*First, let’s put on our critical thinking hats: Of course I am not minimizing clinical depression by saying that these are a few tips n’ tricks for someone struggling with a biochemical issue. While it’s always possible that these ideas might help, someone who is experiencing clinical depression or anxiety is encouraged to seek help from a licensed professional.
Recently, I was having a series of bad days. I was waking up kind of meh, and I was easily annoyed, and I was feeling sad-but-not-sad, meaning that I felt kind of sad, yet I didn’t feel like I needed to cry. I also didn’t feel any desire to create—that’s always a big red flag that something’s up for me. That’s a kind of weird in-between space.
So I thought I’d share what I do to turn around a bad day, because there are some specific things that I do with an intention of turning that around.
First: one of my big go-tos to turn around a bad day is exercise. I can already hear the groan from some of you, ugh, exercise, nooooo. And so I wanted to say that when I am trying to turn around a bad day, I actually don’t feel motivated to exercise the way I do on a day that’s running smoothly. I feel resistant, I don’t wannnnna, I don’t feel like it, all of that, just like any other human being. But I make myself do it, because I find that 20 minutes or so of just getting into a workout often creates a “break” of some kind between ruminative thoughts about why life happens to suck at the moment. I’m into CrossFit—I find that intense exercise helps me turn off my brain a bit more because I have no choice but to focus on the workout—but I’ve had success also with going for a long walk or doing some push ups. There are numerous studies that exist showing positive connections between exercise, and alleviation of depression or anxiety and they’re easy to look up if you want to see the research basis for this.
Second: I try to really pay attention to the impulses to do things that I know aren’t going to help. For instance, when I’m sad, yeah, my thoughts turn to having a glass of wine, or sugar. I pay attention to that and in fact what I do is try to get metacognitive about it, sort of observing the observer. I’ll notice myself think, “Ah, glass of rose would be great right now,” and then I’ll think, “How interesting that today has been a sad day and suddenly you’re craving alcohol. Interesting to notice that false desire—alcohol won’t solve this.” I’ll do the same thing with sweets. By no means am I perfect about this, by the way, but it’s been a helpful practice to consciously and intentionally remind myself that giving in to sugar or alcohol—or disappearing into TikTok or numbing out in some other way—won’t actually help.
Third: another big go-to is to try to do something really nice or helpful to make someone else’s day better. Can I take a chore off of my husband’s plate? Can I be extra nice to that person I see when I’m out walking the dog? Can I offer to help someone with something? Because any of those things create a feeling for me of connection, and usefulness. I like feeling connected, I like feeling useful, and when I can create those feelings I generally feel better. Bonus, it helps someone else, which is also great!
Fourth: I’ll process out anger or sadness. Literally, I’ll scream into a pillow, or try to consciously cry, to get to the root of some feelings. Sometimes I think that our feelings don’t always need to be intellectualized. Sometimes I think they just need to be fully, and completely, felt.
Now, I’m not saying that processing out feelings means we all need to stop intellectualizing. I’m actually going to share that I do undergo a process of analysis, of intellectualizing, when I notice I’m having several bad days, or a rough couple of weeks: At that point, I investigate the “why” of having several bad days, and when I investigate the “why” I take an extreme blank slate approach of, “Let me just put ALL the options on the table, even those that I think are unlikely or probably irrelevant.” Usually one bad day I’ll just write off and get a good night’s sleep and start the next day fresh, but if I’m not feeling great several times in a week, or for several weeks, I stop to look at that and get ALL possible options on the table as to why I might be having a bad week.
I thought I’d share what I came to realize as I investigated why I was having bad days. It took me a moment to realize that I had, in essence, fallen into “confirmation bias.” As humans, the way our brain operates is that seeks and sees patterns. This is default, and unintentional, and unless something truly novel jumps out at us, we have to be aware of confirmation bias and override it a bit. If you start thinking that the world is X way, or that you are a certain type of person, your brain will be more likely to notice and focus on the things that confirm that the world is X way, or that you are a certain type of person.
The confirmation bias that I had fallen into was “the world is an angry place and people are mean.” This was not a conscious thought that I was having. I was not literally thinking, “The world is an angry place and people are mean,” so much as little things were adding up.
As I reflected, I realized that I’d seen several recent examples on social media of people who were just being mean and unkind. I’m going to spend just a few minutes going into this, because when I’ve talked about this with others, they’ve had some lightbulb moments that this was impacting them, as well—so see if this is you, too. I saw these examples of people being intentionally mean, cutting, taking someone down, screaming, judgments, and these were coming from people whose views I otherwise would generally have agreed with, and they were basically screaming at people they disagreed with, name calling, all the rest, and something in my heart was just…no. No, no, no, this is just so awful to be around, to even bear witness to, even if I’m also upset with that person who said or did that thing—to watch someone be taken down, the viciousness of it, it all felt so antithetical to my own values around integrity or connection or even courage, because when things get vicious, you can absolutely know that fear is in the room, not courage. Sometimes I think we all forget that in the same ways that being around harmful behaviors in the houses we grew up in can affect us even if they weren’t directed at us, so can being around harmful behaviors in the media we consume.
