Doable New Year's Resolutions for a Happy Brain

Improve your mental health in 2020.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

 Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I gave up on New Year's Resolutions of the normal sort a while back... mostly because I never get around to fulfilling them. I'm an ordinary person with ordinary willpower. The catch is that I often sit with people coaching them on how to change and maintain new lifestyles. While sometimes big changes are manageable, it's more often little tweaks that are easy to do and follow-through on, and that's a lesson I don't always apply to myself. So in that vein, here are some doable, specific resolutions for a healthier brain in 2020:

1. Eat less highly processed food.

Yes, good food is good for the brain, and the details aren't as important as avoiding empty calories and anti-nutrients. How does one do this when cheap yummy processed food is available at every corner (and on the counter of every workplace, church, and school)? My first suggestion is to start with one meal to change from more processed to less processed. Consuming that chai latte with extra syrup and fat-free creamer every morning? Switch it out for plain chai or black tea, and if you can't swing making breakfast, try hard-boiled eggs from the fridge, plant-based bars, or smoked salmon. Steel-cut oats reheat well if you cook up a batch on Sunday. Leftover dinner is also an option. If it's lunch, a salad is usually a good choice, but the dressing often has the most questionable ingredients. We have a bottle of good olive oil at the office. Add a dash of vinegar and voila. 

2. Sleep well. 

The cascade of chemicals and hormones dancing around the body and brain that lead to healthy, functional circadian rhythms can be easily disrupted by modern life. But if I had to tell adults one thing to avoid for a better night's sleep, it's alcohol after 7 p.m. or so. A nightcap can certainly put you to bed, but you wake up as the alcohol bounces out of your system in the middle of the night. After sleeping too hard, you sleep too light and wake up grumpy and with a headache in the morning, even if it's just a glass or two of the hard stuff. Start with work nights if moderate drinking most days is a normal thing for you and you have sleep troubles. If you don't want to even try this experiment, then consider that drinking may be a problem for you and think about getting treatment. Do not stop drinking cold turkey if you are a daily, heavy drinker... get some medical help.

3. Be kind to yourself and let go of the guilt.

In my experience, it's the people who feel guilty who probably don't need to, and the people who don't who probably should. We all make mistakes. We've all been jerks, or unwise, or even cruel. Even those who made amends at the time carry guilt forward. We're only human. New Year's Eve is an arbitrary door, but one we can open to start fresh every single year. Let the self-flagellation of the past rest behind you once you close the door to 2019. If you need to and it isn't in service of your own ego, send an apology. If your secret shame is best kept with you for everyone concerned, undo indirectly by donating money or time to a cause you believe in.

4. Declutter... something.

Whether it's toxic relationships or messy drawers, don't feel overwhelmed. Take it in small, manageable bits. There's a good book called Unf**k Your Habitat that is helpful for those with chronic medical issues. Even cleaning out a single drawer or unfriending/muting that one horrendous irritant on social media will lift some weight from your shoulders. 

5. You made it to 2020!

Congrats! Sometimes that one day at a time thing is a very difficult slog. Despite amazing things like indoor plumbing, hot water, and flying, we're not blissfully happy and motivated all the time. Most of us need a lot of downtime and rest to feel good and recover from the commute, the work or school environment, or whatever else is going on with health, family, and the world. Make sure somewhere in your schedule you have carved out something for you that you actually like to do (no, that's not usually the elliptical machine ;p). I love reading fiction (and not great fiction either), so I have a kindle unlimited subscription so I can read all I want. Maybe you never solved the Rubik's cube when you were a kid, well, now you can. Not every hobby has to cost a lot of money or even take a ton of time.

I hope these suggestions are helpful to think about minor changes that can make a big difference for a happier life in the coming year.

Copyright Emily Deans MD.