Taking on a New Year (when the old one wasn’t so great)

Guest post by Susan J. Noonan

noonanThe transition to a new year often brings mixed emotions. For example, some past years are just not worth celebrating or hanging onto. These are the ones with unpleasant, sour experiences that override the good stuff in our lives and do not merit our remembering. The chain of events that occur during those years can be enough to stress out anyone, whether or not they have depression or other forms of mental illness. Best to let the memory fade.

When a series of challenging events happen to you in the course of the same year, you have several choices. You can curl up and withdraw from life, avoiding everyone and all of your responsibilities, or you can stop caring for yourself and hope that maybe others will step in and care for you, helping you with the usual daily activities just to get through the day. These first two are easy to do when depressed as they take less effort on your part. But these choices in turn make you more dependent on others at a time when you are combating depression and trying to regain control of your own life. A third option is that you muster whatever effort you have to manage your current problems and then accept help from others who offer. The real challenge is: how do you find the inner strength and energy to be positive and hopeful about starting a new year after having had such a remarkably negative and challenging past year? It’s a question that many people with depression and bipolar disorder face.

First, try to focus on positive future endeavors and not on your illness, past failures, or negative experiences. Although it is not easy, do not allow the past to predict the future. A difficult 2014 is not necessarily an indication of the same pattern extending into 2015, unless you do nothing to change your approach, thoughts, or behavior. This is where it becomes important to use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercises and challenge the distorted negative thoughts that come so automatically. You can read more on how to do this in my book, Managing Your Depression: What You Can Do to Feel Better, published in 2013 by Johns Hopkins University Press. Second, it is helpful to remember that the calendar year is an arbitrary marker that carries with it little power or true significance. It’s just another day, one that is often used to create a fresh start, with hope for future days. So here is a good place for you to start as well. Join in and use this year as a way to embark on new opportunities and potentially improve your life. Doing this requires hope, the expectation of something better happening tomorrow. If you are depressed and do not have hope, try to borrow it from someone who has hope for you.

In order to face the new year without being overwhelmed, list one or two areas where you realistically believe you can make a change in your life that is important to you. If you are not sure what to focus on, try to identify areas in your life where you are dissatisfied and create a goal around one or two of these. Think about the benefits of making a change and the difficulties you might encounter in rendering it. Find out what you need to do to get going, and identify your support network. Then get started. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you have a greater ability to control your life than you thought possible.

Stay well!

Susan J. Noonan, M.D., M.P.H., is a physician and Certified Peer Specialist who consults at McLean Hospital. She is the author of  Managing Your Depression: What You Can Do to Feel Better, available from JHU Press.