We’re over a month into 2022. Many people may be enjoying the new year and the promise of a fresh start. But for people with anxiety disorder, this time of year can also ramp up stress.
“Often the new year is a time of reflection for people, which can come along with a lot of self-doubt and criticism. People might worry about their progress toward their life goals,” says Nicholas Crimarco, PhD, a psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety Related Disorders in Westchester, New York.
These feelings of anxiety can sometimes spiral into worry traps, which the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center defines as “anticipating problems, focusing on a negative event, and posing ‘what if’ questions,” to an excessive degree.
For people who have an anxiety disorder, these worry traps can turn into a “merry-go-round of doom,” says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.
“You’re just going over and over things, but you’re not actually solving any problems,” Dr. Gallagher says.
So how can you avoid getting stuck in this cycle? Here are three new year–related worry traps to avoid, as well as ways to keep your anxiety at bay all year round, according to experts.
1. Fearing Failure in the New Year
Dr. Crimarco says that a common worry trap for people who have an anxiety disorder might be fear of failure, especially related to unrealistic expectations we may place on ourselves or others. This can be especially common with New Year’s resolutions, he adds.
“The best way to manage this anxiety is to ask ourselves what is important to us and then set a realistic goal for the new year,” Crimarco says. “It is also important to practice self-compassion when we are not able to achieve those goals due to circumstances outside of our control.”
For instance, someone who did little to no exercise last year might set out to exercise every day in the new year. While regular exercise is good for you, doing too much too soon can stress you out both mentally and physically. And the fact that unrealistic goals are hard to stick to could ramp up your stress levels even more.
When it comes to healthy goal setting for the new year, setting small, attainable goals for yourself or breaking up bigger goals into smaller chunks can boost your confidence and give you the motivation to complete bigger tasks, says Gallagher.
So instead of immediately setting out to exercise every day of the week, it might be more manageable to start exercising a couple days each week. And once you feel like you can handle this, you could gradually increase the frequency and duration of your workouts.
2. Dwelling on Perceived Past Year’s Shortcomings
The new year may also bring up regrets or feelings of not having completed what you had set out to do in the previous year.
“Maybe you’re looking back and feeling like [you] didn’t accomplish what [you] wanted to up to this point,” Gallagher says. “Regret is only helpful if it changes our behavior. If there’s something that you want to do, don’t get stuck in the past. Time only moves in one direction, and that’s forward.”
Instead of dwelling on what feels like missed opportunities from last year, Gallagher recommends writing down the things you would like to do moving forward, as well as any emotions associated with thoughts of what you wish you’d accomplished last year. This technique is known as journaling — and according to the University of Rochester Medical Center, journaling each day could help you reduce stress and manage anxiety.
3. Stressing About New COVID-19 Variants
2022 has also greeted us with the fallout of a new COVID-19 variant, omicron — as well as the realization that we’ve been living in a pandemic for almost two years.
“A new variant can be really overwhelming,” Gallagher says. “We haven’t even reached the peak yet. The numbers are higher; there’s a lot that we don’t know — it just makes everything more stressful.”
“Constantly having to do that risk assessment takes up our emotional bandwidth and can make it feel overwhelming,” Gallagher says. “It’s also kind of like, ‘When is this going to end?’ It’s been two years now, and every time we feel like we have some footing, it’s kind of ripped out from under us.”
Although how the omicron variant and other new variants play out aren’t within your control, it can help to focus on what is in your control. Taking expert-recommended precautions — such as washing your hands, wearing a mask in public settings, and getting the COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot if you’re eligible — could help you feel like you’ve done everything in your power to protect yourself from COVID-19.
Other Expert-Recommended Ways to Cope With Worry Traps and Anxiety
If you have an anxiety disorder, receiving professional treatment, such as psychotherapy or prescription medication, is your best bet for symptom relief. But in addition to these interventions, certain self-help strategies can help you combat the worry traps you might find yourself falling into this year.
For example, many mental health experts recommend practicing mindfulness to help keep you focused on what’s happening right now rather than dwelling on the past or future.
“Mindfulness is the ability to cultivate being in the present moment, and it can actually lower a person’s stress and anxiety levels because it helps us to go with the flow and enjoy to the best of our abilities what’s in front of us,” says Crimarco.
“Most of the time we’re experiencing stress and anxiety, we’re either thinking about some future event that we’re worried about, or we’re stuck on thinking about something negative that happened in the past, or we’re rejecting the present moment for some reason,” Crimarco adds.
In a review article published in December 2017 in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America, researchers found that mindfulness-based interventions are helpful for anxiety both when used alone or when paired with cognitive behavioral therapy — a common form of therapy geared toward changing unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors to more positive ones.
Another way to cope with new year stressors is to prioritize your self-care needs every day. Self-care means taking care of your physical and mental well-being so you can stay well and are able to go about your day-to-day life. Activities that count as self-care could include consistently getting good sleep, staying active, spending time outdoors, and taking weekly bubble baths.