Getting through 2023: a guide to the psychological year

The gloom of February can lead to gloomy thoughts. The pressures of December can trigger anxiety. Here’s how to deal with it all

January 01, 2023
Getting through it: detail of “At Eternity’s Gate (1890) by Vincent Van Gogh. Image: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo
Getting through it: detail of “At Eternity’s Gate (1890) by Vincent Van Gogh. Image: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

The year, and life in general, is full of repeating patterns and fresh starts. Even when we enter uncharted territory in our lives, no matter what we are struggling with or rejoicing in, there are familiar cycles whirling around us. Certain times of year can prompt particular dilemmas.

In January, we’re often invited to be an improved version of ourselves. New Year! New You! The pressure that comes with this is unpleasant and counterproductive, but it’s true that this time of year can—like other clear temporal milestones (birthdays or anniversaries, for instance)—prompt us to review how things are going and set about implementing some alterations. Making decisions and changes, whether big or small, can be tricky, but there are a range of ideas from psychological research that can help, in this month and in others.

If we get stuck choosing which way to go, then writing “pros” and “cons” lists and trying to identify which underlying values we want to use for a compass can be useful. The repetitive thinking styles of worry and rumination often crop up at times of change, and identifying these when we spot them can help us to avoid any negative thought spirals. Decisions are hard and change is tiring, and it’s important to be kind to ourselves amid it all, especially since anxiety and feelings of loss often accompany transitions.

Next is February, when gloomy weather—at least in the Northern Hemisphere—can make it hard to get going. It’s important to know that doing things before we feel like it often boosts motivation. Even a small amount of action can put us in the mood for more action. Savouring moments when we feel pleasure or a sense of pride can help, both when it comes to enjoying current tasks more, and to keep track of what tasks we want might to do more of in future. We might try to notice, too, when and how we compare ourselves to others. Berating ourselves with unflattering comparisons makes us less inclined to do anything. Better to acknowledge that we’re all doing things at our own pace, and try not to set our worst days alongside somebody else’s best.

In March, we might be tempted to spring clean. There’s a wealth of evidence that the spaces we inhabit affect both our physical and mental health. Borrowing ideas from therapeutic spaces, we can tweak things at home or at work to make us feel calmer and happier. For instance: bring nature inside with more natural light, house plants, materials such as wood, and scenic views (even if they’re just pictures). Finding a balance between feeling safe and cosy and feeling a sense of surprise or mystery can make our spaces better, as can building in flexibility between sociability and privacy.

In April, the flowering trees might get us wondering about our own blossoming. How we talk to ourselves is important. Noticing when we berate ourselves and trying to change either the tone or content of that inner monologue is a good idea; to help with this, thinking about how we would say things to a good friend is a useful approach to take. We can also consider externalising our inner critics to separate them from us—all while paying attention to the stories we tell about ourselves, so as to choose more favourable alternatives.

In May, spring is in full swing, encouraging more interaction with others. Therapy skills teach a lot about the art of talking and listening. Using open questions instead of closed ones; stopping and taking time to properly listen instead of multitasking; and checking that we’ve understood by summarising back—all can help us to be more present in a dialogue. Being brave enough to leave a silence sometimes, and commenting on the process of a conversation, can sometimes get us to hidden depths we might not have been aware of. Trying to keep communication going, no matter in which medium, is sometimes the most we can achieve, and sometimes just enough.

In June, a time of weddings and parties and long summer nights, we might think about how we connect to others. So many things can get in the way, such as social anxiety, or misunderstandings, or repeating patterns from previous relationships. There are ways to overcome these obstacles, though, such as shifting our focus from ourselves on to who and what is around us; trying to spot patterns and to play our role slightly differently; and being more explicit about what we mean and what we think someone else means.

In July, we might come up against existential angst and uncertainty. These worries can happen all year round—life is full of uncertainties and it’s difficult—but in the summer months the worries linked to climate change might feel especially strong. We can help ourselves negotiate such fears by being careful with our information diet, not doom-scrolling or over-researching unanswerable questions, and focussing on the things we can change. We might also give ourselves a sense of safety through small daily rituals and training our attention on the here and now.

In the heat of August, people tend to be more susceptible to anger. How to manage it? Not by quashing it, but by trying to understand whether there are other accompanying feelings or problems that require attention. Instead of getting hung up on furious thoughts ourselves, there are steps we can take to help, including: using perspective shifts such as zooming out or zooming forward in time; simply naming the emotions that are passing through our heads; and taking care of our bodies so we are not acting from a place of depletion. Dialectical behaviour therapy skills such as assertiveness, self-soothing and “acting the opposite” can also be added into the mix.

In September, with its back-to-school vibe, we might find ourselves thinking about work and how to minimise that Sunday night dread. We should be on guard against perfectionism, and take time to work out what’s filling up our stress buckets and what might punch holes in them. Trying to remember the good stuff can be beneficial: there must be a reason why we’re in our jobs, but sometimes we can forget to celebrate the positives. If there’s not enough to celebrate, then it might be time to move on—which can be a positive step in itself.

In October, as the leaves fall and various days of the dead approach, we may think about the losses we all experience throughout our lives. Loss is hard to talk about, and there’s no right way or wrong way to experience grief, but it’s often worthwhile to consider how to balance mourning with a reconnection to the person or experience we miss, as is thinking about how we want to honour a memory, to keep someone or something alive in a different way. There are all sorts of ways to do this—and finding our own traditions can be part of what is helpful.

In November, we should consider rest. Certainly, this means sleep—and making sure that we’re doing what we can to optimise it—but it also means other types of rest. Even tiny pockets of rest throughout the day can make a big difference. Ultimately, rest is just as important as action. In fact, it’s useful to see it as an action in itself.

Finally, in December, we welcome in Christmas and the family negotiations and anticipations that can come along with it. It’s vital that we mind the expectation gap between the soft-focus, fairy-light fantasy of Christmas and what is often the reality. We might work to distinguish, too, between what is under our control and what isn’t—and let go of some of the latter. For all the repeating patterns throughout the year, we truly have no idea what is going to happen next. Maybe we don’t need to. Trying to stay in the present moment, while reflecting on what has gone before and on what the psychological literature can teach us, is a grounding and positive approach—no matter the month.