Everyone has bad days. I define a bad day as when unexpected, unwanted things happen (and distinguish these from bad hair days below). Things go wrong. Usually it is a series, although one big event can certainly color a whole day.
On our good days, when we are “well-resourced,” we can cope with one of these events without too much disturbance. If we have several of these, or are not well-resourced to begin with, we begin to fall further and further into an internal state of disorganization.
How do we to keep this from becoming a landslide? Here are 6 tips for dealing skillfully with bad days:
Accept it as normal.
As some of my favorite Buddhist authors say, our expectation that everything should go right and our protest when they do not is the cause of much of our suffering.
Why shouldn’t we have some unexpected, unwanted events? It’s just part of life. Considering all the contingencies out there, there can’t help but be some days when your stars are crossed.
So see it as normal and a matter of simple arithmetic. You’re going to have some bad days. How bad they are depends on how you manage them.
Put it in perspective.
How bad is the bad? You might use an old trick from cognitive psychology and ask yourself, Will it matter 5 years from now? Another common strategy is to compare. I just talked to my neighbor and hearing about her bad day helps me see how insignificant mine was.
Help your body with the stress.
A bad day sets you back. It may kick up stress hormones, lead to muscular tension, headaches, leave you agitated and in need of soothing.
It’s easy to make a bad day worse by grabbing the wrong thing to eat or drink. That donut, for example, may give you a sugar high followed by a crash, confusing and fogging your brain.
We support the cumulative effect of stress when we don’t stop to reset. Perhaps we effort and strain to make things better, but inadvertently make things worse, because we don’t allow time to return our nervous system and muscular tension to something closer to baseline.
Find out what works for you—working with breath, taking a walk, receiving supportive touch… and then use it!
Check your self-talk.
How you hold what is happening and what meaning you give it is critical to how stressful it is.
- Do you respond harshly and critically to yourself, like a grouchy parent would?
- Do you engage in catastrophic thinking, making a problem bigger and worse than it really is?
- Do you globalize, interpreting whatever happened in stable (ongoing) and universal terms? E.g. I’m just unlucky. Bad things are always happening to me.
- Do engage in nurturing self-talk, with reassuring and positive perspectives? Many of my clients never had a parent offer simple reassurance, like “It will be ok,” and have to learn to provide this for themselves.
- Do you have a need to “get points” for your suffering? Watch how you talk about your mishaps. Is there any way you cling to them?
Decompress and take stock.
At the end of my day, I often journal. I do there what many do with a partner, which is take stock of my day. Last night, I knew it had been a more stressful day than usual with more “unexpected, unwanted events,” and I made a list of them. But then I did something new: I made a list of mitigating factors and what went well. So for example, my tech blunders had caused problems in two skype sessions, but both clients were patient and helpful. We found work arounds. And I won’t make the same mistakes again; I learned something. Making my lists, I found that I had as many items in the second as in the first.
We need to get the learning from our experiences and to metabolize them. It is not a good idea to just let experiences pile up without taking time with them. Unprocessed experience often shows up in health issues, bad dreams, and symptoms like anxiety.
Work with your internal ecology.
Stress often leads to a state of regression where your adult consciousness gets lost as all of your awareness blends into your overwhelmed inner child. Sometimes that child needs to be heard; other times the distress doesn’t lighten until we can differentiate from that child and come back to a more capable, adult.
Another common response is for stress to elicit a problem-solving aspect of us to come up. While this can be helpful in the moment, it can create an overall imbalance. For example, I notice that stress gets my mind more activated. It is as if mind is called to action to make everything right, and then has a hard time stepping down to let me sleep.
Your well-being is dependent on this inner ecology, so you want to become proficient in learning how to restore balance to your internal system. It might be that petting your cat helps you relax and come back into your heart, which in turn helps harmonize your inner landscape.
Bad days vs. Bad hair days
We’ve had a saying for a few decades now about having a “bad hair day.” When I look that up in online dictionaries, it says, when many things “seem” to go wrong. This points to the subjective factor. We’re always looking through a filter at our experience. What filter we look through determines what we see.
On a bad hair day, we feel more clumsy and ugly than on another day when we’re more in harmony with ourself. Of our several possible self-images, we’ve reverted to one of our more negative ones. And likely we’ve converted to a map of the outer world that ain’t so pretty either.
It’s good to notice if you’re having a bad hair day and to see something is a little off with you. It’s a signal to make an adjustment in that internal ecology.
I bring up this distinction because not all bad days are simply bad hair days.
Shit happens. Your basement floods, your car breaks down at the worst possible time, your child is hurt, your partner wants to leave. Things fall apart.
There is a continuum of how bad is bad. When bad things happen that are out of your control and in which you feel trapped and helpless and as if you may not survive, we call that trauma. You might read my book, Healing From Trauma for practical tips to help you on your journey of healing.
And, of course, when stress is persistent and you can’t easily “right the boat,” it’s good to get professional help.
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