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A Mental Health Expert at the University of Nottingham Explains Why Resolutions Might Not Be the Best Idea This New Year

2 January 22 interview: George White

We hear from mental health expert Paul Crawford, a professor of health humanities at the University of Nottingham, about why this is such a difficult time of the year, and how we can protect our wellbeing this winter…

How damaging can New Year’s resolutions be for people’s mental health?
The start of any year can be difficult, particularly in relation to perfectionism, as we are compelled to think of New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions can underline areas where we think we have failed, lacked, or not made the most of opportunities. I’ve never joined in this socially constructed navel-gazing. It should have a Government health warning as far as I’m concerned, especially for young people! It ties into a drive for perfection, which can be very damaging. Do we need this extra pressure, really? Implicitly, it is all about that dreaded word should. We are prepped to self-talk with phrases such as ‘I should exercise more’, ‘I should lose the weight I put on at Christmas’, ‘I should drink less alcohol’. We have enough to deal with in this life without resolutions.

Is New Year a particularly bad time to be setting ourselves targets?
Well, I’m not saying there is anything wrong in having a bit of a reset, a post-Christmas reboot, but go gently. The short, dark days of winter are a tricky time for this. We can feel a bit low in this period, especially if our bank accounts and social connections have taken a bashing. If necessary, maybe wait until later in the year. Forget that New Year should stuff and go with a ‘new year’ when and where it’s best for you.

Are resolutions ever a good idea?
They’re not always a bad thing in principle. It is important to have goals and objectives in life. We often fare better if we have a sense of purpose. So sometimes they can have that positive angle in providing opportunities to revisit what our goals are. This New Year, instead of the usual focus on dropping a few pounds in body weight, we might be better going on a data diet instead. Let’s reduce our over-exposure to social media and give ourselves a break from striving to be popular.

This New Year, instead of the usual focus on dropping a few pounds in body weight, we might be better going on a data diet instead

How has COVID affected people’s mental health?
There’s no doubt that prolonged confinement is exacerbatory to people’s wellbeing. We know our mental health has been eroded significantly as a result of COVID - we’ve all been experiencing various levels of cabin fever. A lack of social interaction is placing a drag on our everyday activities, our sense of self, and our feeling that we’re progressing in a positive way in our lives.

How can we make sure to support those who might be struggling?
The best support we can offer is recognising and being open to talking through other people’s struggles with them. When we suspect others are finding life difficult, let us pin back our ears, and give them the courtesy of listening. A conversational hug may be all that the other person needs. Often, we think of health professional interventions and counselling to deal with mental health challenges - but we can help others through non-professional care and support too.

Paul Crawford is the co-author of Cabin Fever: Surviving Lockdown in the Coronavirus Pandemic (Emerald, 2021).

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