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When You're Down and Out: How to Get Through the Bad Days

What to do when it feels as if nothing matters.

Key points

  • Even if you're content with your life, you'll have some bad days — especially if you suffer from chronic pain.
  • To deal with bad days, try to "pity" yourself with compassion and change your environment.
  • When all else fails on a bad day, reflect on the knowledge that emotions and moods are impermanent.
Source: Pixabay

Like me, you may have people in your life who tell you to keep a positive attitude. “Think positively and everything will be okay” seems to be one of the mantras of the 21st century. But to be honest, I don’t always feel positive.

Even if I didn’t suffer from chronic illness, I wouldn’t always be cheerful. To talk myself into thinking that if I were healthy I’d always be in a good mood would be to fall into that “if only” trap that is the essence of the Buddha’s second noble truth: We suffer disappointment after disappointment because we convince ourselves that if only we could get certain things or have certain experiences, we’d be forever happy. But everyone experiences sorrow. It’s part of being human. And when one of those sorrows is due to the ongoing limitations imposed by chronic pain or illness, sometimes we’re going to have a bad day even if, for the most part, we’ve learned to be content with our life. I sometimes say, “Even the author of How to Be Sick gets sick of being sick.”

Here are three suggestions for getting through the bad days when it feels as if nothing matters.

Go ahead and throw yourself a little pity party

In my experience, throwing myself a short pity party can help me feel better. But it doesn’t work unless it’s pity with compassion as opposed to pity with aversion. In pity with aversion, we’re fighting against how our life is, which is like hitting our heads against a wall. Angry pitying, such as, “I hate that I can’t figure out how to get better,” or threatening thoughts, such as, “This pain better not hang around all day,” are not in the party spirit!

By contrast, pity with compassion means that we’re caring for our sickness and our pain, even as we feel pity for ourselves by silently or softly saying—perhaps even whining (it is, after all, a pity party): “It’s not fair that I feel so sick”; “I don’t want to be in such pain.”

A properly held pity party—one held with compassion not anger—can help turn frustration into sadness. And sadness can open our hearts to our mental suffering. Perhaps that opening will be accompanied by a few tears but, as Lord Byron said, “The dew of compassion is a tear.” A good test of whether your pity party is accompanied by compassion is to check and see if it feels right to stroke one arm with the hand of the other as you speak your “pity party” words.

Change your environment—your physical or your mental environment

This is the most effective coping mechanism for me, even if I have to force myself to make the initial move. Doing something, anything (non-harmful of course) can take a bad day and help me see it from a new, brighter perspective. My “go-to” change of environment is to ask my husband to take me for a drive. You might take a bath or sit outside for a bit or ask a friend to come over.

Having a friend come over can change your mental environment. I remember one day many years ago when my husband and I were fighting about something. We both wanted to end the argument and move on with the day, but neither one of us was willing to give in first. Then a friend unexpectedly came over. We both jumped at the opportunity to change our mental environment and—just like that—we were out of our funk and talking to each other as we chatted with our friend. Our friend unknowingly changed our environment and, by doing so, changed our mood and a bad day became a good one.

Another way to change your mental environment is to get yourself laughing. "Laughter is the best medicine” may be a cliché, but expressions often become clichés because there’s a grain of truth in them. Sometimes the best way to get through a bad day is to just…get through it…so you might as well get through it with some laughter. Find a funny movie or an old sitcom and resolve to laugh at anything that’s remotely funny. Don’t hold back!

Finally, doing something creative is a good way to change your mental environment. There’s no need to do anything earth-shatteringly creative. Some internet friends of mine have coloring books. You can get beautiful ones at a reasonable price, and crayons are still cheap! Or you could try some journaling or sing along to a CD. It’s creative just to pick up a good book—maybe an “old friend” that you’ve read before. My creative outlet is crocheting.

If I’m having a bad day, sometimes I have to force myself to change my environment: Bad days can create a stubborn resistance in me, a tendency I’m sure all of you are aware of. But then I remember that change, any change, might be helpful, and so I ask to go for a ride or I put on a funny movie or I pick up that crochet. Even if these changes don’t magically turn a bad day into a good one, they’re a soothing balm that help make the day manageable.

Remember that moods and emotions are impermanent

You’ve thrown your pity party. You’ve made some changes to your environment…and it’s still a bad day. That’s a good time to reflect on the universal law of impermanence. This can help keep you from falling into the trap of assuming that every day will be a bad day. Reflecting on the ever-changing nature of all phenomena helps us see that we’re not going to be permanently stuck in our current mood. Then we’re better able to patiently wait for things to change.

In How to Be Sick, I call it Weather Practice. I like to think of emotions and moods as being as changeable and unpredictable as the weather. They blow in; they blow out. Working with this weather metaphor allows me to hold emotions and moods more lightly, knowing that, like the weather pattern of the moment, they’ll be changing soon. One moment, life looks grey and foreboding; the next moment, a bit of brightness—maybe even a rainbow—begins to break through.

Emotions are impermanent. Moods are impermanent. And yes, even bad days are impermanent. This reflection is tremendously helpful to me. It allows me to recognize that I never know what tomorrow has to bring. It might be something quite welcome—a calmer emotional state, a better mood…even a good day.

© 2013 Toni Bernhard.

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