Feeling down in the dumps is one thing. But having a persistently low mood from stress, anxiety or depression is another. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed, useless and not sure what to do to make yourself feel better, or even if you want to.
Unfortunately many of the things we do to take our mind off feeling low are the things that can make us feel worse. Here’s a list of 7 common mistakes we make when we know we could feel better but aren’t sure what to do. When you begin to eliminate these you will feel better from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
Thinking that you have to do everything at once
When you feel crippled by fatigue or that you’re losing control with your life, the very thought of having to do something to ‘get better’ adds to the overwhelm and frustration. When you consider all the things that can be done to help like exercising, eating differently, changing your sleep routine, changing your medication or supplements, cutting back on crutches like alcohol, smoking or sugar, getting out more, drinking more water, eating more greens or talking to others it’s not surprising that people panic and either don’t start or do start, stop when it gets too much and then feel a failure. This doesn’t add anything positive to the experience and exacerbates the problem further.
Start where you are. What can you do? Which one thing could you do that would make a difference? One client told me that she told herself ‘just eat something green each day’ that was it…not how much, not when, not the type, just eat something green.
Another lady told me of how when she was struggling with depression, after a marriage break up, she would tell herself that whenever she felt bad she’d go out and walk to the sea wall near where she lived. Some days it was three times, others once or twice. The practice of going out when she felt things were becoming too much helped her feel in control with her situation, rather than trapped or overwhelmed by it.
Start with one small thing that you can do that doesn’t over tax or challenge you and make that your job to do each day. The practice of doing something well each day builds a belief that you are able and you are capable and that’s a good step to build from.
Choose to eliminate one of the following behaviours as a starting point.
Medicating with painkillers, caffeine, sugar, alcohol, tobacco
Do you recognise any of these? Bad day at work, reach for the wine? Feeling tired, grab a coffee? Need a pep up, grab a Twix? These quick fixes are exactly that. A quick fix that feels good in that moment, but not much more. Even when we know it’s not good for us the feeling of needing something to get through the tough patch is enough to drive us to reach for some instant comfort.
At some point you’ll decide that something needs to change. Make a decision when that will be and what you’ll do instead of wine or coffee or biscuits. Planning what you’re going to do or use instead is a key part to making these changes for the longer term. You know how it is, when you make space for something in your life you can fill it really quickly. Ask a retired person how they fill their day, they won’t know how they ever had time for work!
Choose what the new filler will be. Could it be time out with some meditation (the Headspace app is excellent), frozen grapes, green tea, a big shout into a pillow, writing in a journal, a bath, a book, a smoothie?
When you start it doesn’t have to be perfect or full on, all you need to do is decide to start, then do it. Just waiting one more day does mean that you’re one more day away from feeling better. So, set a date to do something different and stick to it.
It can be very, very tempting to put on your favourite PJs, snuggle under a fleecy blanket and stay on the sofa all day when things aren’t going so well and all you want to do is for the world to stop so you can catch up. Being inside is a comfortable place to be but there’s not a lot of good stuff going on there either. Getting outside in your garden, sat on a bench with a drink, going for a short walk all help boost serotonin, one of the feel good hormones, in the body.
Serotonin is made primarily in your gut. So a healthy digestive system helps, as does two of the freely available serotonin boosting ingredients – sunlight and oxygen. Every time you get outside and move it helps in both these areas. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t like the cheek-slapped feel of wind on their face after a little bit of time outside, or the warm glow of sun on arms after a day in the garden.
Adopting a low fat diet
Thankfully, it is now becoming more well accepted that not all fat is the enemy. And ironically, the fats that were thought to be healthy are the ones that are less so. Our brain is approximately 60% fat. This helps to form the cell membranes that are necessary to keep your noggin happy, healthy and functioning. A poor diet and lifestyle will drastically impact this and moods and memory will drop like a stone if a low fat diet is maintained for too long.
Choose foods that have been unprocessed and contain their natural fats. Foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, butter, coconut oil, lard, animal fats, oily fish and seeds. Fats help to leave us feeling satisfied and full, they are a fabulous energy source and most importantly when eaten in a healthy diet do not make us fat.
