Feeling Down? Here's How to Bring Yourself Back Up

Sara Stillman Berger
·10 min read
Feeling Down? Here's How to Bring Yourself Back Up
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Oprah Daily

It can come out of nowhere, with no rhyme or reason, or it can follow a crushing breakup, the loss of someone special, or any other particularly tough time. It can slowly roll in, like the dark clouds before a storm, or it can hit your suddenly, without any warning. Whatever form it comes in, sadness is something we all experience both growing up and as adults—and yet it can still be incredibly hard to get past.

But here's the thing: You can learn how to stop being sad. While some tried-and-true methods require you to dig deep, other ways to beat the blues are incredibly simple, like spending more time outside, watching something that's practically guaranteed to make you belly laugh, and, yes, crying your eyes out. (No, spending all day on the couch, with a pint of Chunky Monkey in one hand and your favorite glass of red in the other is not a scientifically-proven technique for letting go of sadness, unfortunately.) If you're feeling lonely, you may also find it particularly helpful to phone a friend, who, by the way, may be feeling down herself. One thing to note: If you're still feeling upset after a period of two weeks and if you notice any other symptoms—like loss of energy, trouble concentrating, or difficulty sleeping—you should reach out to a professional for help.

Ahead, psychologists and mental health experts share their top tricks and tips for how to stop feeling sad—whether you're struggling with finances or just suffering from an unexplainable case of the blahs—all of which will lead to brighter days ahead.

Don’t feel bad about feeling sad.

When something negative happens in your life (a breakup, a death, the loss of a job, for example) it can seem like your world is ending, so it’s natural to feel frustrated, disappointed, and, well, plain awful. But instead of suppressing or dismissing your emotions—either by distracting yourself or keeping up a good front—you should actually embrace them. “All emotions are important to experience and have valuable information for us about our lives,” says Dr. Lori Rockmore, Psy.D. In fact, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded “individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.”

Instead of beating yourself up for feeling down, try and consider this as an opportunity to learn, grow and find true healing, says Briana Borten, CEO of the wellness organization Dragontree.

First figure out why you're sad.

Sometimes it's easy to pinpoint the reason you feel upset―say, if you just can't get over your ex, you bombed your big work presentation, or you just had a major fight with your partner. But, at other times, you may be sad for no discernible reason. When this is the case, grab a pen and a piece of paper and “write without stopping for five minutes or longer,” suggests life coach, radio host and author Sunny Joy McMillan. Not only may you naturally uncover what's causing your sadness, but just the act of writing may help you start to feel better. Numerous studies have found that participants who were asked to spend 15 to 20 minutes writing about traumatic, stressful, or emotional events experienced increases in mood and overall wellbeing and decreases in negative emotions, as well as improved physical health. Alternatively, you could also try keeping a journal, taking a yoga class, or meditating―all of which are great ways to focus on your inner self.

Then, embrace your emotions.

As we mentioned earlier, when you avoid sadness altogether, you’re actually doing more harm than good. “You can’t heal what you don’t feel,” says life coach and author Nancy Levin. In other words, stop binge-shopping, stop your back-to-back-to-back-to-back spin classes, stop the tequila shots, and stop anything else that numbs.

As uncomfortable as it may be, acknowledging and embracing your sadness is actually the first step to feeling better. "There is that discontent, and you recognize it and you wish to be free of it, so instead of running away or eating something, drinking something, or yelling at someone, instead, you breathe it in," Tibetan Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön told Oprah during an episode of SuperSoul Sunday. "Sometimes I use the image of its as if you breathe it into your heart just gets bigger and bigger...No matter how bad it feels, you just give it more space. When you breathe in, you open to it."

To release sad emotions, try crying it out.

Alternatively, you could also try "crashing," which is something Levin does when she is sad. “I put on music or movies or shows that I know will help me cry and have a release,” she says. (Need some recommendations? In our experience, Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" or Coldplay's "Fix You" are both great options for a cathartic cry.)

While it may seem counter-intuitive, Levin is actually on to something. "Only humans exhibit emotional crying," says Dr. Matt Bellace, PhD, psychologist, and author. And not to get too science-y but Bellace says a biochemical analysis of tears found they contain an endorphin named leucine-enkephalin, which is known to reduce pain and improve mood. Plus, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, crying is associated with the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system―which stimulates a relaxation response―meaning it may have a self-soothing effect on people. Equally important: The same study found that "criers most likely report mood improvement if they receive comfort from others," so it may be helpful to let it out in front of a close friend or family member.

Now, here's how to move on.

