When I Feel Like Crap

November 29, 2011

I… am not the happiest person you’ll ever meet. My natural state is not contentment. I’m restless and nervous; always aware of the painful difference between things as they are and things as I’d like them to be.

I’m not necessarily un-happy, and I have had my moments of transcendental delight. Overall though, anything better than neutral tends to require some work on my part. Work that I am luckily getting better at as I age.

But sometimes… I find myself in a rut.

Lately I’ve been in a rut.

Ruts freak me out. They’re too close to the dungeons of depression, and I’ve spent enough time down there to want to stay as close to daylight as possible.

And it’s sort of funny, every time I’m in a rut I seem to have to re-learn how to find my way out. It’s fundamentally the same rut, but I never learn the lay of the land and navigate the exit any faster than the last time.

So this time, I’m codifying it: this is what I do when I feel like crap. For an hour, for an afternoon, for a week, for a month… no matter how long I’ve been there, these practices are how I start inching my way back to the waking world.

Allison’s Methods of Escaping Madness

Get rid of stuff. Sort papers, toss worn or obsolete clothes into a bag for Goodwill, throw something away, admit you’re never going to read one of those books on your shelf and give it away. Make empty space.

Exercise. Walk around the block, go for a run or bike ride, get to a yoga class. Drop and do some sit-ups and push-ups. Stretch – just reach for your toes for 30 seconds. Change the way your blood is flowing. Get out of breath. Challenge your body’s complacencies.

Go outside. Somewhat related to the last point, but not inherently so. Change the air you’re breathing and you won’t feel so suffocated. Change your surroundings and you won’t feel so stagnant.

Brush and floss your teeth, wash your face. It’s a refreshing break and gives you a (literally) clean start.

Write. Just write. About whatever’s on your mind. And if you’re feeling shitty, something’s on your mind. Write until it’s not so overwhelming; until you feel a little less angst, a little calmer, and a little more objective about your situation. Writing brings perspective – our brains are scary places that distort the reality around us, and getting those thoughts out of the mind and into a less-vulnerable receptacle helps bring clarity. Write without anticipating an audience – don’t worry about saying unflattering things. And write until you’re done – sometimes it takes one page, other times 20. Make empty brainspace.

Very conscientiously make a cup of tea or coffee or hot cocoa – something you love. Be careful with this one. I, for one, tend to mindlessly ingest tea from the time I wake up until I go to back to bed at night. But when I pay attention to what I’m doing, I absolutely adore the entire process. Boiling the water, steeping the leaves, sipping the drink, and relishing in the taste and heat. When I take the time to enjoy it, it’s extraordinarily peaceful and calming.

Shower and change clothes. Sometimes it’s okay to spend the day in pajamas – you can rock in comfort. Other times it is most definitely not even a little okay. Freshen up and make yourself at least feel like you could go outside without frightening children away; if you’re up for it, swank it up. Fake it ‘til you make it, even if the faking is entirely superficial and only to yourself. It’s silly and ridiculous, but it works.

Breathe. Really, seriously deep breaths – completely filling and emptying your lungs. We never take these in everyday life – they require actual effort. But refreshing the entire supply of air in your body is rejuvenating in a way likely unsupported by science, but helpful nonetheless. (And seriously, when you think your lungs are full, take one more gulp of air. When you think they’re empty, spit one more wisp out. I guarantee they’re there.)

Sit up straight. Bad posture makes you feel average (at best). Good posture is empowering.

Make a list. Or a bunch of lists. Actually write out all the to-dos that are cluttering your mind, then strategize. Separate “pay off debt” from “buy a gallon of milk” — they don’t belong next to each other, but that’s how they’ve been living in your brain. Figure out how to get them done most efficiently or most realistically; decide what can be delegated and what can be thrown away. Commit the list to some real, reference-able, outside-the-brain form. Then do one thing on the list right away. Remember: the list isn’t the action, the action is the action.

Eat a good meal. The correlation between me being in a funk and eating easily (aka eating crappy – frequently and unhealthily) is ridiculous. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now, but alas, I’m just not there yet, and too often still find sugary cereals and ready-made pizzas too tempting to avoid. Restart though: wait until you’re actually hungry to eat next, then eat something good. Your body and brain will appreciate it.

Drink a glass of cool water. Flush out the junky feeling.

Smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. There’s an emotional association between the use of the muscles it takes to smile and the actual sensation of feeling good, and that association can be used to trick the brain. I use it on long runs or bike rides, when I’m climbing a particularly treacherous hill and questioning every decision in my life that led me there. Sometimes simply forcing my cheeks to form a smile is enough to take the edge off and get me to the top of the hill. It’s similarly applicable in non-physical contexts.

Write down anything good you can think of. Things you’re thankful for. Even if it’s just an intellectual list, and you don’t feel any kind feelings at all. Remember: no one has nothing – even if it’s just your ability to keep sucking air into those lungs and pumping blood through those arteries. Focus on the good. Maybe even make it an ongoing list that you can add to regularly. It’s so easy to marinate in everything that bugs us, and culturally we sure seem to reinforce that tendency: you probably don’t have to look very hard to find someone complaining about their life, their circumstances, the people around them, traffic, weather, and on and on. Re-frame. Figure out what doesn’t suck (again, I guarantee there’s stuff that fits that bill) and focus on that.


And that’s my map. Now it’s time to test it.


As a side note, none of these are “easy” when you’re in rut-land. Sometimes the path up just requires choosing the action with the lowest threshold of entry and muscling your way through it, whether your brain wants to or not.

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