What I do when I feel bad

Dark sunset

A good friend asked me for advice today on how to deal with negative feelings, and it made me realize something.

With all the reading I’ve done, all the blog posts I’ve written, I’m not sure I have the answers. In the face of a big, crushing feeling or the heaping weight of self-criticism, I’m just about as helpless as everyone else.

Sometimes, when I feel bad, I get cranky. Or I watch episodes of The Great British Bake Off. Or both.

But if I had to take inventory of the techniques that really work, the ones that both research and personal experience back up, it would be these.

1. Talking with a friend

This is probably my preferred strategy, which Fred confirms. (Thank you, Fred, for listening.) If I feel bad, I have a hard time keeping it all inside and still feeling connected to the people around me. So I talk. And when I hear “That’s so tough,” and “I’ve been there,” and get a hug, I feel better.

But talking is risky. You may not get the response you want; maybe you’re not looking for solutions and they’re offered to you, maybe your problem gets minimized, maybe they simply don’t understand what the big deal is.

I have friends who will sometimes call each other and say, “I need to vent. Could you just listen?” I love this approach, and I think most of us (uncertain as we are about how to help our struggling loved ones) would be happy to be on the receiving end of it.

2. Mindfulness (“feel the feelings”)

When I’m feeling really brave and patient with myself, I just stop what I’m doing, sit for a moment, and close my eyes. I try to feel what the feeling is, and where. I spend a few minutes letting thoughts and memories come up, noting them mindfully (no judgment now, though they may get analyzed later). Eventually, having made itself heard, the feeling subsides.

I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve actually done this so deliberately, but I really believe it works.

3. Journaling

This is a practice I was well acquainted with long before I read all the research about it. Journaling carries with it a slight risk of rumination—going over and over all the bad stuff—but in my experience, it’s mostly an outlet. The feelings want to be heard. They stop rattling around in your head when they appear on real paper. Sometimes journaling is like having a good cry: You don’t exactly feel good afterward, but spent and quieter.

4. Distraction

A short-term strategy, distraction is sometimes the best we can do (thank you, cat videos and Great British Bake Off). My uncle, an erstwhile psychologist, once recommended that I try exercise—the more intense, the better. I thought that was a way to avoid the problem, but in fact he’s right. Things sometimes look different after you’ve spent 40 minutes sweating and jumping around and focusing on something else. I’ve come to believe, after observing how swiftly moods come and go, that there’s a big physiological component to how we feel at any given moment.

5. Social interaction

Here I’m referring to just spending time with friends, not necessarily talking about your problems. If you’re up for it, and it feels good, this is probably one of the most powerful techniques. Laughter. Love. Your problems may not go away, but you may feel stronger and more supported in solving them. Researchers actually say that positive emotions (like the ones we feel in the company of good friends) help us build psychological resources that we can apply to other domains of life. So the self-care of connection is just making us stronger for tomorrow.


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