One translation of the Scottish phrase from the Burn’s song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is simply, ‘days gone by’. Reflecting on this year gone by, it is one that I am confident people will not be particularly sad to see out. Of course, there have been positives and joyful life events too, but it has been tough for many and I think it important we acknowledge the struggle.
Last week I was asked to comment on an article for a well known broadsheet newspaper on the ‘January blues’ and how we might manage them. The article writer and I discussed the usual difficulties arising in January and how that can impact on our mental health. The come down the festive period, poor weather, frayed relationships and a bank balance that’s not quite as healthy as we might like. We also spoke of the more unusual challenges facing us, as we head into further lockdown restrictions.
For some of you, this year may have been devastating. You may have lost a loved one, closed your business, endured months of isolation or saw your mental health suffer. I myself lost my Grandad in recent weeks to Covid. The sadness of it was tempered by the fact that he was 95 years old and his was a life well lived. Aptly enough, my ‘Grandad Mac’ often read Burns and was well known for a good sing-song and a dram at new year. This was a time when new year really was a proper Scottish hogmanay. When a ‘first footer’ had to have dark hair and lump of coal in hand, before being allowed across the threshold at ‘the bells’. I have many fond memories of that time in my childhood and the beginning of a new year will always remind me of him.
What I wasn’t fully prepared for, was how his death re-triggered my grief response for my husband. It took me back to an earlier point, when crying, overthinking and feeling either flat or irritable was more prominent. This death forced me, rather unceremoniously, to consider days gone by. With my reflections, came a resurgence of the emotion from the past. It didn’t last as long, but it was present. Put into context, this emotional response made sense. My Gran had died in January 2018. My husband came with me to her funeral and held my hand as I cried for her. Six months later he died too. Now, just two years on, a further family loss. One in which we were unable to say goodbye in the way we would have wished. I hadn’t been able to see him for months and now he was gone. There are many families in the same positon as ours. Relatively often, I see several losses like this back to back with patients in my clinical practice. It serves to compound the emotion and adds a layer of complexity to the grief response.
I think there is a parallel here with what Covid-19 has done to us as a society. It has added a layer of complexity in maintaining our mental wellbeing. It has felt like blow after blow at times. What we can do to maximise wellbeing often sounds so simple when you see it written down or spoken of by someone else. However, it is far harder to follow consistently. Doing this within a pandemic is harder still. It seems to me that this year has chipped away at our motivation and left us flat. Yes, we can try to focus on what we can control. Yes, we can try to maintain structure and routine. I am an advocate for all of that. But sometimes we need to do just what we can. No more, no less.
As I thought about it further, it struck me that rather than an exhaustive list, it might be helpful to identify just one thing you could do that would make everything easier in relation to your mental health. What I came up with was this. Cultivate flexibility. The degree of flexibility you can draw on is such a core strength when dealing with any challenges in life. Flexibility to pivot when life is turned upside down. Flexibility in thought. Flexibility in your behavioural response to events. The more adaptable and open to change you can be, the more likely you can adjust quickly and overcome adversity, whatever form it takes. I talk about this with patients regularly. If you can find space to cultivate a degree of flexibility in your life, I guarantee it will be worthwhile.
Finally, to all of you reflecting on your year gone by. You have survived it. It’s enough. Your motivation might be lacking and you might feel cheated out of a whole year. That would be understandable. So perhaps then, this new year is not one for unrealistic expectations or quickly forgotten resolutions. Perhaps instead, this year is one to be approached openly, but with a desire to keep it simple for Auld Lang Syne.