2020 has been filled with unprecedented uncertainty for people around the globe, and many are eager to see what the new year brings. The COVID-19 pandemic, racial unrest and contemptuous political elections are some of the stresses that have affected people throughout the year.

Dr. Craig Sawchuk, a Mayo Clinic psychologist, says it's OK to acknowledge that life in 2020 has been filled with struggles and losses. "We're all human. And we're all struggling in our own ways."

Throughout the difficult year, many positive things have happened including the development, authorization and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

"We've seen a lot of altruism. We've seen a lot of people doing really good things for their family, neighbors, colleagues and friends," says Sawchuk. "We've also seen some tremendous advances in technology and ways of doing things, whether it be health care or schooling, or work in new ways that we will carry with us into the future. When we actually do look into the future, we do have to acknowledge that this has been a tough time on us, and all of us in our community."

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Looking into 2021 with optimism

"It's important to have a positive outlook," says Sawchuk. "The brain is naturally hard-wired to pay attention toward threat. That's actually superadaptive for our brain to do, in that it helps with our survival mode. But what's been happening over the course of 2020 has been one threat after another, after another, after another. We actually have to work harder to shift that focus. It's not trying to ignore the fact that we've had a lot of struggles, and there's a lot of things that we're dealing with. But trying to maintain an upbeat positive attitude is extremely important. You can be optimistic, and you can also be realistic at the same time."

Positive thinking also affects the mind and body. Health benefits that a positive frame of mind can provide include:

  • Increased life span.
  • Lower rates of depression.
  • Lower levels of distress.
  • Greater resistance to the common cold.
  • Better psychological and physical well-being.
  • Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
  • Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress.

Being optimistic doesn't mean ignoring the negative.

"It's not completely just focusing in on the positive but trying to counterbalance the automatic bias toward the negative. And there are good things to be had out there. There are good things that we can expose ourselves to that can help to increase that sense of positive emotions in our life. It does take work, and sometimes it can be hard to find," Sawchuk says.

If you find yourself struggling, reaching out for help is an important step.

"One of the dubious things about when we become more anxious, stressed or more depressed is that tendency to withdraw that tendency to pull back or even change in how we think, such as, 'You know what, it's never going to get any better' or 'Why even bother reaching out? I'm not going to get any help anyway," he says. "Always know that there is help to be had out there."

"Start off, whether it be with a close friend or family member that you trust. If you've got a primary care provider, reach out to them, too. And they can help in terms of air traffic control to get you connected to those resources because that's the No. 1 thing. There are treatments available that can be helpful."

Ringing in the new year may not automatically make the pain of 2020 go away, but there is hope that 2021 will bring new opportunities.

"Try to stay as optimistic as you can and look forward in terms of being able to reach out for things that can be helpful. Trying to maintain an upbeat positive attitude is extremely important. You can be optimistic, and you can also be realistic at the same time," Sawchuk says.