Everyone feels sad at various times in their lives. According to Wikipedia, the single mood people generally put most effort into shaking is sadness. Sadness is a normal emotion, even in children, usually in response to loss of some kind. Different people find different ways to cope with sadness. Unfortunately for some, sadness can stretch past “normal” and spiral into “chronic” sadness – which has its own name, dysthymia, which is also called chronic depression.
Having suffered with chronic depression for most of my life, I’m painfully acquainted with sadness, especially how it can creep into a lovely day without warning or any obvious triggers and suck me into its melancholy depths before I’m even aware of what’s happening.
But as “normal” and inevitable as sadness might be for “normal” people, it’s not a place I can afford to visit for very long anymore. While most people can bounce quite safely out of a blue mood, I know my own history well enough to recognize now that allowing myself to stay in that mood for any length of time puts me at risk of slip-sliding onto precarious ground that I cannot easily escape on my own.
And so, over the years, I’ve had to learn coping mechanisms to use when those blues hit. And so today I just thought I’d list them here, in case they might be of any help to anyone else. There is a great proliferation of information “out there” (just Google “sadness” or “dysthymia”), so I won’t go into great detail. I don’t know about you, but I like a good quick “summary-at-a-glance”…the summary is often my favourite place to start.
Before I list the coping mechanisms that I use now, I want to list how I USED to deal with sadness – trust me, everything listed here in this first section is potentially counter-productive and can lead to further problems and health issues.
So here’s my list of WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE SAD
1. Binge Eat: it’s very tempting to eat our way through our grief and sadness…but this one has consequences that could prove to be very difficult to cope with further down the road – obesity and dangerous health issues such as diabetes and high cholesterol are just two.
2. Drown in Your Sorrows: in my experience, dwelling on my sadness just makes me feel worse. And similar to binge eating, “drowning” one’s sorrow via any kind of substance abuse (alcohol, narcotics, even over-the-counter and/or prescription drugs) just complicates everything, sometimes beyond repair.
3. Withdraw and Wallow: for me, although it’s most what I might crave to do, the worst thing I can do is to isolate myself and steep in my own melancholy. It never makes me feel better, and the isolation just triggers all sorts of other emotional issues, which pulls me even deeper into the muck.
5. Recriminate and Regret: putting myself down, blaming myself for all the problems in the world, and constantly filling my mind with my flaws, failures and faults is a quicksand that pulls me deeper into a dark place that’s almost impossible for me to crawl back out of on my own. It’s still my primary instinct to go here, but I’m learning how to block it now because it’s just too toxic for me to do this anymore.
6. Rage and Be Bitter: been there, done that, doesn’t taste so good…and it runs the risk of doing a lot of damage to relationships that you might want to still be there for you when “this too shall pass”.
8. Suicide: Hmmm, I debated about adding this, because people just don’t want to hear about it, but decided that I couldn’t ignore it, because it belongs here on this list of what NOT to do. I’ve been there, done that, barely survived by the mercy and grace of God, and all I can say is that IT ISN’T THE ANSWER! There is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS another way out. I ended up at death’s doorstep and realized (thank God!) that it wasn’t where I was meant to be.
Which forced me to find these other ways to cope.
MY WORKING STRATEGIES FOR COPING WITH SADNESS
So here are my primary strategies for dealing with those days and moments when sadness and grief hit out of the blue. It was difficult in the beginning to turn to these strategies instead of regressing into my old habits, but over time it has become easier, even to the point of being automatic now, to pull one or more of these out of my coping kit and just do it.
1. Allow Myself a Good Cry – Then Deliberately Move On: I can’t not allow myself to cry, because I leak. I cry easily, and that’s okay. I allow myself to have that little weep, sometimes an outright sobbing session, then I pray for strength and courage – and then resolutely get up and do one of the other things on this list.
2. Get up and change activity/location/clothes: If I’m lying in bed, I force myself to roll out of that bed and go to another room in the house and start another activity there. Maybe something as simple as brushing or flossing my teeth (sometimes I have to do it through my tears), or sweeping the floor. If I’m sitting on the couch, I’ll get up and move to another room – maybe wash some dishes (hot soapy water can be quite therapeutic), or peel an onion. Sometimes I just get on my laptop and browse through pictures of beautiful places from all over the world…and then share them so others can enjoy them too. Anything to change where I was or what I was doing when the mood first began. This might not always be possible, say at work or driving a car, but if you can’t change geographical location, maybe change the music on the radio – anything to change the mind’s focus to something else. When I’m stuck and unable to change location, I start praying for other people who I know are worse off than I am.
3. Express Gratitude: Sometimes it’s hard to see, but my experience has been that the more I give thanks for little things, the more things I find to be grateful for. It becomes a game…for example, brewing a cup of tea…simple soothing activity…but if you want to take it a step forward, start giving thanks for all the tea-pluckers all over the world (the people who pluck those tea leaves so we can have our cup of tea); then give thanks for the people who manufactured and painted the tea cup, the spoons, the sugar, etc…the list can become endless and as you become aware of the global “gift” of your cup of tea, you might find your feelings of gratitude expanding exponentially!
4. Help Others: This doesn’t have to be complicated…I don’t have the stamina to do volunteer work right now, but I can still do little things to help others. I sometimes will bake cookies for our next-door neighbours when I’m feeling down, but other possibilities include phoning someone, writing a letter or email and even rubbing my hubby’s shoulders…anything to shift my focus elsewhere.
5. Positive Affirmation: I don’t do this well, but would like to be able to do better. I am constantly working at improving my self-talk…staying vigilant to catch the negative under-talk that’s often chattering somewhere deep inside of me and replacing it with positive messaging. You can do this while doing any of the other things listed here. Leave yourself kind messages on post-it notes on your fridge or mirror…and try not to cringe when you read them (I still do sometimes). We really ARE awesome, competent and beloved! And the sooner we grasp that truth and start flinging it into our fears and insecurities, the more empowered we’ll be.
6. Keep Busy: While it’s important to acknowledge and tend to the sadness and grief, especially to be compassionate with ourselves when we are dealing with the loss of loved ones and/or relationships, it’s also sometimes necessary to just take a break from “being sad” and let oneself “be busy”; for me, I often need to stay busy just long enough so as not to slip further into the darkness of dwelling and wallowing. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes, sometimes longer. I usually know now when it’s safe to slow down.
7. Walk: Walking is not only healthy for the body, it can also be very beneficial for the mind and spirit. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face, listen for signs of life all around you – birds chirping, wind rustling through the trees, children laughing, bees buzzing amongst the flowers – catch the hum that is underlying everything around you – breathe in that hum of life and let it resonate and seep into every nook and cranny of your body, mind, spirit and soul.
8. Seek Help: If the sadness persists and seems never-ending, it might be time to seek professional help. I now recognize the value of finding someone to talk to about it. A good friend, my priest or minister, or my therapist. Sometimes they provide the fresh perspective I need to be able to refocus myself into a more positive direction. Sometimes they help me dig through the sadness to find underlying issues that need expression, resolution and healing.
Sadness isn’t easy to talk about, we often shy away from sharing our sadness with other people, and balk at entering into the sadness of others. It’s not an easy place to be, but sadness is far more common than we might imagine. Millions of people suffer silently from chronic sadness, countless more (including children) struggle with some level of situational sadness (due to illness or loss). Maybe some of these ideas I’ve listed here will help someone else through one of those not-so-sunny blue patches.
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Copyright © Sharon C. Matthies, Meanderings (blog), 2012. All rights reserved.
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Please, seek help if you experience more than a couple of the following symptoms of depression:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
- Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
- Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain.