After the Christmas excess, it’s easy to assume that January has to be about denying ourselves something, limiting or even punishing ourselves in some way. But I’d encourage you not to start the year on such a negative note.
Don’t give something up for New Year: commit to doing something, instead. There’s a great deal to be said for reframing the way we view resolutions and indeed all changes we want to make in our lives.
As a psychiatrist, I often encourage patients to rethink the way they view their lifestyle changes — choosing to do something rather than not to. So it’s better to choose to eat healthily than it is to say you’re going to deny yourself chocolate.
I think this is important, because, let’s be honest, 2021 didn’t turn out quite how most of us hoped. Thanks to the restrictions and the emergence of the new strain of Covid, the past year has been stressful, strange and uncertain. Let’s give ourselves a break this New Year.
Dr Max Pemberton recommends not giving something up for New Year, as he reveals three things to try that could revitalise your mental health in 2022 (file image)
Of course, I wouldn’t discourage someone from giving up smoking, or from dieting if they are overweight, but why not ensure that your new year starts by embracing the positive rather than the negative; that it focuses on giving us something that might bring us joy rather than depriving us. Here are three things to try that could revitalise your mental health in 2022:
Or Mandarin. Or Russian . . . I’m a fan of this because the evidence is startling. Learning a language stimulates specific parts of the brain, encourages synapse growth and there’s some evidence it can even slow cognitive decline. Research suggests it even reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. Speaking a foreign language engages an extensive neural network that increases brain flexibility, fuels creativity, and improves thinking. There’s also evidence it helps those suffering depression and anxiety. I often recommend this to patients because it’s a very social thing to do — in language classes people of all ages, social groups, backgrounds and so on come together with one shared interest. Learning a foreign language broadens your horizons and creates a feeling of belonging.
It’s heartbreaking to think there are an estimated 1.2 million older people who report feeling chronically lonely. What a sad indictment of society.
What better resolution for the New Year could we all have than to become a befriender to a lonely older person? Age UK branches across Britain offer befriending services, including ones you can do over the phone.
I did this for several years while at medical school and it was incredibly rewarding. In my first year, a colleague and I signed up to a befriending charity and we were allocated a very elderly woman, Mrs Richards. She was a widow with no children and was entirely alone, her sister having died some years before. It soon transpired that she also had terminal cancer. Looking back, I wonder what she made of two gangly 18-year-olds descending on her small flat once a week. We must have been quite a bore sometimes for her to listen to as we moaned about exams.
Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) claims novels have the power to transform the way we think, feel and experience the world, enriching us and giving us a deeper understand of ourselves and others
But she also listened and gave sage advice, made us tea and at the end of our visit, would give us bags crammed with goodies. She was convinced we didn’t eat enough and would try to feed us up. While we had started befriending with the intention of helping someone else, Mrs Richards taught us so much about life — and indeed death. She was the first person I watched die and the stoic way she approached her demise was extraordinary. In fact, she had such a profound impact on my friend that he vowed to become a specialist for older people, and over 20 years later he is now a consultant in community geriatrics. And of course that’s the magic of befriending — it’s a two-way street.
What might start off as an act of altruism rarely ends that way. The wonderful thing about the gift of friendship is that both the giver and the receiver get to share the present.
Read the works of D. H. Lawrence
I’m a great believer in the therapeutic power of novels. They transport us to other worlds, give us insight into other people’s minds and ways of thinking and, if well-written, expand our vocabulary and language skills. They have the power to transform the way we think, feel and experience the world, enriching us and giving us a deeper understand of ourselves and others. They are also a great way to get a break from your life.
Newsreader Huw Edwards has told how boxing helped him recover from depression. I have mixed feelings about the sport: while the aim is to induce neurological damage by knocking someone out, I’ve seen how it can combat mental health problems, particularly among young men.
There’s evidence that people who read novels regularly experience a wealth of physical and mental benefits.
Research shows that reading a novel for as little as six minutes a day can lower stress levels by 60 per cent by reducing your heart rate and easing your muscle tension.
I’m a particular fan of embracing one novelist and reading all their works, one after another. One year I read all of D. H. Lawrence. This year I’m going to tackle Charles Dickens. The great novelists explore universal truths — things that speak to fundamental aspects of being human, irrespective of where someone lives or their circumstances, which can help when you yourself are confronted with adversity. Not that we’re going to have any of that in 2022!
…apart from smoking, Nicole
Dr Max said Nicole Kidman (pictured) is playing a dangerous game by taking up smoking in a bid to get the deep voice needed to portray actress Lucille Ball in new film Being The Ricardos
Actress Nicole Kidman has admitted in an interview that she took up smoking in a bid to get the deep voice needed to portray actress Lucille Ball in new film Being The Ricardos. There’s part of me that wants to commend her for going to such lengths for the sake of her art. But as a former smoker myself, she’s playing a dangerous game. Nicotine is incredibly addictive and it’s all too easy to slip into its vice-like grip. But she is right about the effects it has on someone’s voice. As well as a host of other effects on the body, smoking can affect its tone, quality and pitch. This is because the vocal cords are the ‘gateway’ to the lungs and therefore as you inhale smoke, it passes the vocal cords causing damage and swelling to the delicate tissue that they are composed of. Just in case you were tempted to follow suit!
- Was your Christmas a disaster? If so, don’t worry. While I understand parents are often desperate to make sure their children have magical memories, a recent study found one in five find their festive stress levels negatively affect their child’s enjoyment of the holiday season. A further one in four admitted they set overly idealistic expectations for Christmas, with twice as many mothers stressed by the preparations as fathers.
But really, they should relax. As one elderly patient once said to me, no one remembers the Christmases where everything goes right.
The Christmas when the turkey gets burned and you all have to decamp to a Little Chef on junction 16 off the M6, they’re the ones that we look back and laugh about. So, if yours went horribly wrong, try not to worry.
Dr Max prescribes…
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Dr Max revealed he recently finished watching the latest series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
I’ve just finished watching the latest series of this Netflix show. The premise doesn’t sound promising for a comedy — fictional Kimmy was held hostage in an underground bunker along with three other women for 15 years. Finally released, the show charts her trying to get her life back. Written by comedian Tina Fey, it’s hilarious but also explores complex subjects relating to psychology, such as the idea that you can’t change what’s happened to you, only how you react to it. It’s just what the doctor ordered.