This year, “new year, new you” feels a lot more like “new year, same pandemic.” As COVID-19 drags on, it’s normal to feel stuck and uninspired, and let’s be real, maybe even depressed and anxious.
If making a New Year’s resolution seems impossible, you’re not alone.
“One of the major effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public has been an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression,” says Juan Pablo Zapata, clinical psychology resident in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at UW School of Medicine.
As we all struggle through another year of the pandemic — which is already starting strong with the omicron variant — Zapata is challenging himself and his patients to break out of the pandemic blues by trying something new.
Why try something new?
“Studies suggest that people who engage in a variety of new experiences are more likely to retain positive emotions and minimize negative ones,” says Zapata.
He explains that there is a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area or SN/VTA. It’s the “novelty center” of the brain, which responds to new stimuli. This part of the brain is linked to the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which play large roles in learning and memory.
Doing or seeing something new can activate this system and can trigger dopamine pathways, which makes us feel good and rewarded.
“We have all experienced this at some point or another. Each time you take a leap of faith and try something new, you’re training your brain to remember the positive rewards associated with a new and exciting experience,” says Zapata. “The adrenaline rush, the endorphins, the sense of pride; they’re all stored in your memory banks.”
Think for example, the feeling that you get when you visit a new place, like traveling to a new country or hiking a new trail. The adrenaline rush you feel once you get there (or to the top, for that stunning view) is your reward. It’s your brain releasing dopamine and creating new neural connections.
There’s another element to trying new things that Zapata says is often overlooked: relatability. We have all tried something new at some point, so it’s something we can all relate to and gives us a sense of shared purpose.
“The sense of purpose, connectedness and growth can improve your body’s defense against infection and disease,” says Zapata. “Think about trying something new as your daily dosage of a vaccine booster for mental health.”
What holds us back from trying something new?
Fear. And here’s why.
Fear kicks in when we are in perceived danger. On a primal level, we need fear to prepare our bodies to fight or flee a dangerous situation. This automatic stress response can save us from, for example, an angry bear that we happen upon while walking in the woods.
But why is fear always butting in during less dangerous situations, like trying something we’ve never done before?
“Starting something new isn’t quite the same as say running into a bear on a hike,” says Zapata. “Doing something outside of our routine is almost like swimming against the current. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes downright scary. When it comes down to it, people fear the feeling of fear and this leads to avoidance.”
When you let fear lead and avoid trying something new, you miss the chance to adapt your brain (specifically the amygdala) to the thing you’re afraid of. And you give up that fresh hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good and accomplished.
Zapata acknowledges that it’s not as easy as just getting over your fear, and right now there are legitimate pandemic fears, like catching and spreading COVID-19.
The good news is that there are a number of strategies available to use when trying something new and ways to try new things that are safe during these COVID-19 times.
Ways to incorporate new experiences into your life
If you’re too burnt out for New Year’s resolutions, Zapta suggests taking small steps to retrain your brain and do something new.
Identify your goals and values
Values are what we find meaningful in life. Everyone’s values are different, and they can change over time.
Zapata suggests spending some time getting clear about what drives you.
Consider when you were happiest in the past few months:
- What were you doing?
- What things do you look forward to?
- What were the experiences that made you feel fulfilled?
- What do you want to do more of and less of?
- What do you want your relationships with yourself, partner, family and friends to look like?
These answers will help you pick activities that align with what makes you content and fulfilled, and that gives you a better chance of following through.
Make an achievable plan
The next step is to translate the values and goals you identified into new activities.
“With any new activity, it is important to keep it simple, break it into smaller pieces, do one thing at a time, use visual reminders or alarms, have an accountability partner, schedule activities at times when you are most likely to succeed, use self-compassion, anticipate setbacks, and reinforce and reward new and healthy behavior choices,” says Zapata.
In other words, make it manageable and set yourself up for success by making a plan. Having a plan can help reduce barriers and avoidance (that fear we talked about earlier). For example, if you’re concerned about COVID-19 exposure and your goal was to get out in nature more, you could choose a trail and day that you know will be less crowded.
Here’s how Zapata made his plan to try something new:
- Goals and values: Spending more time with my dog.
- Time frame and commitment: Daily for 30 days.
- Activity: Take him to a new spot to pee each day.
- Accountability: Take a photo at the new location.
Zapata’s plan is manageable and built into his existing routine (taking his dog out for a potty break) but has an element of newness that’s both exciting for him and his pup.
Make fun a priority
“We spend on average of around 3 hours and 15 minutes a day on our phones,” says Zapata. “If we are not intentional about how we spend our time, it easily evaporates.”
And if that screen time is spent doomscrolling, excessively reading bad and upsetting news, it can even increase our fear and stress response.
So, make sure you include activities that are purely for the sake of fun. Start a hobby you’ve always wanted to try, buy a new game, try a new food at your grocery store, or spend time with a good friend.
And, if something’s no longer fun or serving you, then out with the old and in with the new.
Eventually, trying new and different things will turn into a habit, and you’ll feel happier for it.