It may start with the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one. Perhaps it is increased stress at work or the loss of a job that starts the internal process of questioning and self-doubt. Physical health problems and the accompanying sense of loss of your vitality or youth might be the initial impetus to begin feeling low. Loss and grief often trigger the beginning of an emotional and/or behavioral “slump” – that all-too-familiar downward spiral of feeling generically bad, and not knowing how to help yourself feel better. An emotional slump is different from becoming symptomatic if you are diagnosed with a mental illness, such as a mood disorder or a psychotic disorder. If you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or any psychotic disorder, and you feel that your emotions are becoming increasingly intense, or your efforts to moderate your emotions are creating problems in your life, contact your doctor and/or your therapist first. Then feel free to also use the techniques listed below to rein in the emotional intensity while you await your next appointment. If you are diagnosed with a personality disorder, especially borderline personality disorder, you may find the cycle of sliding into and climbing back out of emotional slumps very familiar. The techniques suggested below, along with others your treatment professional may suggest, should be helpful not only in helping you end the current cycle, but also in preventing future slumps.
Turning Inward, Slowing Down
What can you do to stop the downward spiral? Well, you know what won’t work: numbing out with substances or sex. As tempting as these analgesics can be, they are part of the problem. The techniques that do help are all aimed at helping you tolerate the emotions that feel so intolerable, feel what you feel, glean from these emotions any life lessons that may be important for you to learn, and then move forward in your life. As impossible as these tasks may sound when you are in the midst of feeling desperate, the more you practice them, the more grounded and capable you will feel.
Writing can be deeply healing. There are many ways to journal: Julie Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way,” suggests an unstructured “stream of consciousness” approach done each morning before anything else. Dream journals can be approached in a similar fashion: writing down thoughts, feelings, impressions or even doodles and gibberish immediately upon waking. These early morning writing rituals serve the purpose of connecting you to yourself each day, and help you start each day in a reflective and connected state. Other ways of journaling include writing down your intentions, affirmations or hopes and dreams. By using the act of writing to clarify hopes, desires, and goals, you can hone your effort to achieve these goals. Try writing lists of attributes you want to cultivate in yourself, or lists of qualities you want to have in your next job. Be as specific as you can (i.e. instead of “a pleasant work environment” specify “a window with a view of a river or mountain”). List as many qualities as you can. This process helps you connect to who you are, what you value, and what you seek.
Although it is fairly common to believe that you “should” meditate for any number of reasons, many people feel incapable of doing so. It is boring, or too abstract, too complicated or esoteric, or “just not me.” Like eating tofu, it might be healthful, but that doesn’t mean you like it. Meditation doesn’t need to dress up in exotic trappings; you can keep it simple. All meditation really is, is “spacing out,” but in a slightly structured way. You can think of it as “spacing in.” It is a good idea to set a timer for a short amount of time: three to five minutes in the beginning is plenty. You can sit or lie down, eyes open or closed, and just relax and let your mind go blank. Then every time you latch on to a thought, realize that you’ve done so and let your mind go bank again. It’s that simple. If letting your mind go blank is too difficult, try counting your breaths, or thinking a word or phrase (you can make this a phrase like “let go” or a word such as “peace” or “love”). Each time your mind wanders, come back to your breath or your word or both. Don’t judge yourself for getting distracted; it will happen over and over again and that is a normal part of the process. In fact, if that happens, congratulate yourself for doing it right. If you fall asleep, that’s OK. It means you are tired and probably need sleep. Eventually you won’t fall asleep anymore.
Most people don’t have the opportunity or desire to explore true wilderness as a way to balance out their emotions, but finding a way to connect with nature and the outdoors can be profoundly healing. Try short walks, even in the city, and notice all the living things around you—pigeons or sparrows, weeds in the sidewalk cracks, or trees whose roots push up through concrete sidewalks. Bring a camera or a sketchpad or perhaps a flute, whatever feels right for you. The idea here is to notice what’s around you and how it makes you feel in the moment. If you have safety concerns about being alone outside, consider reading about nature. You may find that reading about how others feel when in the wilderness is as inspirational and healing as getting out there yourself. These tips and techniques will help you feel better, and they may also become a fulfilling part of your inner life. Design your own practices that take you deeper into the quiet center part of yourself and enjoy that space. From there, solving problems or tolerating unpleasant emotions will be easier, and the downward spiral can fade into a distant memory.