Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Six Strategies for Coping with the Blues

From getting out in nature, to reaching out to others, how to weather the blues.

"Study" by Isidre Nonell, 1908
Some mornings I wake up and there's no denying it—I've got the blues. It's as if an internal weather front has unexpectedly moved in. I may not even be by myself when the blues descend on me, but they always make me feel isolated; it's part of their "flavor." (The blues is to be distinguished from a heavy or dark mood that goes unchanged for weeks at a time. The latter could be a sign of clinical depression in which case you should seriously consider seeking the advice of a counselor.)

Here are six suggestions for helping with those periodic blues.

1. Don't compare yourself to others.

It may seem as if others don't get the blues, but human beings are more alike than we think. That clerk who's always smiling probably gets the blues. That friend who's in the "perfect" relationship probably gets the blues. In my experience, neither a cheerful personality nor being in a loving relationship stops people from getting the blues.

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No matter what public face you see on other people, you don't know what their inner life is like. The odds are, it's not so different from your own. This is because we all experience what the Buddha called dukkha—usually translated into English as "suffering"—and referring to the difficulties all of us face at one time or another in our lives. For one thing, we are all subject to illness, injury, aging, and separation from those we love. No one gets a pass on this—not even billionaires.

2. Don't try to force yourself out of the blues.

Trying to force the blues away is likely to intensify them. Part of the reason for this is that underlying that attempt to force them away is the negative judgment: "I shouldn't feel blue." Ordering yourself not to feel a certain way almost guarantees that you will! So, just be mindfully aware, without judgment, that the blues have come to visit, maybe even saying to yourself, "Ah yes, the blues again. I recognize you."

Exposing them in this friendly way to the sunlight of awareness can reduce their intensity. "Friendliness" is one of the translations for the word metta which is usually described as the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness. Sometimes though, the word "friendliness" hits the spot for me. I don't need to love those blues, but treating them with friendliness allows me to hold them more lightly until they run their course and go on their way.

3. Try Weather Practice.

I describe this practice in my book, How to Be Sick. Moods are as unpredictable and changeable as the weather. The blues settle in and then they blow away, just like the weather pattern of the moment. Seeing the impermanent nature of the blues keeps you from identifying with them as a fixed part of who you are. This insight enables you to just see them as part of the ebb and flow of life. They arise in the mind, stay awhile, and then pass. Seeing this, you can calmly and patiently wait for those blues to lift and blow away.

4. If you can, go outdoors.

Changing environments is an excellent way to change a mood. When you're outdoors, particularly in nature, the air has a different quality, the sights and sounds are different from those inside, and you'll feel part of the larger world around you. 

There's a little park next door to my house and an espresso place nearby. On a day when the blues have come to visit, if they haven't lifted by early afternoon, I go outside and sit in the park for a while, or I get in my little Civic and drive to the espresso place, even if I only stay a half hour. Just the brief interaction with the barista helps take my mind out of that blues groove it's fallen into.

5. Reach out to another person.

Connecting with someone else who is struggling can help you realize that you're not alone. It also takes you out of your self-focused thoughts. The simple act of helping another can stir up a wind that will blow those blues right away.

6. Treat those blues to a fun time.

Without trying to force the blues to go away, but also knowing that they're as impermanent as the weather, take them with you to an activity that's just plain fun, no matter how silly. For you, maybe it's sudoku puzzles or playing with crayons and a coloring book. I have a few movies I love to watch over and over, like a favorite piece of music. When the blues settles in, I put one of them on. The characters in them are like old friends and, with their company, I can patiently wait out my mood. Quite often, by the time I'm finished indulging in my little pleasureful activity, those blues have lifted and blown away!

I've found that it's good to have some "blues strategies" at the ready, because the blues are never polite enough to announce ahead of time that they plan to spend the day. If you have some strategies of your own, I hope you'll share them by leaving a comment.

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

You might also find this helpful: "When You're Down and Out: Getting Through the Bad Days."

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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