Seven therapist tips for feeling better -- with a practical twist
The 30-second or 1-minute rule (and repeat)
This is for you if you're feeling overwhelmed by a task or a ceiling-high pile of tasks (often the case with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD and of course burn-out and depressive phases in bipolar disorder), like you're incapable of and won't succeed at anything, or if you're feeling generally unmotivated and with a heavy head.
- Pick a task that will take only 30 seconds or 1 minute to complete, such as looking at the paper document closest to you and filing it away in the proper drawer. Or picking up an item from the clean laundry pile sitting on your bed and folding it. Every item is a victory. I repeat, EVERY ITEM IS A VICTORY! You don't need to do the whole pile at once, it has been sitting there for a while, it can continue to do so for a while longer. No, honestly, it's okay. Not the end of the world. But you, dear reader, are actually ACHIEVING YOUR GOAL. Focus on that, out with the "I'm a slob" thinking pattern.
You should quickly feel at least a little bit better, because the human brain is wired to send you little jolts of dopamine everytime you complete a task. That's what helps you actually do stuff (and that's also what's missing in the brain of people with ADHD).
- Then repeat until the overwhelming task (the pile of papers or laundry) is completed or showing satisfying progress.
- The next step is picking another overwhelming but less easily-divided task, such as contacting that great journalist to try and have her contribute to your magazine, and think of ways to divide that task into smaller, more achievable ones. Then write those down. Following up with that example:
- List the actual ways you'd like that journalist to contribute to your magazine.
- Look for her contact info.
- List the main info about you and your magazine that you'll have to include in your message to her.
- Write the contents of the email or social media message you'll send her.
And then decide to do the first step, or leave it all to tomorrow -- planning and organizing is a task in itself. Some people have a job that consists entirely of that! They get actual money for that! And if you take a moment every day -- or a day every week -- to divide up your big tasks into actually achievable ones, trust me and all the specialists on the topic, you'll gain A LOT in terms of time and efficiency.
If you're still having trouble feeling that nice achievement emotion, which happens particularly often when you're dealing with depression or ADHD, think of Superman or Virginia Hall (that incredible World War II spy): would they think accumulating dust in your living room is the end of the world? Spoiler alert: nope. So baby steps, baby.
The deep-breathing technique
Yes, breathing a certain way does absolutely work to calm yourself down or achieve a certain mental state. BUT. It's a little more complicated than just "taking in a deep breath, then exhaling slowly as well". I once read that "no one can panic while breathing deeply" -- well, sorry bud but I'm here to testify that you absolutely can. And good therapists are well-aware of that.
With this being said, deep-breathing techniques might not be working to calm yourself down for a number of reasons.
- The obvious first reason is, you are not implementing those techniques properly -- through no fault of your own! When you are already panicking and feeling like your throat is too constricted to let in any air, it's pretty difficult to take deep, regular breaths and even more so according to a specific countdown (for example 7 seconds inhaling, 7 seconds holding your breath, 14 seconds exhaling). In line with this, what I've personally learned is that when I panic, I actually breathe wrong: I try to force as much air as possible through my mouth and it results in heavy, strained, inefficient breathing.
- The second reason is, the rythm(s) those techniques seek to implement might not be the rythm you need to calm down -- but rather a rythm that's meant to have you reach an optimal totally calm place when you're stressed. You and I know that, well, we first need to just get to a less strained breathing and that would already be great. Also, did I mention it's hard to stick to a rythm when you're panicking, especially when you're panicking about not being able to breathe?
Here comes the actual help.
- In those moments, the key is to accept the fear: accept that for one single breath, you'll try inhaling through your nose instead of your mouth and that it will be scary. You'll be afraid of not getting enough air, but this will actually help you get back in the proper movement of breathing and put less strain on your chest. Do so, and repeat. And repeat. And repeat. It's okay if you miss a breath. Just focus on getting the next one right. That way of breathing will allow you to more easily take deeper, longer breaths and then exhale the same way.
- Having someone breathe with you, in order to focus on their breathing and on mimicking it, can make things much easier. They have more brain room to decide on an instinctive deep-breathing rythm, and to say "inhale" and "exhale" at the right moments because obviously the whole getting-air thing is currently much easier for them. Don't think or count or anything -- just focus on breathing with them.
