2016 was kind of the worst—just look at any Internet meme. At the base, most of us likely had to endure some kind of emotional pandemonium—a breakup, job loss, personal bereavement, maybe even a health scare. (Pretty unavoidable in any year.) Add to that the scarily dysfunctional political situations both overseas and in our own country and most of us are ending this year feeling demoralized, accosted, and just plain emotionally exhausted.
The New Year, though, is a great marker to wipe the slate clean, take a deep breath, and move forward with your life. But how can you reset after such disheartening events? We talked to a handful of experts to address all the reasons 2016 might have left your emotional reserves bone dry—and exactly how you can truly reset and feel ready to tackle 2017 with your head held high and fire full blaze.
If You Lost a Loved One
In February, doctors told Sarah's sister her breast cancer had come out of remission. By summer, the tumors had won. "Losing her was by far the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with," says Sarah, 34, from Atlanta*. "At the time, I honestly didn't think I'd make it through even the funeral service. And here I am, months later, still wondering how I'm supposed to function with this massive hole in my life."
There is no way to erase the pain of losing a member of your family, says Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. But people are much stronger than they realize and are able to manage extremely difficult situations if they frame it right, he adds.
That goes for losing more than just humans in your life. "2016 was hard for me because we lost two cats in two weeks," says Bailey, 26, from Fairfax, VA. "As someone who is basically alone all the time with the cats, it was especially heartbreaking."
"If you experienced a loss this year—a friend, family member, or pet—it helps to put the loss in context and be grateful for having had that person or pet in your life," Michaelis offers.
First, you need to mark the loss through some activity or ritual, typically a funeral, but also something ceremonial like lighting a candle in his or her honor. Next, acknowledge that person's or pet's role in your life by doing something that would've been meaningful to them: a shared activity, reviewing items they've left you, going through pictures. Then, consider how you can continue to have that person with you on a daily basis. For example, if your loved one was political, you can donate to causes that meant something to him or her. "This allows the loss to heal and for you to grow something beautiful from having known them," Michaelis says.
If You Lost Your Job
After being on maternity leave, Shana, a 33-year-old from Rockville, MD, went back to work in January ready to hit the ground running. Instead, her position was eliminated three tumultuous months later and she's been out of work ever since. "I've had tons of interviews, but so far, no offers. I keep getting to the last round but lose out to someone with more experience or willing to take less money. I'm so emotionally spent by all the rejection," she says.
Getting laid off is seriously taxing because it's a massive blow to your self-confidence and sense of value, says Kathy Caprino, a women's career coach and leadership developer in New York City. "It's very hurtful and demoralizing to be on the receiving end of an authority figure telling us that we're no longer valued, needed, or important in the company. And it hurts that we didn't see this coming and get out sooner."
That's exactly how Lauren, 32, from Indianapolis, felt when she got fired from her job of 11 years this summer. But Caprino points out that often what you feel is a devastating blow will, in fact, be an event that frees you. It can help you become even clearer about what matters most in your life.
Lauren's biggest struggle now, though, is recovering from her deeply shaken confidence. Caprino suggests using the fresh slate of 2017 to rebuild self-assurance from the ground up.
First, consider what makes you special, valuable, and unique, Caprino advises. Then, think about what came easily to you as a child and young adult. "These are your natural talents and gifts that you'll want to leverage more powerfully in your life and work," Caprino adds. Lastly, brainstorm 20 irrefutable, undeniable facts of what you've proudly accomplished, achieved, and contributed in your life and work. "When you are able to identify and talk compellingly about the important contributions you've made and why they matter, you'll begin to attract many more ideal opportunities," Caprino says.
If You've Had Trouble In Paradise
Breakups are always emotionally exhausting. But when they come with lawyers and stretch over months, they can be downright depleting. Just ask Whitney, a 55-year-old from Missoula, MT, who has spent the last part of 2016 battling the man she loved for 30 years in a long, drawn-out divorce.
"Breakups can be devastating on many levels," says Carrie Cole, LPC, research director of The Gottman Institute. There's a sense of loss that we need to spend time grieving—an actual broken neurological attachment that we need to let heal, and harmed self-esteem that we have to rebuild.
One of the best ways you can reset: Take time at the start of 2017 to consider what you were and weren't responsible for. "Some people blame themselves for all the problems of the relationship, while others blame their partner for everything—but neither are true," Cole explains. (See also: 5 Healthy Habits to Get You Through a Breakup)
And fly solo for a while. Seeking out a new relationship is a natural coping mechanism to avoid the negative feelings, but chances are you're overlooking a few red flags and, when this relationship ends, the emotional toll will be even worse, she explains.
