We're all familiar with the scene: The lead female character is sprawled on the couch in her apartment, sobbing in front of the TV, watching a heart wrenching movie, dressed in PJs, sipping wine and eating Ben & Jerry's straight from the container. The answering machine is blinking with unanswered calls. When the main character is male, he's strumming his guitar, singing a sad love song, unshaven and disheveled, with empty bottles of beer and pizza cartons scattered around the room. His mobile phone is vibrating from all the ignored text messages he's received.|
The familiarity of the scene may make you chuckle or perhaps even relate. We've all been there. At some point or another, we've experienced loss, disappointment or depression that left us wanting nothing more than to be alone, wallowing in our sadness and licking our wounds.
There is nothing wrong with taking some time out when life throws you a curveball. Whether it's the loss of a job, opportunity, loved one, relationship or anything else we've cared deeply about, the empty void results in sadness. Everyone will experience it at one time or another; it's part of the human condition.
It's important to acknowledge and experience emotions of sadness and grief, but if we continue behaving like the main characters in the examples above for too long, a tough time can turn into a clinical depression that's hard to shake.
Here are several common patterns people fall into when they're down that only make their blues worse.
9 Behaviors That Only Worsen Your Blues
1. Denying your feelings. Trying to pretend that everything is OK, when it's anything but, is stressful and energy draining. I'm not suggesting you tell everyone you know that you're going through a tough time; there is something to be said for putting on a smile when it's needed. However, it is healthy and wise to acknowledge your feelings, accept that it is OK to feel that way and give yourself the chance to experience the emotions at hand. Many find comfort in journaling or confiding in a trusted friend, colleague or family member. Sometimes telling someone else how you feel is a good step in acknowledging that it's real—instead of always putting on a brave face.
2. Isolating yourself. When we are hurting, there is a tendency to want to withdraw socially and spend more time alone. Brief periods for contemplation and crying are part of the process, but extended periods of isolation will not help you heal. According to Shawn Achor, researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, too often when we are feeling stressed, overwhelmed or in pain, we pull inward—away from family, friends and social support. But this is when we need support more than ever. Depressed individuals who maintain social relationships during difficult times recover sooner and experience less chances of recurrence. Religious rituals like holding a wake or sitting Shiva are done because of the importance of being surrounded by those who care and love us when we have experienced loss. Even if you don't feel like it, force yourself to go out, socialize and be with others. You may be surprised at how much better you feel when you do—even if you're not in the mood for it at the start.
3. Feeling guilty during moments of happiness. In our deepest moments of sadness, we can still experience moments of joy—and that's OK. If you find yourself laughing out loud or realizing that you just had fun, embrace it. That doesn't mean you care any less or are suddenly "over" the issue. It just means you had a brief respite from feeling down. That's healthy!
4. Ignoring your health. It's easy to skimp on sleep, skip the gym, forget to eat and otherwise drop your habits of daily self-care when you don't feel like yourself. But this is the time when maintaining healthy habits should remain a priority. By all means, take a day or two off from your normal routine if you really need to—just get back to it as soon as possible. Exercise will increase endorphins and serotonin, the feel-good hormones, and have often been shown to have similar benefits to antidepressant medications. Good nutrition will give you the energy you need to continue meeting your responsibilities, and keep blood sugar levels stable. Swings in blood sugar are known to have negative effects on mood. Sleep is restorative and rejuvenating. Chronic sleep deprivation lowers serotonin levels in the brain, and can plunge you deeper into a depressive state.
5. Self-medicating with junk food, alcohol, sleeping pills or illegal drugs. Despite the immediate relief they may offer, these habits always lead to bigger problems down the line. In the throes of enormous sadness it's hard to imagine that you'll ever feel happy again. But experience and research tell us that with time, most people return to their happiness set point despite life's greatest adversities and losses. When that happens, you don't want to find yourself with15 extra pounds or a dependency problem to contend with. If you're experiencing extreme difficulty sleeping or severe anxiety, talk with your doctor about safe and effective options to help you through this difficult time.
6. Surrounding yourself with sadness. When feeling bad, an occasional cry from a sad movie, novel or emotional song can be quite cathartic. You might find you feel a bit better afterwards. But if you constantly dive into pursuits that are depressing—just because you're feeling sad—there's a pretty good chance you'll continue to feel those emotions. You might not feel like laughing, but an occasional lighthearted comedy or hangout with your funniest friend can do wonders to help lift your spirits. A good laugh is often the best medicine—especially when a good cry is no longer helping you feel better.
7. Ruminating. When you can't stop your negative thoughts and feelings, and you examine them from every angle possible, you are ruminating. According to Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, this habit doesn't produce any positive results because you're viewing everything through the "distorted lens of negativity. "So rather than come up with helpful answers, you spiral down further, feeling overwhelmed and demoralized. Just being aware that you are caught in this thinking pattern is the first step toward stopping it. The best way to switch gears is to choose a healthy distraction. Do anything that will lift your mood and take your mind off your troubles. Take an exercise class, cook a healthy recipe, or go shopping with a friend. Create your own list of activities that you can call on for a healthy distraction. As silly as it sounds, setting aside a specific time to worry can help too. When you catch yourself ruminating, say, "This is not the time for ruminating. I'll have 15 minutes to do that at 5 p.m. tonight."
8. Getting caught up in "all or nothing" thinking. When you are overcome with sadness, it's normal to think you will always feel this way, or that you'll never be happy again. When you hear yourself say that, turn the thought around. "I am so sad now, but I know happier days will come." Say it to yourself—even if you don't believe it.
9. Brushing off professional help. If time is passing, but your pain is not, medical attention may be needed. When you notice you either can't sleep or are sleeping excessively, have a loss of appetite or are compulsively overeating, have difficulty attending to your responsibilities, have no desire to engage in any activities that used to bring you pleasure, and you can't get yourself to even try any of the above suggestions, it is time to see your doctor or a mental health professional. Talk therapy and/or medication may be your next best step towards returning to a life filled with meaning, purpose and joy.
Through adversity often comes growth and opportunity. When we are enmeshed in difficult times, expressions such as, "when one door closes another opens" and "for every cloud there is a silver lining" might seem like the mantras of the Pollyannas of the world. However, studies of individuals who have survived some of life's most traumatic events often describe enormous positive growth as a result. Increases in spirituality, courage, compassion for others, appreciation and gratitude for the simpler things in life, and openness to creative thinking and problem solving are all possible outcomes from hardships. Despite feeling blue now, you very well may discover strengths you never knew you possessed, which could eventually lead you to greater life satisfaction.
Achor, Shawn. 2010. The Happiness Advantage. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Brooks, Robert and S. Goldstein. 2004. The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. New York: McGrill Hall.
Fredrickson, Barbara. 2009. Positivity. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Web MD, "6 Common Depression Traps to Avoid," www.webmd.com, accessed on August 2, 2013.