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New Year’s Resolutions and Mental Health: Friends, Enemies, Frenemies?

Should you make them at all? Probably not the way you have been, particularly if you have a history of disordered eating. But with simple reframing, you can set meaningful goals—without filleting your mental health.
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New Year’s resolutions have become so fraught, one exec started a LinkedIn post about 2023 goals with the words “trigger warning.” She followed it with a smirking emoji, but resolutions based in a “new year, new you” ethos can, for some, warrant a real TW. 

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do things that make you feel good or improve your health—you don’t need to wait for the calendar to flip to January either. But it’s easy to go off the rails when so much of the marketing promises unattainable and unsustainable results—or wraps unhealthy products and services in shiny, happy health messaging.

“I don’t recommend New Year’s resolutions because they’re typically super dogmatic and trigger our perfectionistic tendencies,” says Katherine Metzelaar, R.D., cofounder and CEO of Brave Space Nutrition, which specializes in helping people struggling with disordered eating. “As it relates to dieting or restricting food intake, we know that’s incredibly harmful.”

Instead, says Metzelaar, set intentions that align with your values. What’s the difference? Here’s a food-related example:

Resolution: I want to lose 10 pounds.
Intention: I will try to eat more fruits and vegetables because it’s good for my health.

 With the former, you fail until you see the right number on the scale, which tempts you to make unhealthy choices. With the latter, you can celebrate little successes every day.

Even still, says Metzelaar, be careful. Anytime you’re trying to adopt a healthy food habit, the line between helpful and harmful is Uni-ball Jetstream–pen fine. (It’s the finest pen point, say pen pros—who knew?) 

A good litmus test: “If your resolution is making you feel bad about yourself, it’s not good,” says Eileen Anderson, Ed.D., founding director of the Medicine, Society, and Culture Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

 Want to give it a try? Here are six ways to get started.

 Think Small

Focus on tiny tweaks, not radical changes, says Danielle Carney, LMHC, a mental health counselor and creator of Full Bloom Therapy and Wellness, online therapy available in Florida and South Carolina. The latter, she says, set you up for disappointment and self-criticism because they’re not sustainable.

“There is a difference between making conscious shifts toward growth and feeling like your worth depends on those shifts,” she says. “Ask yourself what would move you 1 percent closer to your goal. Start there!” Or…

Simply Maintain 

You don’t even need to try something new. “Relapse prevention or maintenance of a current behavior is a fabulous goal for the new year,” says John C. Norcross, Ph.D., distinguished professor and chair of psychology at the University of Scranton who has conducted multiple studies on resolutions. “My personal resolution this year is to just keep exercising the same number of times a week as I have been,” he says.

Surround Yourself

“There’s so much power in community when it comes to making positive changes,” says Dr. Anderson. “If disordered eating is something you’re struggling with, make a list of people you can text or call if you start feeling down or tempted to engage in unhealthy behaviors.”

Connecting with others to make positive changes in the community is, after all, how New Year’s resolutions started in the first place.

Focus on Health, Not Size

For patients who have eating disorders, “I try to correlate the health metrics that I can measure with the quality of their eating, not their weight,” says Elena A. Christofides, M.D., an endocrinologist in Columbus, Ohio. 

She looks at changes in cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, GI issues, menstrual complaints, and physical ailments like joint issues. “I make it very clear that these are the benchmarks we use to determine progress and health.”

Go Glass Half Full

Think about how your intention will enrich your life, not rob from it. “Use positive and affirmative words,” says Dr. Norcross, author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. Research shows that approach-oriented goals are slightly more effective than avoidance-oriented ones. An example:

Think: I want to improve my financial self-sufficiency.
Not: I need to save more money.

This less-negative thinking applies in another way. Some people who have an eating disorder, says Chantal Gil, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and disordered eating specialist with Duke Health, may set New Year’s goals related to recovery, such as to never binge again. But this can have a negative impact on mental health

“We are not robots. You can’t just press a button and be done with behaviors,” she says. “Behaviors are there for a reason, and sometimes we’re not in total control of them.” Since recovery isn’t always linear, what’s healthier is to be gentle and self-compassionate if or when setbacks do happen, and then recommit to moving forward instead of giving up. 

Let It Take the Time It Takes

Meaningful change takes more than the oft-cited 21 days you see in many new year’s marketing campaigns. (“Not good science,” says Dr. Norcross.)

“You can feel reasonably comfortable that a new habit will stick once you approach two or three months,” he says. “The urges to quit decrease quite rapidly, and new pathways for the behavior form in the brain. We tell people to stick with it for 90 days.”

If you’re struggling to find ways to keep up with health goals long-term, it can be helpful to talk to a healthcare provider for sustainable strategies, says Sarah-Ashley Robbins, M.D., a family medicine doctor at the Gaudiani Clinic, which gives medical care for people with eating disorders. It’s also important, she says, to remember this: You can be healthy at any size. Look for HAES—Healthy at Any Size—pros at the Association for Size Diversity and Health.

Additional reporting by Emily Laurence

Want more ways to make mental health a priority in 2023? Sign up for our newsletter and get Mental in your inbox!

Check Out The Rest of Our Eating Disorder Coverage

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