Instead, make dates with yourself and those you've neglected. "Many women give up some of what they love to be in a relationship with someone else. Plus, relationships take up a lot of your time, so you may find yourself having lost touch with family and friends," says Cole. Reconnect with the activities and people that make you happy and that give meaning to your life. After all, there's no better way realize your life will be fine—if not better—without him or her than to start having the fun you've missed out on during your time together.
Possibly harder than being fresh out of a problematic relationship, though, is still being knee-deep in one. "At the beginning of the year, I started a relationship with a complex, what-I-now-know-to-be depressed philosopher with a lot of emotional baggage. We're still together because I can't stop caring about him, and him me. But after seven months, it still feels like we're constantly in the beginning phases, and his moods trigger all of my neurotic, needy, and emotional sides," says Michelle, 32, in Quito, Ecuador.
Cole says you shouldn't try to just wipe the slate clean with your S.O., but instead push the reset button on your own behavior. "The best way to understand what has happened is to have each partner take turns talking about what feelings came up, what that might have triggered from their past, how each believes they contributed to the problem, and how each could do it better next time," Cole offers. Once you've laid everything on the table, you know what behaviors you yourself need to try to be better about and you can start looking forward in the relationship.
If You've Suffered a Health Setback
Whether you've spent the whole year recovering from a serious illness like Crohn's or a concussion, or you recently strained your back mid-workout, there is a huge emotional toll to being so physically drained.
Why's it so tough? Not only are you physically impaired from going about business as usual, but an injury is also a reminder of our mortality, which leads to at least some feelings of melancholy or anxiety, Michaelis says. And if you're a fit gal, being sidelined from your workout routine is another mountain you have to mentally tackle.
Just ask Suzanne, a 51-year-old living in Paris, who tore the muscle completely off her hip while dancing at her stepson's wedding. "Before that, I ran, did Pilates, and practiced yoga 10 hours a week. Now, after six weeks housebound, I can only walk a couple of miles a day. I've gained 10 pounds, lost hours of work as a freelance writer, and had to cancel two holidays and a visit to my kids, who live far from home," she says.
So how do you put this level of dejection behind you? Set baby-step recovery goals. "Trying to go from zero to hero in the blink of an eye can lead to more feelings of sadness and anxiety, and if you are not ready for it, it may lead to another setback," Michaelis explains. Set milestones that are just slightly ahead of where you think you are on the road to healthy, and then celebrate every win.
If You're Reeling from Politics and Suffering Racism, Sexism, or General Bigotry
"2016 has run me so emotionally dry with my family, my dad especially," says Lisa, a 29-year-old from Atlanta. "Because of the election and Black Lives Matter movement, he's been hurling racial slurs. But my husband is black and my children are biracial. It's been awful." (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)
Michaelis' advice? Bear down and have that potentially infuriating and frustrating conversation about why their point of view is hurtful to you. "Engage with them. Try to understand each other's point of view. Most people are reasonable and can be understood when you appreciate what is going on in their lives," he says. If it's your family, ideally the inherent love will allow you to, at the very least, agree to disagree. But if it's a fruitless conversation and the pain and obstinate bigotry continue, it may be time to reevaluate the role this relationship plays in your life.
But what do you do when the hate is seemingly surrounding you?
"[A lot of taxing things have happened this year, but] none have drained me the way the election has. I was so excited for Hillary.... And now I live in a world where people think it's okay for them to put their hands on women, or Muslims, or anyone who looks a little different than they do. I'm discouraged, and disheartened, and exhausted," says Brittany, 26, of Lacey, WA.
Volunteering and getting involved can help bring both comfort and healing, says Sairey Luterman, certified thanatologist, and owner of Sairey Luterman Grief Support in Lexington, MA. Donate to organizations that will suffer most in the next four years, like Planned Parenthood, or choose one or two directions to volunteer your time (so you can help create change). And consider working locally, since it puts you in a community of like-minded people and reminds you others feel the same, she adds.
Jan, a 45-year-old in New Orleans, echoes Brittany's sentiment for people of color. "This year brought so much anti-black sentiment to light—both verbally and physically. It's clear that we're still battling the same prejudices from almost 400 years ago—and that is emotionally exhausting for a black woman."
The most important thing to remember is even if all you can hear right now is the hate, there are so many people shouting love and acceptance. If you live in a part of the country that does not share your political point of view, consider starting a support group of like-minded individuals, Luterman suggests. It doesn't need to be terribly formal—maybe it is five friends and a bottle of wine, or a Sunday brunch once a month. "Action may or may not come out of it, but we will all need support from each other in the days ahead, more than ever," she adds.
*Names have been changed.