There is no one eating plan that is suitable for all of us. So tune into how your body feels with certain foods. Do you feel sluggish after a meal or satisfied and ready to carry on? Do some meals leave you even more hungry than before you started? If in doubt ask for some advice from a nutritionist who will be able to help you identify what’s right for you.
So many times we are told that all we need to do to feel better ‘is get some exercise’. Whilst that’s true for some people, it’s not true for all and the feeling of not being able to just ‘get out there and do it’ leads to more feelings of worry, anxiety and despair.
According to Julia Ross and her ‘Mood Cure’ book there are four mood types that require a different approach. If you have the ‘black dog’ type mood, then regular moderate exercise that gets your blood flowing and you puffing is a good short term fix with good benefits. However, if you are suffering with depression and stress with exhaustion, what Julia Ross calls ‘the blahs’, you may struggle to move even if your house was burning down. In this instance this type of exercise is inappropriate and a much more mindful, gentle approach to exercise can be considered. Something like a gentle walk, a beginners yoga, stretch or Pilates class would be a better option. Even something non-exercise that gets you moving could be considered like a spot of gardening, raking some leaves or taking the dog or children out to the park.
You don’t need to feel anxious or guilty for not going to the gym or out for a run. Some movement is better than nothing and you need to find what soothes your soul not scares it.
Lack of sleep
This won’t surprise you one bit. But establishing a regular bedtime routine is essential to a well functioning brain and balanced moods. Whether you want to sleep all the time or find yourself wired and awake at midnight, getting this under control will give you a sense of well-being again.
Where possible go to bed and get up at the same time each day. If you need more sleep take naps at the weekend rather than a lie in. Really to try to establish a rhythm for your body to work to. It doesn’t take long for it to reset when you decide to do it. Avoid any technology screens an hour before bed, the back light in these gadgets messes with our natural ability to sense darkness and naturally feel sleepy.
Make sure that your room is completely dark and quiet and that you are comfortable with your pillow keeping your neck level not overly propped up or dropping too low.
If you are a worrier, having a notebook by the side of the bed to scribble any thoughts, jobs or ideas in can help to clear your mind before you drop off to sleep, or wake in the night in a panic.
Not telling anyone
Coping with this on your own can feel both the safest and yet the loneliest thing to do. On the one hand it seems best that you deal with it at your pace and doing things that feel right for you. But, if you are making some of the other 7 mistakes listed here then this might not be the best approach.
Talking to someone about how you feel, someone who listens, passes no judgement and has time can help you more than you initially realise. Sometimes the act of speaking the words out loud can help give you clarity. A guiding question or statement from your listener can allow you to see something in a different way.
Being with others who understand is also very valuable. Knowing that your experience is directly helping them is a nice feeling to have. It gives a little reward, a shot of dopamine to tell you you’ve done a good thing.
When I have had the opportunity of having a group of people in one space to talk they always say that it’s very rewarding to know that they aren’t the only ones who feel like they do.
Thinking that you have to be happy all the time
I’m not sure where the idea that we need to be happy all the time came from. But I suspect it’s not been helped by the rise of perfect lifestyles being documented on social media. An Instagram lifestyle is hardly the norm. Even though we logically know this we still compare and consider our lives less than worthy because of it.
Successful people do what successful people do, they work hard. Happy people do what happy people do, they do what makes them happy. Healthy, fit people do what healthy and fit people do, they eat well and exercise because they enjoy it. There is no magic Instagram life to these concepts. Create your own version of perfect by starting with something very small like getting enough water or sleep or time to talk (see point 1).
Stop watching the news all the time, refrain from reading sensationalism journalism and definitely unfollow people whose social media posts make you feel more flat than full.
It’s quite possible to get to a place where you have an underlying contentment of feeling happy everyday, even on a crappy day. We all have crappy days but how we deal with them and move on from them is part of the learning of how to lift a mood before it takes over.