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Breathe Into the New Year

Guess what, guys? We made it! We have finally put 2020 behind us and are now looking forward to 2021. I, for one, am hopeful. I am expecting great things from this year.

Admittedly, I have not always had an optimistic outlook. I used to like to say that I was a natural-born cynic. And while I still have cynical tendencies, I have learned strategies over this last challenging year that have really helped me look at things more positively and helped me deal with stress.

It all starts with mindfulness. While this has really become a bit of a buzzword in recent times, the foundations of mindfulness are solid and based on research.  At its most basic, mindfulness refers to the practice of being in the moment. Sounds simple, right? Well, if your mental habits are as ingrained as mine were, it takes a lot of practice to be in the moment.

I am an overthinker. A brooder. A ruminator. As far back as I can remember, I have thought about things before I did them, then thought about them again for a long time afterwards. Especially if it was something I felt I had not done right or that did not go well. I would be driving or trying to sleep and thoughts, regrets, and recriminations would just be spinning, spinning, spinning endlessly in my head.

A dock and pier at Seahorse Key.

Spending time in a peaceful place without outside distractions is a great way to refresh and recharge. (Photo source: Marisol Amador, UF/IFAS)

This was just who I was. I had learned to live with it. I always knew that if something important was coming up, like an exam or a presentation, I would obsess about it beforehand to the point where I would lose sleep. If something happened that did not go well, I would fixate on it for days afterward.

It was stressful, but I dealt with it. And then 2020 happened.

Suddenly, I could not deal with it anymore. My obsessive ruminations and self-recriminations were suddenly unmanageable in the midst of the social isolation and worries brought on by the strains of a global pandemic.

I needed to find a way to change my outlook. A way to deal effectively with the overwhelming feelings I was experiencing. I wanted to be more positive. I wanted to stop seeing doom over every horizon. Most of all, I wanted to stop obsessing about everything all the time.

So I started reading about mindfulness. Then I started trying to practice it. I say “trying” because there are still days where I am just not feeling it, where I am just not able to find that quiet space inside myself that I need to tap into to be in the moment. However, I have gotten better at it with practice.

The key is breathing. Focusing on my breath – each inhale and each exhale, one after the other – allows me to feel centered, to relegate my other thoughts to the background. When outside thoughts arise, I have learned how to push them away and concentrate on the moment. And the next one. And so on.

The best part about this practice is how portable it is. No matter where I am, I always have my breath. If I am feeling overwhelmed or angry or sad or frustrated, I can simply take a few moments to concentrate on my breathing, allowing those feelings to just be, and, eventually, they pass, leaving me feeling refreshed.

I encourage all of you to take on 2021 with a mind towards mindfulness. You may be surprised at just how much a few minutes of purposeful breathing each day can improve your overall outlook. It has really changed my life.

For more information about mindfulness, check out the UF/IFAS Extension fact sheet Mindfulness: An Introduction.

UF/IFAS is an Equal Opportunity Institution.