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7 Reasons Why Some Days Just Feel So Much Worse Than Others

... and 3 things to try when you're struggling.

Key points

  • Daily inputs like friction with our partner or minor hassles can affect us more than we realize.
  • Unrecognized variations in our bodies and brains can explain unexpected struggles.
  • We need self-compassion more than anything when we’re having a spike in symptoms.
Syda Productions/Adobe Stock
Source: Syda Productions/Adobe Stock

My therapy clients often ask me why their mental health fluctuates so much. One day they feel on top of things, their mood is high, and anxiety is manageable. And then for no apparent reason, the bottom falls out—their mood tanks, anxiety spikes, they’re easily triggered, and everything feels overwhelming. I can understand their frustration, having my own mental health ups and downs like anyone else. Even when we’re doing everything we know to stay well, sometimes it feels like we’re riding a mental and emotional roller coaster.

1. Different Inputs, Different Outputs

Our emotional well-being depends to a large extent on the daily inputs we encounter—things like stress, our interactions with other people, and the little boosts we get from running into a dear friend or getting good news. We’re not always aware of the impact that these things have on us. Maybe being extra busy at work is affecting us more than we realize and making everything harder, or minor daily hassles that don’t seem like a big deal are taking a big toll.

2. Hormone and Neurotransmitter Variability

Well-known hormone patterns like the monthly menstrual cycle and daily (circadian) fluctuations in testosterone can have a significant effect on how we feel. The release of stress hormones like cortisol through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has wide-ranging effects on things like blood sugar, inflammation, energy, and irritability, among many others. The endocannabinoid system (which CBD acts on) also has a circadian rhythm, and endocannabinoid signaling is known to regulate a vast range of processes in our bodies and brains. We may not know specifically what our endocrine and nervous systems are up to, but we’ll feel the effects.

3. Sleep Quality and Quantity

Sound sleep has a positive effect on every aspect of our experience, from energy and mood to irritability and productivity. A few nights of short or broken sleep can trigger a spike in anxiety, a dip in mood, and an overarching struggle to deal with life.

4. Diet

We are integrated beings: Our physiology affects our psychology and vice versa. An excess of sugar, for example, can cause a crash in our mood and energy, and caffeine can increase anxiety. As the authors of a recent review of research on diet and mental health concluded, "Specific aspects of diet can lead to acute changes in mood" (Bremner et al., 2020).

5. Mental Perspective

Our mindset can shift from day to day and even moment to moment—from optimistic to hopeless, from scarcity to abundance, from thinking the world is against us to knowing the universe has our back. A simple change in perspective can have big effects on our peace of mind, for better and for worse.

6. Accepting vs. Rejecting Reality

Closely related to mindset is our basic stance toward life: Are we receiving it as it comes, making space for all of our experience? Or are we resisting the things we don’t like but can’t change, and insisting that they should be different? The more we’re willing to roll with life instead of wrestling against it, the less we suffer when things don’t go the way we want them to.

7. You’re Not a Machine

The number one reason for your mental health ups and downs is that you’re a living being, and it’s in your nature to be different from day to day. It’s easy to criticize yourself when you’re having a tough time, but that’s exactly when you need compassion, and self-compassion more than anything. Rather than judging or abandoning yourself at these times, you can make a commitment to meet yourself wherever you are.

Try This When You’re Struggling

  1. Sit or lie down in a quiet place. Rest your right hand on your belly and your left hand over your heart. As you breathe in, silently say to yourself, “Inhale, my friend.” As you breathe out say, “Exhale, my friend.” Repeat these statements with two more rounds of breath. (Adapted from Rachel Turow’s latest book, The Self-Talk Workout, which she shared in an episode of the Think Act Be podcast.)
  2. Next, gently check in with yourself. Instead of evaluating how you’re doing, just attend, with curiosity. Whatever you discover, say to yourself, “This is how things are right now.”
  3. Finally ask yourself, “What do you need in this moment?” Whether or not you get a clear answer, simply asking is a genuine expression of self-care in a difficult time.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Bremner, J. D., Moazzami, K., Wittbrodt, M. T., Nye, J. A., Lima, B. B., Gillespie, C. F., ... & Vaccarino, V. (2020). Diet, stress and mental health. Nutrients, 12, 2428.

Vaughn, L. K., Denning, G., Stuhr, K. L., de Wit, H., Hill, M. N., & Hillard, C. J. (2010). Endocannabinoid signalling: Has it got rhythm?. British Journal of Pharmacology, 160, 530-543.

Zohar, D. (1999). When things go wrong: The effect of daily work hassles on effort, exertion and negative mood. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 72, 265-283.

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