We’re coming out of the long season of winter, but we’re not quite in the clear yet. Whether you’re working your way out of the throes of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or you’re discouraged by current events, it’s always a good idea to prioritize your mental health.
If you’re no stranger to depression or anxiety, you’re probably familiar with all the healthy practices that make a difference. But sometimes, just choosing the next step to take can feel overwhelming and depressing in itself. If you’re like me, when you’re experiencing symptoms, the last thing you want to do is follow all the advice: “Take a cheerful outdoors walk! Work out! Drink water!” That advice, even when offered by well-meaning friends and family, can get annoying when you are dealing with ongoing mental health struggles.
But if you don’t want to take that advice from other people, why not offer it to yourself? The person who knows you best is you.
Recently, while going through the grief of a loss and all the emotional turmoil that can entail, I made myself an “if/then list.” I thought through what helps—really helps—me in any given mood or symptom, and then made myself a list with easy, actionable steps to take if I found myself in any of those situations. I have found this to be remarkably helpful. What’s more, even if your mental health is doing fine, this habit can assist in rolling with the punches in the ups and downs of every day. Doing just one step ahead of time—coming up with ideas—can mean that the healthy stuff gets done and your mood actually improves.
As a bonus, I have found that scanning this list helps me label my emotions, which is helpful, because even just knowing what emotion you’re feeling can help you move through it. As psychologist Franco Greco points out: “Having the right vocabulary allows us to see the real issue at hand. This allows us to take a messy experience, understand it more clearly, and build a roadmap to address the problem.”
If it’s naturally experienced, an emotion takes about 90 seconds to pass. While that might not be realistic for you, these steps can help your emotions take up their proper space and not take over your life.
Below is a list intended to be a jumping-off point for your own list. I’m listing a few different emotional states and ideas for those emotional states, keeping in mind that your emotions may differ, and what helps you will differ too. So feel free to break out a pen and paper (or your favorite note-taking app) and get writing! You’ll be glad next time you’re not sure what next step to take.
If I am in a grief/shame/guilt/sadness/rumination spiral, then I will . . .
I like to start with a list of what to do when I feel really, really bad. If you wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare or you have just received terrible news, it isn’t the time to force yourself into meditation or a long run. Things on this list are simple comforting options that aren’t unhealthy coping mechanisms. Try one of these:
- Cry in the shower.
- Play a video game (yes, in moderation!)
- Watch a video or a movie. Obviously, a lot depends on the content here, but it can help to take your mind off things if someone is negatively preoccupying you by giving you other more healthy things to think about.
- Ask if you’re in pain and if so, take the appropriate measures to remedy that. Sometimes grief and unhappiness can lead to bad sleep, headaches, etc. When we’re unhappy, sometimes we think our bodily pain is part of our emotional pain, and we forget to take care of physical pain that’s present. (Taking pain meds for a headache can be appropriate, but obviously don’t use any pain medication as an unhealthy coping mechanism.)
- Tell someone that you’re feeling sad and, if possible, get a hug.
- Change into relaxing/soft/comfortable clothes. Giving yourself a signal that it’s okay to relax and physically making that transition can really help take you into a different headspace.
- Turn on a heating pad or fill a hot water bottle. Sensory distraction is our friend here!
- Clean your room for five minutes. Getting one thing done can be a nice dopamine rush and a clean space can improve your outlook.
- Drive around and listen to music. If you’re a busy mom or live in a house full of roommates, it can be tricky to get a moment of alone time. I find the car to be precious introvert time occasionally.
- Order a meal in. Sometimes grief or depression makes us forget to eat, and then we become deprived of food and even more unhappy.
- Go out and get a latte. Getting out of the house can be a reset.
If I feel panicky or super-anxious, then I will . . .
If you’re prone to panic attacks or have come close, you know that it doesn’t matter if you “know it’s not a big deal”—anxiety feels like a big deal. Having quick options in your back pocket can really help you feel more confident that you know what to do if a panicky moment arises.
- Go stand outside with your feet on the ground. Grounding (lots more options here, some of which we’ll get to) can really help if you’re in a panic spiral and you don’t know how to move forward.
- Hold a pet, look your dog in the eyes, or tease your cat with a toy. Pets will take you out of your head in no time!
- Run your hands, feet, or whole body under running water. I also love hot tubs for this, if you have access to one.
- Call a trusted loved one and tell them what’s bothering you. Even just getting it out over text can help—try something like “I’m freaking out about X because I’m afraid that Y.” Writing out your anxieties can help give you perspective and even open up the possibility of realizing the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad.
- Do yoga or other peaceful stretches for five minutes.