And then I was feeling a sort of despair because I was also seeing people post social media memes like, “You can be a nice, kind person who also tells people to fuck off, sometimes,” and again, my heart—no. No, no, no. It is not kindness to speak to someone that way, this is adding to the problem, it is making things worse, it is not integrity to operate from that place, and it’s tearing us all apart. I truly believe that if we respond to harm with more harmful behaviors, we are colluding with that harm and eventually can move from simply exhibiting harmful behavior, to abuse—and that means we’re capable of becoming abusers, ourselves, when we are not considering how we want to respond and whether that response adds to the harm or creates something better.
To be clear, of course I would never suggest the opposite, that someone being harmed should be told, “Well, it’s okay, let me just be sweet and kind.” Harm does need to be named. But responding to harmful behavior by essentially “hitting back” with our own harmful behavior, does not work. If you were ever a child living in a household where two adults were at war with one another, you know what I’m talking about. You know that when you heard those two adults at war with one another, and your stomach tightened and your heart started to race, that everything in your soul was saying, “This is not love, this is not helping, this is scaring the shit out of me, please, someone make it stop.” If you have ever felt that someone who was in prison did not deserve to be beaten just because they committed a crime, then you understand this fundamental principle that just because someone has done something harmful, does not mean our response should be to create further harm for that person.
By the way, the difference between abuse and harm, in most definitions I’ve seen, has to do with power—abuse happens when someone is in a position of power—and when it’s extreme or repetitive. When someone uses power in some way to either strike one intense blow or to chronically harm another, this adds up into becoming abuse. I think one thing that happens on social media is that many individuals think, “Well, I don’t have power—I’m not exercising power over someone if I give them a piece of my mind, I’m just one person.” The problem with that is that many individuals collectively then form their own power unit, and so yes, trying to take down someone over a social media post is a form of creating harm that can turn into abuse.
I was not just seeing this aggression on social media. Being in Texas for the past year, I’ve seen some pretty awful sides of people come out during the pandemic. I have been at the grocery store, and watched as two people nearly got into fist fights in the grocery line. I’ve been on the road, and been around some really, really aggressive drivers—I gotta tell you, I know that there are people who hate Prius drivers, but a WHOLE lot of people in Texas really hate Prius drivers, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been driving over the speed limit in the right hand lane and a big pickup truck gets behind me and starts honking and flashing their lights for me to move out of their way instead of just going around me, and then when they finally do pass me on the left side, they’ll cut in really close, on purpose. There’s this weird aggression I’ve experienced here that I haven’t experienced anywhere else I have ever lived, which has included time in Missouri, in Illinois, and in California. The aggression is coming up around mask wearing, around politics, around all kinds of things and it just really started to add up. This is combined with—and this is something unique to me because I know a lot of people just don’t care—the humidity in the Austin area of Texas in the summer, and then experiencing the wind and allergies in the winter really bugged me. It just wasn’t a fit.
So as I investigated “why,” what kept coming up was realizing that the environments that I was in—in the real world, on social media—were collectively not great environments for me to be in. So, I stopped getting onto Facebook and in fact have hardly been on Facebook for the past month or so. On Instagram even, I stopped surfing as much. There were a few people in my life who were also routinely aggressive or judgmental, and while I’m not someone inclined to make sweeping statements like, “Eff off” when I am not happy with someone’s behavior, I am someone who will communicate when something doesn’t feel good and then mentally hold a boundary where I no longer give anyone behaving that way as much access to my heart, my interior life. And in a larger scope, my husband and I had been thinking we needed to move out of Texas for quite some time, even after having been here less than a year, but in the spring we just decided, yep, time to go.
So it came down to—what are the environments that don’t feel good? Environments can consist of online environments, the people in your environment, or the literal environment itself like the physical space or the weather or the local culture and what is considered normative behavior within that culture.
I think that when we are seeking to change something that’s a bit of a downer, it’s not just, “That thing that’s a downer has to change.” I also need to look at myself in relationship to that thing. This is where putting ALL possibilities on the table is helpful. For instance, on social media, it’s not that I sit back and feel bad until social media changes. Social media might not ever change. But I can look at myself, limit my contact with it, avoid bad algorithms by not clicking on the bad news stories, and in some cases I unfollow accounts where I disagree with how someone is behaving, though I also try to look at my own judgment of their behavior and ask myself to what degree I can just sit with them being different than I want to be. It’s a push-pull in that way, with no clear cut answer.
With other people who are judgmental, it’s not that I sit back and get angry until they change—it’s that I look at where I could extend that person more grace or understanding for why their behavior is the way it is, or I could see if there’s anything positive around which we CAN connect, and I even look at myself and how I judge others, and how someone else’s judgments can be a mirror for me to look at, too. And with my physical environment, I try to notice anything that does work, that does feel good, that is within my control, and I try to put as much appreciation on that as possible. I’ve experienced that Texas generally has more people willing to get aggressive than I’ve experienced in other places where I’ve lived, but I’m also trying to acknowledge that that could be a confirmation bias. So, I try to look at the kind, helpful things I’ve experienced here, too, because for sure I’ve met some great people, or I’ve seen some moments where people were trying to help one another.
In essence, I try to look at all sides of the equation, not just the sides that “feel” like they must be true in any one given moment. That helps pull me out of rumination. And I also look at the things that I might need to put a boundary around, and the things that are my responsibility to change, because while I can’t always control what I feel, but I can control how I respond to what I feel.