23 July, 2020

4 things to try when you just can’t cope with feeling low

  • By Team SP
I woke up this morning, and there it was. Hello, Old Friend. I tried to ignore it, which is hard to do when your whole podcast queue is “feel your feelings”-focused and you have your own therapy session at 4. Oh yeah, and when your job is helping people feel their feelings.

As I pulled into the dentist’s office parking lot, and as I got back into my car 30 minutes later, and as I sat at stoplights on the way home, I felt it resurfacing. Damn it, it’s still there. The vacuousness. The sinking. The suctioning out of my whole chest and the scraping nerves that try to stop it. It feels so familiar, but I can never quite put my finger on it until it’s halfway done swallowing me whole.

Sadness comes to me in waves like this, whispering off and on before becoming so heavy that I can’t put it down.

About such ups and downs, Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

I thought about that this morning as I drove around blowing through my podcast lineup to avoid having to face said waves. I knew, for example, that I should probably nip this in the bud and get some exercise, meditate, call a friend, get better sleep.

I tried the first 3 out of 4 already. No luck. And as for sleep? Easier said than done with a teething toddler and sleep-regressing 3-year-old. There are times when coping skills work. There are also days like these, when by the time you catch that sucker, it’s already a tsunami, and your surfboards are shredded. On those days, you just have to feel it until it's gone. Here are some ideas about how you can do that, how you can hunker down while the storm blows over:

1.  Document it. If there is any bright side to feeling terribly sad, it’s that it can be a great source of creativity and expression. The low places are usually when you most feel like diving deeper and somehow purging the darkness that’s rumbling inside of you. Use that momentum.

Write it down. Or do it some other way: Take dramatic black-and-white pictures. Sing a depressing song. Zero creative bones in your body? Make a playlist and let other people put words to your misery.

Document this valley, if nothing else, so that when you’re at the peak next time… or more likely, somewhere in between the peaks and valleys, you can see how far you’ve come. Because it won’t last forever. (See #4 below.)

2. Really feel it, so that it can move through you.

Emotion’s root word, “emotere,” means “energy in motion." Quite literally, feelings start with physical sensations that move through you. Sit still and ask yourself, What are the actual physical sensations you're experiencing right now? Zoom way in. What are the little inklings in your throat, chest, stomach that tell you you’re sad? Keep your mind on those sensations, not the stories that come with them.

In this moment only, is there really any problem besides a bodily sensation we associate with bad things in the past or future? Is experiencing the sensations of heaviness, knots, or pressure causing you physical damage or death? If “yes,” get to a hospital ASAP. Or check your mind, because it’s telling you stories again.

3. Try not to make it worse.

The bodily sensations that we associate with emotions don’t actually last very long if you don’t feed them.

You feed sadness by either (a) getting caught up in thoughts, feelings, and interpretations of the bodily sensations you associate with sadness, or

(b) hard-core resisting it, fighting it, ignoring it, afraid that if you acknowledge it you will somehow be forever lost to the black hole of Sad.

Think of it like getting caught in quicksand. If you fight it, you will only increase the suck (pun intended). If you give up, you will sink. The only way to stop the negative pull is, counter-intuitively, to lie flat against the sand. To make as much bodily contact with it as you can. (See #2 above.)

4. Know that it will end. The bad news is, it’s not over yet. The good news is, “Whatever arises also passes away” (Joseph Goldstein). This is one of the biggest reasons I love being on the therapist side of sadness, too. I can see your progress. I can see you come out of it. I can tell you about the dozens of other people whom I’ve seen come out of it. I see it from a little farther away than you can right now. When you feel like it’s just not moving an inch, I zoom out to that weekly (instead of moment-by-moment) view and tell you that it is. That’s almost impossible to do for yourself (I’ve tried! Physician, heal thyself). The perspective just isn’t there. When you only see the valley, your therapist, friend, or other support person sees the whole ocean. She knows that this, like everything else, is only temporary. If all else fails, tell yourself in the hardest moments, "This will end. This will end. This will end." That may be the nicest thing you can say to yourself in the depths of sadness.

Will these four things make the sadness go away? Probably not. Sorry. So for today, just get through it however you can. And despite what Instagram #wellness would have you believe, your goal during these times is not to be strong or to transform into a better person. You just have to survive. When you’re able to pull your surfboard back out, you can “work on yourself” again if you really want to.
You’ll feel sadness again. And although it will still suck, if you stay awake for the whole movie (i.e., feel your feelings and try not to make it worse), the sadness begins to feel less permanent. You can at least remember that it will end. Eventually, after you cycle through a few times, something sort of good does start to happen, too. Through a whole bunch of cracks where the light keeps coming in, you start to see that it’s not you. It’s something that happens to you once in a while.

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