Ever have one of those days where you just felt like giving up? Where one thing seems to pile on the next, and all of a sudden your whole life appeared to be spirling out of control?
It happens. Even the most self-assured, confident people end up in situations where they just end up feeling badly about themselves.
The good news is: It’s all changeable.
It doesn’t matter if we feel like failures, losers, like we’re wasting our life, or that we’ve ruined our life.
Even if our string of undesirable events has lasted weeks, months – or longer, there are reliable, scientifically-proven ways to feel better. You’re about to find out how.
Why We Keep Feeling Badly
Before we look at how to feel better, it makes sense to first understand why, when we feel badly, we often continue feeling badly – even long after the negative event(s) occured.
After all, it’s not the feeling badly that’s really the problem. It’s when we can’t seem to recover from feeling badly.
Just like a doctor tends to find out what’s wrong with us before prescribing medication (or so we can hope), by understanding why it is we feel bad we can make direct steps to feel better.
To show you how this works, let’s take an example most people are familiar with: Christmas Music.
When it comes to holiday classics, people are generally in 1 of 2 camps: love or hate.
Why do some people hate Christmas music?
Because it readily gets stuck in one’s head, and is nearly impossible to remove.
Even long after the music has stopped playing.
Kid’s songs can do the same. Katia has worked in some kindergardens, and sometimes plays a new children’s song that she’ll be doing with her class in the morning. At noon, I can find myself humming “Old MacDonald” without even realizing that it’s there, stuck in my subconscious like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth.
Negative events and negative emotions can be like Christmas music or children’s music: they get caught in a mental loop that can be ridiculously hard to break.
This is often misdiagnosed as an individual having low self esteem. But low self esteem is rarely the actual problem! It’s got far more to do with these mental loops that play over and over – as if we’re stranded at the mall during holiday season without any earplugs.
So now let’s see how to break them.
How to Feel Better: Start With Body Language
Body language is what I’d call the real form of “positive self talk”. The power of body language is well known to anyody with more than a casual involvement with the animal kingdom – for instances displays of dominance and aggression, but we easily forget what an important role it plays in our own lives.
We are biologically wired not only to understand and react to the body language of others – displays of dominance, aggression, empathy, happiness, and others – but our own as well.
In her TED Talk, Amy Cuddy shows that perhaps we are how we stand determines even more than we are what we eat:
I enjoy doing a silly exercise courtesy of a Micky Mouse animation I remember seeing in childhood. Mickey would walk with a bounce in his step, and certainly wasn’t lacking for arm swinging action (think: strutting). So I came up with a facimile: With as much vigor as possible, I’d basically walk with two “bounces” in your legs for every step. Basically, you just have to take a step forward, and then bend your back knee twice before taking another step. Bonus points for a huge grin.
It looks ridiculous, but I can say this much: It’s basically impossible to be upset while doing it.
And if you want to add to the effect, could could always…
Put on Upbeat Music
Music is deeply connected to how we feel. If you ever get the chance to watch a movie with the sound track removed you’ll know what I mean. Music is often the thing that drives our emotions in scenes of suspense, surprise/fear, and romance.
And in our lives, music can quickly and drastically alter our mood. That’s why it’s important to choose upbeat music, not slow, sad, themes that would fit in at a funeral march or an angsty-teen party. There’s a good reason so many athletes listen to pumping techno tracks while they work out.
From Scientific American:
“Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency.” and that “one could think of music as ‘a type of legal performance-enhancing drug’.”
So when it comes to driving a wedge into a negative pattern of thought, as well as helping us achieve a much desired endorphin-release, our favorite tunes can go a long way.
Now, we could do this in the comfort of our basement with the blinds drawn and the lights dimmer, but for even better results, it’s better to think of this like a cake recipe and combine this ingredient with…
Moving Your Body
In a detailed article about the link between mood and exerise, the American Psychological Association quotes Dr. Michael Otto,:
“Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.” and “Exercise may be a way of biologically toughening up the brain so stress has less of a central impact”.
