I’ve had a couple of major sky-is-falling crises in my life. Times when everything was going wrong, and my brain wasn’t helping matters one bit. Money stuff was all wrong, relationships were going to shit, and my anxiety was through the roof. Every waking moment was a nightmare because of depression or grief, and there was no end in sight.
Maybe you’ve never had an era in your life like that, or maybe you’re feeling a little queasy seeing someone talk about it so openly. Either way, let’s figure out how to weather the storm. Let’s punch disaster in the nuts. How?
That’s number one. I know it seems trite, but sometimes all you’re capable of is crouching down and covering your head as the blows rain down. You won’t win the round, but you’ll make it to the bell.
As always, I take an awareness approach. “Life is terrible right now, and it’s not going to get better any time soon. That’s interesting.” Recognize it rather than trying to wish it away, telling yourself everything’s fine, or berating yourself for feeling a certain way. Why invalidate your own experience? Why pretend that what you’re going through “isn’t so bad,” or that you’re “blowing things out of proportion”? Sure, we’ll want to take a broad perspective (see below), but don’t gaslight yourself.
Your experience of the moment is largely out of your hands, I’m sorry to say. While nothing can make you feel sad, or angry, or hopeless; you feel that way. Might as well feel the shit out of it.
Feel your feelings.
You’ve recognized that things are screwed up and that you feel terrible. Now, quit shoving that feeling away and feel it. Suppressing negative emotions doesn’t work. Wait, let me try that again: Suppressing negative emotions makes things worse. Don’t like feeling sad? Tough shit, your brain will tuck the sadness away in its squishy little pocket and spring it on you two-fold in an hour or two. You know that’s how your brain works, but you still try to suppress. Quit it.
Feel your emotion without forcing it. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re mournful, mourn. Just don’t fall into the trap of catharsis.
I used to have a bit of an anger problem when I was 19, and I thought that punching a heavy bag and my steering wheel and my pillow would help. 10 times out of 10, I just felt worse.
Catharsis is a concept as old as ancient man breaking a spear over his knee after letting a deer get away. It’s the idea that you can burn away emotion if you just freak the fuck out a little bit. Crying every hour on the hour even if you’re already exhausted. Imagining a traumatic scene over and over again because, goshdarnit, you just don’t feel enough despair. Raging, screaming in your car, punching a wall. Doesn’t work, boss.
Don’t suppress, and don’t force. Feel the feelings that you have. That’s healthy, and it works.
So, shit’s all messed up and you’re trying to survive, you’re feeling your feelings even though they hurt… now what? Well, it’s a matter of perspective. What I’m not saying: “Oh it’s not so bad because other people have it way worse.” No, anyone who says something like that is an asshole. Suffering is suffering, and it sucks.
What I am saying: Your crisis isn’t your whole world. It isn’t the world, it’s not the universe, and it’s not everlasting. No matter how bad things are, life is always a sine wave, with ups and downs. Even in total bleak grief, there are moments when it lets up. Notice this.
If you’re currently in the depths of despair, you may not believe me, but it’s true. If you currently have low mood, your current episode of depression had an onset, it has a texture, and it will fade out. I want you to notice those parts, those features and facets. That helps dispel the internal myth that depression (or anger, or hopelessness) just is, and that it’s constant and unchangeable. No, these episodes start, they do some kickflips and ollies, and then they leave. Dispelling this internal myth will help.
Step way back.
This one’s a little harder. It means asking “what is this person going through?” about yourself. It means viewing yourself and your struggle as if from a distance, and doing so with a sense of curiosity.
I’m not kidding, this is real shit, and it works. Here’s what you do: When things are really really bad, imagine viewing yourself from far away. Consider this human, this frail creature that is hurting so badly, and wonder about them. “What is this person feeling? Why does it hurt so much? What is this person’s life like? Who is this person?”
This concept is derived from the mindfulness-based concept of detachment. What I want you to get out of it:
- Some breathing room. You can have an emotion without it beating the shit out of you.
- A bit of room to problem-solve. It’s easier to help other people with their problems than it is to help yourself, and this will give you a bit of that perspective.
- A sense of depth. I want you to see the vast dance of emotions and circumstances at work, not just the ones currently pummeling you.
What I don’t want:
- Intellectualization. Don’t step back and then proceed to rationalize all of your feelings, or pretend that you’re a counselor who can out-think and out-analyze them. You’re not. Feel the feelings.
- Emotional detachment. It’s good to step back and consider, but do so compassionately. This is a creature in pain. Love them, be curious about them, and continue feeling.
This is big. It requires faith, and it requires courage.
I remember a time when my OCD was really bad. Like, couldn’t sleep because of sweating-shaking-panic bad. I had physical symptoms (aches, pains, stiffness), I couldn’t think coherent thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time due to other nasty thoughts intruding, and nothing was fun. Nothing was okay.
I got straight As and kicked ass on the GRE that semester.
Is this because I’m super awesome and great at getting work done? Hell no, I had just been through this a few times before. This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, and I knew that, even though the end wasn’t in sight, it would end. This allowed me to keep doing certain things that needed doing, no matter how painful it was, no matter how my brain raged and resisted. I came through the episode (once I had gotten properly medicated) feeling kind of good about myself, and optimistic about future set-backs.
You’ll get through it too. You always do. Have faith in life’s weird rhythm, and be brave.