- Use a cardiac coherence/congruity app, such as this one on the PlayStore, also available on the AppStore. It's in French but really awesome, and you only need the main page with the bubble and the clock anyway. All you have to do is follow the ascending and descending bubble with your eyes and breathe accordingly. The peaceful and discreet music helps a lot, as does the slightly hypnotizing movement of the bubble. There are plenty of those apps available, just find one that is easy for you to use, especially in a panic attack context. The idea of cardiac coherence breathing techniques is based on actual science, having determined that if you breathe according to a certain rythm, your heart will automatically adopt one that calms you down. It's pretty terrific, honestly. I heartily recommend using the app 5 minutes 3 times a day -- my anxiety has curbed like crazy. It's just, well, insane.
Accepting your negative feelings
Saying to yourself "okay, I'm feeling bad/grumpy/frustrated/sad/angry and that's okay" is of course really important. Harboring those negative feelings and adding to them the guilt of "I shouldn't feel bad, this is ridiculous, other people have it much worse than me and I should be grateful for my life" isn't going to make those feelings magically disappear -- in fact, it will most likely make them worse.
So therapists advise to take a moment to observe your thoughts, not judge them and let them pass peacefully. Then you should tell yourself at least one nice thing about yourself, such as "I'm a caring person" or "I look good in this shirt".
It's definitely a first step but what do you do if those feelings are still strong and getting you more frustrated by the second? Or if you feel so disgusted and angry with yourself that you don't want to take a moment for those thoughts because you've done enough bullshit for today already? Because you feel you're stupid and entitled and way behind schedule, and what you need instead is a kick in the ass and to get stuff done properly for once?
I've got you.
- Being compassionate towards myself is generally difficult, made impossible in those frustrated, grumpy moments I experience several times a week (or day). So instead of forcing myself to be nice to my reflection in the mirror and it sounding super artificial and downright idiotic (in addition to seeming self-complacent), I pretend like it's a loved one going through that rough time.
- I imagine them sitting on the couch next to me, their harsh words describing themselves, their elbows drilling into their knees, their scornful tone, their hand hitting their head while they repeat "I'm so stupid, I'm so stupid!" and the angry tears welling up in their eyes.
- I then imagine how hurt I would be to hear them talk about themselves that way, my own sadness and disbelief that they would let such a small mistake or a meaningless colleague undermine them, when I know how talented and hard-working they are.
- I imagine myself wanting nothing more than to comfort them, because they're being sucked into a dark spiral where they're unable to think rationally and to actually remember all the good they've achieved -- all the good that SO outweighs the bad.
- I imagine myself holding them and hugging them and trying to squeeze the darkness out of them, because it's okay that they feel bad but it's not okay that they hate themselves for it.
- Then I remind myself that I'm the other person. That most likely, I am getting sucked into a dark spiral and I am not thinking rationally. That it's okay for me to feel bad but it's not okay for me to hate myself for it.
It doesn't necessarily work perfectly, but it does decrease the bad feelings significantly.
- Talking to a loved one about it helps, too, especially if I start my sentence or my text with "Hey, I just need to vent a little bit, can we talk for a moment?" and receive a heartfelt "Of course, honey, what's wrong? I love you!!" like I so often do when I muster the courage to reach out.
Giving yourself 3 compliments
So I've already dived a bit into that one in the previous tip, but I reckon this is a tip in itself -- one that isn't too effective when you're already stuck in a self-hating cycle.
As I said, the trick is to imagine you're actually comforting someone else going through a rough time in their day. And giving them 3 compliments, or reminding them of 3 things they've already achieved could totally be a part of that -- but what can you do when you're literally showering yourself with insults and demeaning phrases?
- Well obviously, first you stop.
- Of course, you stop because no one deserves to be treated like shit (or maybe some do, like Hitler, but then it's hard to draw the line when it's about rather regular people).
- For me, that's often not a very effective reason so let me share with you the second, much more practical one: attacking and spitting on yourself is not going to help anything or anyone. You're not going to get better at whatever task you need to complete, you're going to be in an even sulkier mood which will impact your innocent colleagues and loved ones, and according to science which is a lot more reliable than you are, being in a good mood makes you much more efficient than the contrary. So that's the goal you have to achieve, for the sake of capitalist productivity: put yourself in a better mood.
- Once you've stopped demeaning yourself, if you can't find 3 nice things to say about your own personality, try listing 3 achievements instead, no matter how small.
- If that's complicated too, think of 3 nice things people say about you.
- You don't have to think they're true: the first step is just to remember them.
- Then think long and hard about why people believe those good things about you, something more elaborate than just impostor syndrome talk along the lines of "They don't know the real me, I'm a fraud, if they spent more time with me they'd discover my real personality and they would hate me, only my family loves me and that's because they have to" because that has zero actual facts in it.