And if you don’t dig psychology, then maybe it’s time to get your heavy-duty shovels out and consider the anthropological angle: We evolved to cope with a wildly different type of stress than the modern ones we face today: gridlock traffic, a sluggish economy, and sedentary lifestyles.
Throughout human history, whenever people felt fear, anxiety, worry, and other negative emotions, it often meant there was an immenant threat of some sort.
And that usually meant one of 2 things: Fight. Or flight.
In any case, you were about to become fully physically engaged, and a short time later, the situation would be resolved.
A simplistic explanation, but the underlying truth is this: we are built to move both in order to feel good and to stop feeling bad.
Personally, I prefer short, intense bursts of activity to long, drawnout ones (like running marathons) – which I consider different sorts of chronic stressors that will wear out our bodies physically over time. But different strokes for different folks. Some people find a 2 hour jog to be rather relaxing and meditative.
Of course, you don’t have to run. Movement is the key: dance, swim, ride a bike, do parkour, gymnastics, yoga, tai-bo. Whatever it is that turns your crank.
And you can make this technique even more powerful when you…
Spend quality time with a friend
While I’m on the anthropology kick, we may as well take a look at the fact that, in addition to being built for movement, humans are also programmed to be social.
Evolving in tribes of up to 150 individuals, we have every reason to believe that the well being of our ancestors was strongly tied to the strength of their social ties, just as it is today.
When we’re feeling badly about things, we often want to have someone to vent our feelings to. That has a time and a place, but it’s not what our goal is here.
Here, we want to keep our focus away from our problems, and friends are one of the surest ways of doing this. The fact that we’re spending time with someone we trust and relate to is the most important factor – it could be at a restaurant, playing a sport, or anything else where we are engaged with our friend(s).
That is to say, where we’re spending our time not just in the presence of another person – while watching a movie, playing video games, or the like – but having a real interaction.
Of course, when we feel down, it’s possible to feel like we don’t have anyone who wants to spend time with us, or that we want to spend time with.
In that case, it might be better to meet up with some new people through a hobby, volunteering, or a community event. CouchSurfing, where I often go to find affordable (read: free) accommodation in new cities and get a local perspective on things can also be a great way to meet new & interesting people in your own city, as there will often be meetups for members at any given locale.
If that’s too intimidating and you’re not so keen on meeting strangers, then I’d like you to…
Remember, you don’t have to FEEL good in order to take positive action:
Maybe you don’t feel like doing a single thing on this list. Maybe you find yourself saying “that will never work” to every suggestion that’s crossed your path. Fine. Pick something and do it anyway.
We often let our emotions be in complete control over whether or not we get into action. If that’s the case, then there will always be the potential that we fall victim to cirumstances outside our control.
Of course, if we can have a strong positive emotion driving us, things are easier. But if not, we can use the practice of being mindful in order to overcome the resistence generated by our negative emotions.
Usually, when we feel negative emotions – the conversation is over. “I don’t feel like it” says the mind, and we stay stuck. By being mindful – literally, the simple act of noticing and accepting our feelings without ascribing quality or passing judgement, lets us act freely in spite of them.
During my travels, there have been countless times I’ve felt frustrated – by bureaucratic nonsense & red tape, by people, by stores or offices being closed at the wrong times, by unexpected expenses & delays, and a host of other friends. If not for the fact that I’m incredibly grateful for my lifestyle and value even the difficult times (at least – in hindsight), I’d say frustration has been one of my closest travel companions.
And yet, now, when I feel frustrated, it rarely causes my to lose my cool. I’ve learned that it’s possible to act in my best interest regardless of the color or heat of the ichor pumping through my veins.
You can do the same. You can greet your feelings, acknowledge them, and then carry on.
It’s like this: We often spend our time looking for something to make us happy. Instead of this approach, we can ask ourselves “if I were already happy, what would I be doing?” In a pinch, this is the fastest way to find some positive action to take.
So now the floor is yours. What do you do to feel better when life takes an unexpected turn for the worse? Let us know in the comments below.