- Make yourself a cup of tea, hot chocolate, or (decaf!) coffee. A familiar process can give you that sense of completion, and then you have a warm drink in your hands.
- Light a candle and/or change the lighting in your room. Warm, peaceful lighting can be a way to signal to your body that it isn’t time to panic anymore.
- Play guitar, piano, or some other instrument you can play. Generally, I find that lower-level distractions (like YouTube, podcasts, listening to music, etc) don’t fully ground anxiety—the anxiety still simmers along in the background, and can even be accentuated by not being attended to. But making the music yourself consumes enough sensory capacity and attention that it can take your mind off what’s bothering you.
- Wash the dishes. A perfect combo: water running over your hands, ambient sound, and the feeling of getting something done.
If I feel a little anxious or stressed, then I will . . .
- Make sure you’ve eaten. Did you skip lunch? Often low-level anxiety is literally just hunger! If you’ve been surviving on one cup of coffee and a bag of chips, of course, you’ll be feeling a bit stressed out.
- Relatedly, drink a glass of water. This is a sensory experience and if your anxiety is arising from an overdose of caffeine, this can help.
- Make a budget, schedule, or list. Whatever is bothering you will usually bother you less if you can visualize it and break it up into smaller tasks.
- Clean. Crossing one thing off that to-do list can really bring your stress down, and if you put on a good playlist or a podcast, cleaning can be relaxing in itself. I like to set a timer for ten or twenty minutes and clean the kitchen or my bedroom.
- Take a bath. You’re getting something done and slowing things down at the same time.
- Take the dog for a walk. If you say “walk,” your eager dog won’t let you forget what you were going to do.
- Go to the gym or run outside. It’s obvious, but it works.
- Call your mom, your dad, a mentor, or a friend, and talk about everything except what’s worrying you. Sometimes it helps to get things off your chest, but sometimes anxiety quiets down when we focus on something else. Telling whatever’s bothering you that it’s not a big deal by having (or even feigning) a lot of interest in your grandma’s crochet club or your friend’s kid’s baseball game can really help you get out of your head.
- Do something you’re good at. Whether that’s horseback riding or CSS, it can be a big boost to your confidence in your ability to meet future challenges to remind yourself that you have real skills and know how to use them.
- Read. Reading helps with anxiety, and it can take you into a totally different headspace very quickly. Plus, you feel like you’re getting something done, and (if you’re like me) feel virtuous for not being on your phone.
If I feel lonely or a little sad, then I will . . .
- Do something out of the ordinary. Do your evening routine in the morning, take a different route to work, try a new craft or class, or simply make something new for dinner. Sometimes when we’re lonely or sad we feel like there’s no possibility in the world, and doing new things reminds us that there is.
- Play with kids. Yes, even if you’re sad because you don’t have kids. Go visit your goddaughter or your nieces and nephews or your neighbor’s twin four-year-olds. Young kids are generous with hugs and will talk to you about literally anything, and they are basically the human embodiment of possibility. If you’re a mom and you’re feeling the lack of adult connection more than human connection generally, consider planning a playdate so you can spend time with another mom.
- Go somewhere you’ll see other people, like the library, a coffee shop, a clothing store, or even a crafting or workout class. Meeting new people is the obvious antidote to loneliness!
- Write a letter. You can write a letter to a friend, a letter to yourself, a letter to an enemy you’ll never send, a letter to your boyfriend, and so on. Letters feel like real communication in a way that text and phone calls sometimes do not—you hold something in your hand and it goes to someone else’s hand.
- Schedule a coffee date or shopping outing for later in the week. You might not want to have a visit right then, but planning something will give you something to look forward to and reduce loneliness in the future.
- Watch a real movie. Personally, I don’t usually watch movies, tending to opt for YouTube videos and podcasts. But there’s something about the longer plot line and character development of a movie that can really draw you in and help you feel like you had a real experience even if you never left your couch. Lean into childhood camp—I love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—or, for something even longer, try a period-drama miniseries.
- Bake or cook something. At the end, you’ll have something tasty to eat, and you might have leftovers and want to head to a friend’s house to share them!
Of course, all of these ideas can fit into other sections of the list, and there are lots of other sections you could create—when you feel unmotivated, when you feel restless, when you feel angry . . . suffice it to say life is full of emotions. The point of the if/then list is to make the most of those emotional moments, by coming up with a few ideas for experiencing negative emotions in a healthy way. (And, it should go without saying, if you are struggling to work through any of your emotions and haven't seen a therapist lately, you could always consider making a therapy appointment.)
The benefits of if/then lists could also apply to positive emotions, too—to maximize these high points in life by giving yourself occasions to enjoy them. No emotion is bad, and if we use them as an occasion to build the lives we want, we don’t need to fear any of our feelings.