persevere till you achieve your desired outcomes (Stellar, 2012).
To summarise, creating action plans, blocking out time and forgiving yourself for slip-ups are three valuable considerations for you to create a good environment and opportunity to work on your mental health resolutions. However, even with these three tips, you may still find your resolution journey exhausting. When you feel stuck with your progress, take a step back to explore these few areas that you can work on to regain motivation to persist with your goals:
Changing your thoughts is never easy, since your patterns of thinking have been deeply carved into your mind through the days, months and years that you have lived. When you feel lethargic or hopeless with the progress of your resolutions, try getting up and moving around. Exercise triggers happy chemicals in your body, which improves your mood and in turn, your motivation. Studies have shown that exercise not only improves your physical health, but provides psychological benefits too (Mikkelsen et al., 2017). Working on our mental health may be too mentally taxing sometimes, and moving is a useful behavioural option that can help you recharge your energy to tackle your resolutions again. If it is inconvenient for you to exercise, opt to do some chores around the house, or even cook yourself a meal. If you don’t have much time, consider walking a stretch of your journey home, or take up a short 10-minute yoga session after work. When engaging in physical activity to improve your mental health, focus on the process and the intent, rather than outcomes such as slimming down or bulking up. Regardless of what you choose to do, the key is just to keep moving!
Learn more about mental health
One of the best ways to sustain a healthy mind is to understand it. We often do not recognise why we think or act in certain ways. When something goes wrong, we tend to put too much blame on ourselves, and easily become stuck in a vicious cycle of hopelessness. Thus, seeking understanding can be a form of much needed enlightenment and insight into our minds, and perhaps a comfort that you are not the only one facing these draining mental conflicts. With a deeper understanding of your own mind and mental health, you will be better able to make sense of your own journey so far, and will be better equipped to create more appropriate and actionable steps to help you achieve the eventual mental state that you desire. There are plenty of resources available that provide basic information about common mental health conditions. You can also choose to talk to mental health professionals to learn more about your specific situation.
Ask for help
If you are struggling to cope with your mental health goals alone, try reaching out to loved ones and medical professionals for support. Many of us often feel timid or ashamed when asking someone for help. However, allowing others to help you is not a sign of weakness, but one of the most compassionate gestures you can do for yourself. Humans are social creatures; we are meant to be connected to each other and live interdependently. You might be surprised at just how many people in your life are willing to support you if you give them a chance.
If you face trouble with sticking to your action timelines, share your goals with friends and family, and ask for accountability. You can create a supportive circle for yourself by engaging with others and assisting one another with your own goal journeys. If support from your loved ones isn’t enough, consider therapy. Therapy can benefit you, whether you are struggling with life adversities, emotional stresses, or mental health conditions. Through working with a mental health professional, you can learn coping strategies to make changes in your own life, and gain further insights into your patterns of thoughts and your various behaviours.
Do remember that your mental health resolutions will always be a work in progress. Even after you have reached your desired outcomes, it is still a conscious choice for you to maintain your mental health gains every single day, and hold yourself accountable to the plans that you have made for yourself. Instead of jumping into sweeping resolutions, take the time to plan out realistic goals to ensure lasting influences on your well-being and happiness. With the right strategies and efforts, you will be able to achieve any mental health resolution you set for yourself.
Ready to plan your mental health resolutions? Check out these articles to get started:
Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.
Stellar, J. (2012). The neurobiology of motivation and reward. Springer Science & Business Media.
Oscarsson, M., Rozental, A., Andersson, G., & Carlbring, P. (2017). New Year's resolutions: A large scale randomized controlled trial. In 9th Swedish Congress on Internet Interventions (SWEsrii), Linköping, Sweden, November 3, 2017 (pp. 11-11).
Weinberg, R. (2010). Making goals effective: A primer for coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 1(2), 57-65.
Wilson, D., Bennett, E. V., Mosewich, A. D., Faulkner, G. E., & Crocker, P. R. (2019). “The zipper effect”: Exploring the interrelationship of mental toughness and self-compassion among Canadian elite women athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 40, 61-70.
Article written with Hazel Chua. Hazel is a final year psychology undergraduate with the National University of Singapore. She aspires to be a clinical psychologist and is currently undergoing internship with ImPossible Psychological Services.