3 Strategies for Lifting Your Mood When You're Down
Cultivating well-being amidst difficulty.
Posted Sep 08, 2020
Feeling Down? You're Not Alone
This pandemic is a particularly challenging time for most people. If you have been feeling down more than usual, having a hard time mobilizing, or feeling more mentally and physically exhausted, you aren’t alone. I’ve heard people talking about the “quarantine slump,” the “corona-roller coaster,” “doom scrolling,” the “pandemic blues” and the “Zoom fatigue” that many of us are feeling.
I consider myself a high-energy, generally positive person, and I have found myself struggling more than usual lately and needing to remember my own toolkit to keep me from slipping into a more negative state. So I want to offer you three steps and short practices that may help if you are feeling down.
Three Strategies When You're Feeling Down
1. Beware the Second Arrow. There is a well-known Buddhist story about the two arrows in relation to human suffering. In this story the Buddha is asked about a person’s response to being struck by a first arrow and a second arrow. The Buddha explains that the first arrow represents the things in life that we cannot control. This first arrow is naturally painful, and inevitable. But the second arrow is our reaction to the difficult event, and the suffering caused by this second arrow is optional.
I have noticed in my own personal experience, and in the lives of my patients, that when we are struggling due to life’s difficulties (the first arrow) there is often a second arrow that follows it that sounds something like this: “What is wrong with me that I’m feeling this way?” “I should be feeling differently.” Or, “what if this feeling never ends and I feel like this tomorrow and the next day and the next?” When we resist our feelings, or worse, greet them with self-criticism, and when we get caught in emotion forecasting, this can make an already difficult situation feel far worse.
When we can allow ourselves to acknowledge our own suffering and hold it compassionately in the present moment, meeting ourselves right where we are, this can help to soothe our nervous system and ease our suffering.
For many people, knowing how to be compassionate in the face of their own difficulties can feel quite unfamiliar.
Picture a good friend, a spiritual being or a loving presence of some kind. Imagine that this person or being is sitting next to you in the midst of your difficulty, reaching out and holding a space for your pain, with kindness. Picture them saying the following words to you: “I’m sorry that you are in pain/having difficulty. It’s understandable that you are feeling this way—many people are struggling similarly. You are not alone—I’m here with you.” Take in the warmth and care that emerges from this image. Let it settle in your heart center, or anywhere else in your body that feels comforting. Notice what happens when you acknowledge your difficulty without judgment.
2. Flip It. Rewrite the Story.
Consider that in any given moment there are hundreds of things we could focus our attention on—none of which are “right” or “wrong,” but some which might serve us better. The lens through which we look at our life will inform what we see. When I am in a mental or emotional slump, naturally the lens through which I am seeing things is more negatively toned. When I notice that happening, I have to work extra hard to ask myself: what other angle might I look at things from? What is also here that I might be missing?
Here are two very different versions of the exact same day, told through the voice of the inner dialogue in my mind:
Version 1: I hardly got anything done today. I slept way too late from being up in the middle of the night for so long. My body has been so tired from Zoom fatigue lately, and I hardly have energy to be creative or to go for the run that I wanted to. I had high hopes of working on various projects and found just getting through the day and doing the basics was all I could muster. I wonder what’s wrong with me.
Version 2: I didn’t sleep great—but it felt good to meditate in the middle of night instead of staying in bed tossing and turning. Even though I got off to a late start, I’m glad I did some gentle yoga and listened to my body (instead of pushing myself to do something more vigorous today). I felt lonely today and realized how much the pandemic is cutting me off from my usual sources of connection, but it felt good to reach out to my friend. I’m glad I was able to go through some emails and clean up the house since I always feel better when things are more organized.
Try telling two very different versions of your day to a friend or family member, or to yourself. Explore what that version sounds like through a more negatively toned lens, and then through a more positively toned lens. Note, however, that in the latter version it is important to say things that feel authentic and true for you. For example, imagine having a difficult day and note the difference between saying “this day was amazing” (not true) versus “even though this day was challenging, I’m proud of myself that I got out of bed and did the things I needed to" (more authentic).
Pay particular attention to what happens in your body, and to your energy, the first and second times around.
3. Fill your buckets—even one drop at a time.
We all have what I call “buckets” that nourish us. These are categories of activities that we engage in that feed our well-being. While our buckets might look quite different from person to person, some examples might include: moving the body, connecting with others, being in nature, engaging in spirituality of some kind, learning something new, doing something creative, or doing something kind for another. When we feel “down” or depressed, we become sluggish and even immobilized at times. It becomes much more difficult to do the things that we know help us to feel better. When we can do even one thing to fill one of our buckets even a drop, this can help create some positive momentum to energize us and help lift our mood. This energy then makes it easier to take the next step. Drop by drop, we begin to fill our buckets back up.
Write out what “buckets” are most important and nourishing for you. Then write specific, small action steps you could take for each of your buckets. For example, if “moving the body” is one of my buckets, a specific action step might be going outside and walking for five minutes. If “doing something creative” is a bucket, a small step might be getting out markers and doodling in a journal or on a sketch pad. Finally, pick one small action step that you can commit to doing today and do it. Notice how you feel afterwards. Notice anything that may shift or change in your mood or energy.
We may not always be able to change the difficulties we face, but when we have a few tools to guide us, we can begin to see things through a different lens, offer ourselves some self-kindness, and take small actions that can shift our momentum and tip us toward greater positivity.