- If you can't understand why people think well of you, just go with the general idea that they're not stupid (it's part of why you like and esteem them), you don't get to dictate who they love and figuratively shitting on yourself is actually demeaning to them -- that would mean they're incapable of recognizing another person's actual worth and they can't be trusted. Not exactly true.
Then distract yourself with a book, a brisk walk to the closest park, a quick game on your phone or another article to read on Insane. Most such negative thoughts and moods fade after a while anyway, the trick is to shut the mean thoughts off until they've lost their grip on you.
- When you feel good, take the time to write down some lists to look at when you're grumpy or frustrated, such as:
- People who love you (yes, sometimes it can be difficult to remember that)
- Things you've achieved so far this year
- Actual compliments people have given you
- Measurable achievements such as degrees, certifications, nominations
- Challenges you've undertaken (even if not completed yet)
Instead of brooding, thinking of what you gotta do next
This one's actually really good. Instead of dwelling on your negative, mean, self-harming thoughts (yes, insulting yourself and repeating to yourself how you're stupid and unworthy is actually self-harm), don't allow those thoughts the brain space and energy they're claiming. You've made a mistake? A bad decision? Going all wrong about your day and not achieving anything?
Alright. Then you don't have any more time to waste focusing on your (perceived) failures: get going, time to fix all that.
- Make a list of what's gone wrong (include the consequences only if they constitue an actual problem themselves, like if a loved one has stopped talking to you. Someone being in a bad mood for the rest of the day but likely to be fine tomorrow morning does not necessarily call for fixing anything, at least not immediately).
- For each bullet point, decide on a course of action to fix the problem. If you can't find a solution, leave it blank and go to the next bullet point.
- Once you've got as many solutions listed as possible, organize your actions:
- first come the easy fixes (a message to apologize, an email clarifying an issue...)
- then the more difficult fixes for the most severe problems
- and then the difficult fixes for problems of lesser importance
- If you can't fix the problems immediately, write them down in your agenda and set reminders.
- If major problems have no fix that you could think of, enroll a trusted loved one or colleague to help you figure out a solution. Alternatively, give it some time and set it aside for tomorrow. Sometimes a fresh take on things is all it takes.
- If you're still left with unfixable issues, accept that you are not infallible, stop dwelling on them and think of ways to ensure you don't make the same mistakes a second (or whatever number) time.
Spending time outdoors and/or exercising
The science behind this is simple: it's better for your body including your brain, so it's better for your mood. Here's a few solutions to common obstacles.
- If you hate sweating, take up swimming or aquafitness or any other water-based activity. An article on how I got my tired, unmotivated ass exercising is coming soon.
- If you have trouble committing, taking classes (and paying in advance, now that's motivating) might be better, as you'll feel less inclined letting someone else down (works better than trying not to let yourself down, even when it's a collective activity that doesn't actually require your presence to take place).
- If you can't do sports for any kind of reason (including being depressed, unmotivated or downright lazy), walk to the second closest bus stop, use public transportation (which generally requires you to walk a bit), use a bike to get around, go dancing or decide this weekend you'll do some sightseeing or other social activity.
- If there isn't a park or green environment close to your home or office, or the neighborhood isn't very pleasant, just hit the closest restaurant/grocery/food place to eat lunch instead of sitting at your desk. If you've already packed a homemade lunch, get to the grocery to buy dessert or a snack (fruit is best but heck, it clears your head and mood to walk so get that cookie if you want).
- Eat lunch in a park. Getting your colleagues or loved ones to go with you can make the whole thing even more pleasant and become a nice habit. Or if you need some alone downtime, take a book with you. Or just stare at birds, it's somehow really hypnotizing.
- Tell your loved ones you need their help and ask them to make plans that include more going out. Then have them insist on taking you along.
- Have a reward (of any kind) ready everytime you do go outside or exercise. The human brain works much better with carrots than with sticks.
- Make love (to someone else or yourself) more often. That's super rewarding and intense exercise all in one.
Playing or cuddling with an animal
I would personally add: talk to them! They won't repeat your secrets, and you can have a good cry on their furry shoulder.
Taking them out for a walk can also be an excellent way to clear your head and not brood over your mistakes or underachievements... And for indoor furry friends, a crumbled piece of paper or a piece of rope will provide delightful play.
Don't have a pet? Go to the zoo, spend some time in a park, or watch cute animal videos on YouTube.
Don't like animals? Insensitive to kitten videos? Skip the whole thing and turn to food porn on Instagram.
I'd love to hear your own take on those tips and will happily add new ones! Send an email to [email protected].