by Julia Getzelman, MD

I’d like to ask an important question: How are you?

It’s such a broad question that you might be tempted to flash a smile and chirp back, “Busy, but great!” even if it’s not true. This time of year is particularly hectic, and while the holidays can be fun and joyful, they can also be stressful, and sometimes depressing. Pretending things are great even when they aren’t can be exhausting, especially if you or a loved one is feeling depressed or anxious. To keep you and your family on track, I’d suggest reflecting on how you are and doing so regularly. This practice helps you notice if you are showing up in the ways you want or lets you decide what changes to make and identify when you need some additional support. In other words, asking yourself this simple question may simplify staying true to your intentions.

Unlike resolutions, intentions give us room to shift, change, and improve without the added pressure of never stumbling or the temptation to say “forget it!” when we find ourselves unable to stick 100% to our plan. Research has shown that the simplest new daily habits (like drinking a glass of water after breakfast) usually take about three weeks to become automatic, while more challenging ones (like daily exercise) may take up to the better part of a year. Knowing that new habits take deliberate practice over time gives us the confidence to keep doing them, over and over again, even when it feels a little weird. Every step we take in support of our new habit will bring us closer to the shifts we desire. 

A Prescription for a Healthy Mind:

There are lots of tools you can use to help you reflect on your well-being and shifts to consider making, but I love Dr. Dan Siegel’s Healthy Mind Platter. It’s the equivalent of a recommended daily diet, but for the mind!

In order to optimize our brains and create well-being, our goal would be to engage in these 7 mental activities every day:

  • Focus Time: When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, we take on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.
  • Play Time: When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, we help make new connections in the brain.
  • Connecting Time: When we connect with other people, ideally in person, and when we take time to appreciate our connection to the natural world around us, we activate and reinforce the brain’s relational circuitry.
  • Physical Time: When we move our bodies, aerobically if medically possible, we strengthen the brain in many ways.
  • Time In: When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, we help to better integrate the brain.
  • Down Time: When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, we help the brain recharge.
  • Sleep Time: When we give the brain the rest it needs, we consolidate learning, recover from the experiences of the day, and quite literally “wash” our brains clean.

I feel my best when I engage in some of each of these activities every day, and I bet you will too.I hope you’ll take me up on the following two-part prescription I’ve created for you:

  • Part 1: Over the next 7 days, write down what you do every day in each of the 7 areas of the Healthy Mind Platter. Help your children do the same. At the end of the week, review your notes and notice the areas that seem out of balance.
  • Part 2: Brainstorm small, concrete changes you can make to help shift the composition of your platter, and write them down. Choose one or more (but not so many it’s overwhelming) of the small changes. Commit to practicing every day. Add more whenever you feel ready!

Rebalancing Your Family’s Platter:

By the end of the 7 days, you will have a pretty good idea of which essential mental activities you and your family may be missing and which you have too much of. You can start thinking about how to rebalance.

With very young children, you can make changes for them, observe how those changes play out over time, and adjust as appropriate. For example, if you notice that your toddler needs more sleep, make bedtime earlier by just 15 minutes for a few days and see what happens. Small changes can have a big impact.

With children who are school age, you can have fun rebalancing the platter together. Try creating an actual snack platter of 7 favorite fruits, vegetables, dips, and spreads. From there, you can explore the 7 daily mental activities as you create your ideal plate and then munch your way through it. Talk about the kinds of things you and your family do that fit within each category, and brainstorm other ideas. Share suggestions about how to rebalance, including small, concrete changes that could help everyone enjoy a healthier mind. Make a list of these changes and intentions (with words, pictures, or a combination!) and put that glorious list in a place where everyone can see and refer to it.

On separate papers, write down anything that’s getting in the way of balancing these 7 activities. Or maybe you have some other habit you’d like to change, too. Write all of it down. These are the things you’ll want to leave behind, or rid yourselves of. (Note: This is a time for self-reflection, not pointing out what you consider to be your or others’ shortcomings.)

The time of the Winter Solstice has been traditionally for letting go of the dark and the things that hold us back, making room for more light and the new intentions that will move us forward. So take that list you and your family just wrote of the things you want to leave behind, and create a little ceremony to let everything on it go. Maybe tear that list into little pieces and light a (small, responsible) fire and burn them. Or maybe you’d rather bury or compost the pieces. Whichever way you choose, consider tying your ceremony to a little candlelight celebration of this year’s Solstice, which for us in San Francisco, will occur on Saturday, December 21 at 8:19 pm.

Rebalanced Living:

Remember that all new habits require a lot of practice over time. Start with a weekly check-in for yourself and with your family to see how everyone’s new habits are taking hold. Think about ways you can encourage each other and help the new habits take root. If any of the old ones are creeping back, explore ways to remove them from your day-to-day. When you feel pulled back into your old ways, don’t ask yourself whether doing that thing “just this once” will “be the end of the world.” Instead, ask if engaging in that old behavior will serve your newly identified intentions. Aim to be honest with and kind to yourself, especially when you mess up, and hang on to how good it feels when you get back on track.

Gratitude in 2020:

As we move forward into the coming year, GetzWell’s 13th!, I want to share my deep gratitude to all of you in the GetzWell community. The choices we each make to support our own health and the health of our children matter not only to us as individuals, but can impact our world and future generations in meaningful ways.

Because gratitude is such a powerful force for good, I am personally committing to a consistent gratitude practice in the coming year, the results of which I intend to share with you over the coming months. My plan is to choose 3 things at the close of each day to recognize and be thankful for.

Want to join me?

All you’ll need is some way to record the things you’re grateful for—just a pen and note pad, a journal, or scraps of paper to write on and then place in a jar. To bring young children into the mix, you can share a round of “rose, bud and thorn” at the end of every day. Finally, going out of your way to express gratitude in words, notes, and thoughtful deeds will strengthen your own gratitude muscles while setting a terrific example for your children.