Once you’ve ugly cried until your eyes burn, it’s time to get a grip on things. It could take a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months. “Grief doesn’t live on a timeline,” says Levin. But you can’t stay in a dark hole forever. Here’s how to crawl out:

Set the bar ridiculously low.

To ensure that you don't go from zero to 100 and back to zero again, “lay the groundwork for success by initiating action in the smallest possible increments,” suggests McMillan. Start by doing something incredibly simple (like brushing your teeth or washing your face) and then continue taking small, incremental steps (say, making coffee or putting on a clean, cozy sweatsuit). “Once you get moving you may be surprised that you feel inspired to do more,” she says.

Find what does make you happy. (And laugh).

Consider this the opposite of crashing: Instead of embracing weepy, tearjerkers, pick out an uplifting read, put on some happy tunes, or watch a few feel-good films, suggests McMillan. Alternatively, you could engage in an activity or hobby you truly enjoy, whether that's volunteering, working on a challenging jigsaw puzzle, or tending to your lush gardens. (Still searching the thing that really satisfies you? Masterclass offers a variety of courses taught by well-known celebrities and industry leaders, from Margaret Atwood teaching creative writing to Annie Leibovitz teaching photography, while Craftsy gives lessons on all sorts of creative endeavors, like quilting and candy making.)

Even better? Doing something that'll make you laugh (think: listening to a comedy podcast, bingeing reruns of a beloved TV show, or even watching a cat video on YouTube). "Laughing in response to pain and sadness can be a terrific coping mechanism," says Bellace, adding, "Laughter releases endorphins similar to exercise, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and increases dopamine (a.k.a. 'the feel-good-hormone')." Of course, the grieving process takes time, "so there is no shame in not wanting to laugh for a while," assures Bellace.

Reach out your people―especially if you're feeling lonely.

Having a support network is important, especially if you’re going through a difficult time―so consider this permission to invite your girlfriends over for even more wine and cheese (yes, a virtual happy hour, counts too). One Harvard study, which followed the same group of men for more than 80 years, found that having strong personal connections with other people was most directly correlated to overall happiness, better health, and more contentment.

Need some help expanding your social circle? "Do things outside the home that include other people,” says Borten. For example, pick something that generally interests you, like a running club or a public tennis class. “You’ll be surprised how quickly a community forms.” And while it’s great to have friends IRL, even an online community can offer kindness and and accountability. Try searching Facebook for groups that may be able to offer support―for example, a bereavement/grieving support group. Or, search groups by interests (travel? cooking? even crochet!) to find like-minded people who can lift your spirits with a common passion. Just “make sure the online group is a loving place, involving people with a common goal,” says Borten.

Reframe your thoughts to stop thinking about the past.

Let’s say that after a break up, you keep telling yourself you’ll never find love again. After all, you feel like your heart has been torn out with a butter knife and even watching the Wedding Singer again and again hasn’t helped. Or perhaps you got a not-so-glowing review from your boss at work, so now you're convinced you'll never be promoted and you might have chosen the wrong career entirely.

That's when it's time to change your narrative. Therapists call this technique cognitive restructuring and it's a process in which you identify and challenge distressing and irrational thoughts. One way to do this: Simply turn a negative thought into a positive one. For example, says McMillan, instead of telling yourself, "I’ll be alone forever," try saying "I will find love again." (Or if that’s a stretch even saying “I may find love again,” is better!) You’ll feel more peace and less sadness, and eventually you will even believe it.

Spend time in nature.

Rockmore recommends experiencing the outdoors with all five of your senses, which she calls “behavioral activation.” Pay attention to what you see, feel, hear, smell and possibly taste in nature, and it may help you out of your slump. “Getting out of hibernation and being active stimulates the nervous system and gives people the opportunity to see beauty in the world,” says Rockland.

That's also part of the reason why time outside can reduce stress and decrease blood pressure, as well as increase creativity, cognition, and life expectancy. Don't have time for a 6-mile hike? According to a 2019 study, spending 120 minutes a week (or just over 17 minutes per day) exploring your local park or walking around your neighborhood can greatly enhance your overall sense of well-being.

Seek help if you think you may be dealing with depression.

If your sadness goes beyond the blues—your sleeping patterns and eating habits change, you’re not interested in activities you used to enjoy, you have trouble concentrating or making decisions—it may mean it's more than just that. And while self-help books are a good tool (Rockmore recommends The Happiness Trap and Beat the Blues Before They Beat You), you may find that talking to a therapist is extremely helpful.

Most important: If you are considering self harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741, the Crisis Text Line.

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