4 Ways to Get Past a Down Day
I grew up believing that being happy all the time was the way to live. Yet I struggled with negative emotions every so often. Perhaps I struggled with them even more because I believed they "shouldn't" happen. I resisted them, suppressed them, kept them hidden like dark secrets of the soul. And we all know what happens when we put the lid on a boiling pot: It boils over, leaving a mess everywhere.
It was only much later that I learned that all emotions are part of life because they're protective. Fear and anxiety are often signals to be on guard and prepare well. Sadness may point to deeper needs that are unaddressed, or simply a reminder to step back from happiness for a while. After all, trying to be happy all the time is tiring; although it does us good to feel good, Aristotle did remind us of the "golden mean," the ideal middle between any two extremes.
I'm now learning to accept down days as part of life. Just like my body needs a break when I've pushed it beyond its limits, my mind sometimes wants to be left alone for a while. I need to give it the space to do so, while remembering not to feed the misery, so that it leaves when it's ready.
If you resist your inner world because you've subconsciously bought into societal expectations of constant happiness as the only way to live, here's what you can do to be with yourself in compassion when you need yourself the most.
Many mindfulness and self-compassion exercises encourage getting familiar with our feelings. This is not easy, given that we're wired to run away from pain—one reason why phrases like “Don’t worry, be happy” are so overused. What helps is getting curious about your feelings. Where in your body do you feel them? If you could visualize them, how would they look? Describe the color, the size, the smell. How do they feel to the touch—coarse, tense, hard? Instead of trying to get rid of them, imagine them becoming a little softer around the edges, a little less weighty inside you.
Watch the Clouds
Thoughts and feelings are tightly coupled inside of us. When we think sad thoughts, we feel low. This can turn into feedback loops because ruminative tendencies (for example, replaying the same gloomy thought over and over in your mind) are strongest when we're feeling negative. One technique that works particularly well in distancing yourself from your thoughts is watching them like clouds on a bright and sunny day. I think this is so effective because we all loved watching clouds as little kids, imagining them to be characters in the sky. Who are the characters playing out in your mind? Watch them come onstage and make their exit after their act.
Change the Channel
Sometimes the thoughts are stronger, and you find it difficult to distance yourself from them. That’s when mantras help. Saying something to yourself like, "Out for a break" or, "Come back later" can pacify the thought because it knows it'll get a chance to be heard later. If it still keeps nagging you, distract yourself with something that occupies your mind. Try a new recipe, tackle a coloring book with your little one, go out and play with your dog. As Anne Lamott said, "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."
Lessen Social Media
Your “friends” on social media provide you with none of the heart-healthy benefits of real social contact. Instead, they bombard you with images of their best moments, which can leave the happiest of us feeling low after a while. Save yourself from more misery by lessening your exposure to your online social accounts, and reach out to a friend instead. You don’t have to make plans to go out if you're not up to it. Maybe you just want them to come over so you'll have the comfort of a trusted friend.
I remember reading Rumi's poem “The Guest House” a few years back. Of sorrow, he writes: "He may be clearing you out for some new delight." It will, if you let it in—for such is the life of emotions.
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