I’ve had a rough couple of months as some major bummers have rattled my faith, dashed a few hopes and driven me to big, fat tears. However unique my circumstances, I know I’m not alone. A glance at the news reveals countless people grappling with crumbling economies, joblessness, violence and bullies of all kinds as we Americans head toward a pivotal presidential election. Lately, even our peanut butter and painkillers are tainted.
Sometimes, it’s just all too much.
“People are just hunkering down and they seem to be on overload,” says a colleague in California who, like me, experienced a sharp decline in business this fall. “We just need to get this election and this 2012 thing over! In the meantime, I’m giving myself a break. My husband and I went to a lovely mountain town last weekend and I sucked it up like a dry sponge.”
A weekend in the country is one way to escape, but how else can we soothe our sagging spirits when the going gets tough? First, it helps to acknowledge our true feelings, says spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra.
“Just telling yourself to ‘be positive’ isn’t much help, because moods can have a life of their own,” he writes in a recent article, “But the most satisfying project you will ever undertake…is to discover how to build a sense of happiness that no one can take away from you…”
“Building happiness” looks different for everyone. For me today, it was making a pot of chunky vegetable soup, baking some apple crisp and photographing the luminous orange leaves outside my door. Creativity heals and boosts morale, writes poet Sharon Olds. “Writing or making anything—a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake—has self-respect in it,” she says. “You’re working. You’re trying. You’re not lying down on the ground, having given up.”
Hearing from friends about their own challenges also gives me comfort during difficult times, as does sharing my pain with those who can really listen, including God. I asked some of my friends to share what they reach for when the stuff hits the fan, and I heard about favorite TV shows that distract and songs that uplift or validate feelings. “I turn on music that makes me cry,” says one pal, while a former co-worker says “I run, with Pearl Jam on my iPod. Nobody knows my pain like Eddie (Vedder).”
Comfort foods made many people’s lists (I’ve personally cooked bushels of mashed potatoes, lately, well buttered), and a former student tells me that she has a collection of “comfort books” for tough times. “They’re not especially enlightening—Peter Wimsey mysteries, Jane Austen’s novels, a sci-fi series I love and Harry Potter,” she reports, “but re-reading them is like visiting old, well-loved friends or cousins…works to remind me of who I am and what I love and that the world can be all right.”
I give myself lots of space when I’m hurting, deliberately keeping my schedule open. One trip I do make time for is the library, which feels like a refuge of goodness and stability as the calm librarians scan my books and DVDs. Getting there via good old-fashioned walks, sans headphones, also shifts my mood by putting me outside, where nature and other people pull me out of my mental melodramas.
My sister-in-law says, “I recommend volunteering when life’s been tough. My neighbors and I just met to plan our monthly meal for the local homeless shelter, and I feel so much better realizing that my own life is so sweet.” Clearing clutter for donations is another mood-booster, since having unwanted stuff around can weigh us down psychically. One former student purges her closets and bookshelves when she’s feeling down, occasionally rewarding herself with champagne and a nice dinner. “And I must admit, I get a little buzz on, which I also enjoy,” she adds.
Yes, I’ve reached for Merlot instead of mindfulness at times to get that “What, me worry?” sensation. It’s not a good long-term strategy.
A local colleague allows herself brief pity parties when things go badly, before taking a deep breath and reaching for something better. “My absolute favorite is to pick up one of my puppy’s toys and play with him,” she says. “He’s never too tired, moody or distracted by anything other than what’s happening in the moment. I feel the joy of his spirit while we play.”
I like this idea, too, from a yogi friend. “Sometimes I just hang my head over the edge of a bed or couch,” she says. “It’s an easy way to be upside down to get blood and nutrients flowing to the brain.” I tried this and it made my head feel kind of shiny inside. Others tell me that they dance or drum to shift their energy when life disappoints.
Mira Kirshenbaum, a psychotherapist and author of Everything Happens for a Reason, writes that big events in our lives, good and bad, help us to learn, grow and renew ourselves. The trick is to trust that process when we’re in the midst of big events that feel like big heartbreaks. Perhaps learning that we can adapt and survive is enough sometimes.
Meanwhile, there’s always cinema therapy. I recently treated myself to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which one of the main characters repeats, “In India we have a saying, that everything will be all right in the end. So, if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.”
Now that’s an idea I can embrace right now.