Lisa Kath

Q: 2020 was the Worst! Will 2021 Be Better?

Lisa Kath, associate professor of industrial-organization psychology, answers.

As told to Padma Nagappan

January 22, 2021


Hopefully! If we take it one day at a time. 2020 was hard. We used to say train wreck, but kids now refer to it as a dumpster fire. All our routines have been reinvented as enormous changes happened with the coronavirus pandemic. Add to that social unrest and political divisiveness, and life can feel out of control. When things feel out of control, it can cause stress.
Our research shows stressors do not necessarily lead to negative outcomes, and having a support network and some sense of control does reduce stress. Here are some tips for handling stress: Identify the source of stress (harder than it sounds), such as a heavy workload, then try to do something to address that directly. You can also work to alleviate the symptoms — with therapy or deep breathing techniques — which may not fix things but will make it manageable.
Another technique is to change how we respond to stressors — mindfulness training, and reframing a stressor and putting a positive spin on it can help.
Reframing 2020 positively is beneficial: the world has slowed down, some folks have gotten more time with family, learned how to meet challenges and grow. But we can’t ignore the dark side: pressures of juggling work and family, losses, fear. It’s OK and quite normal to feel negative emotions. Just acknowledging and naming emotions, and writing them down can be helpful. If you try to run away from it, that actually gives it more power. So take the time to feel it and process it.
When a day starts out badly, people want to write off the whole day or week. Our brains are designed to identify patterns. So when two bad things happen in a row, we tend to think it’s all going to go south. But we are basing this on very little data, and focusing too much on the negative. Just knowing this about ourselves is a start. Do a mood check.
If 2021 starts out challenging, don’t write off January or the whole year. Honor where you are, and start from there. Set tiny goals, give yourself grace when you falter, celebrate every small step. This is how we build resilience.