Sometimes the things that are making you unhappy can take a lot of effort to change. But luckily, no matter where you’re stuck or what’s going on in your life, it’s possible to lift your mood right now.
These are simple strategies you can use whenever you’re in a bad place — dysregulated, angry, depressed — you can feel it in your body, but it’s like you just can’t pop out of it. Sometimes there’s no reason for feeling bad. Maybe you’re in an emotional flashback, or it’s hormones, or you’re tired. What I’m teaching you doesn’t depend on knowing what’s wrong. It doesn’t require solving any problems, even if you know what they are.
It’s possible to push your mood up two or three notches and (1) still be your real self, (2) not lose track of the problems in your life (because at some point, you’ll want to solve them), and (3) get into the habit of feeling better. When you feel better, you won’t have to go through all the steps every time you come up against negative emotions. Feeling good will be more like your natural state (and that’s what we really want, right?).
1. Wake Early
The first thing to do is to get up an hour earlier than you normally would. Even though this might leave you a bit tired in the afternoon, it’s a good way to reduce the stress that makes mornings such a vulnerable time for overwhelm, discombobulation, and depression. When you get up early and get out of bed, you are freeing yourself from both hurrying to get out of the house (which can be a major trigger for dysregulation, by the way) and immobilization, where you stay in bed for too long after you wake up.
Staying in bed for too long — well that’s like a big open door for depressed emotions. So wake up an hour earlier, then get up and out of bed. And yeah, you’re going to be tired. But being tired is not an emergency. Get a hot beverage, if you enjoy that (I’m a coffee person myself), and then get on to the second thing which is to do some writing.
Some people write in their journals: I teach techniques that help you get your anxious and depressed thoughts out of your head and onto paper. If you want to learn that you’ll find a link to my free “daily practice” course in the description section beneath this video. When you can put fear and resentment out of your head and onto paper, you give your mind a little vacation, and these negative feelings can’t color all your thoughts like they ordinarily would.
And don’t forget to release those thoughts after you write them, or actually ask (if you pray) for them to be removed. These are the thoughts that drive that hamster wheel of doom in your mind — the worries, the grudges — and with less of that, you have more mental and emotional fresh air to be yourself and do good things today.
The next thing is to meditate. I meditate for 20 minutes twice a day. If you can do even five minutes, it makes a huge difference. And by meditation, I don’t necessarily mean anything difficult. You don’t have to sit a special way. You don’t have to have an empty mind or focus on your breath or anything else. You just rest with your eyes closed, maybe with a mantra — a simple word like “OK” or “this” — to remind you that you’re meditating. You can learn a simple meditation in the free course I mentioned.
I know, a lot of people tend to criticize themselves and say, “Oh, I can’t really meditate. I think too much…” And that’s precisely why we meditate, because we have an active mind, and because everybody’s mind is designed to think. We just give it a nice rest and take off all expectations that it’ll all be perfect. Thinking is natural. You don’t have to be good at meditating to START meditating. You just start where you are. And, writing fears and resentments on paper beforehand will reduce all the mental chatter that’s making meditation difficult.
One of the most powerful ways to lift your mood is to exercise — hard. There was a time when I had acute PTSD. If you’ve never heard my story, there have been a couple times in my life where some really traumatic things happened, and my sadness and the PTSD symptoms were so strong I could barely work or hold a conversation. My mind was really stressed and scattered, and my body was going into full adrenal freak-out, several times a day, every time I passed this place near my house where I had found someone dead. And every time, the adrenaline would whoosh through me, and my heart would pound, and my thoughts would fly back to the memory of what happened.
This PTSD reaction had been going on for months. I happened to see a doctor, and she said, “How many times a day are you having these freak-out episodes you’re telling me about?” And I said, “Oh, not that much. Maybe 20 times a day.” She said, “OK,we’re going to have to start putting you on some medication.” But I didn’t want to do that. I told her I’d come back in a couple weeks. I went online and searched “What does a person do if they start going into panic mode all day?” And one thing suggested was to “Go exercise hard.”
Exercise was so effective! I can’t believe the doctor never mentioned this, but I figured it out for myself.
Now what does exercising “hard” mean — it can be different depending on what you’re used to doing but you want to get your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes. If you’re able to run, that’s great, and if that’s a little more than you can do, just a brisk walk for 20 minutes will help. If you can walk for an hour, that’s a good thing to do when you’re in the middle of a life crisis. Walk till it tires you out. If you’re not able to walk, do what you can to get your body moving and your heart rate gently up for a while. If you can do that out in nature, even better. I’m sure you have experience with how good this feels.
5. Go Outside
To increase the benefit of exercise, do it OUTSIDE. In the outdoors, where the sun is on us (even if it’s bad weather), our brains like to know what day it is. Our brains like to know what season it is and so being outside helps us get calibrated and feel normal in our bodies (which also helps us sleep normally and feel hungry at the right time). Normal sleep and normal eating aren’t always easy for traumatized or depressed people. But this can help nudge you in the right direction. And of course, the daylight is really helpful to move that depression away, to cue your brain, and to talk to your nervous system and coax it into normal rhythms.
Also, if you walk or run, it helps do it on a natural surface like up and down on the curbs, on the sidewalk, or on a dirt road where there is slight unevenness, because our brains like to sense those changes and figure that out.
So much of what’s going on with complex PTSD, especially when we’re struggling in our mood or feeling physically deadened, is dysregulation — in the brain, in the nervous system and with our emotions. Periods of dysregulation are common in people who were traumatized as kids, and it can make everything harder, clunkier.
But we all instinctively know how to re-regulate. It’s not always easy when you’re feeling stressed and sad, but the techniques I teach will help you get re-regulated faster and stay regulated more of the time.
6. Join a Group
Do your movement in a group if you can. Movement together with other people, especially when we’re following verbal instructions, like in kickboxing or Zumba or something where an instructor is calling out “Right! Left! Right! Left!” is helpful. When we’re hearing and responding with our bodies to the left and right cues, it can accelerate recalibration and the re-regulation of your brain and brings you out of that PTSD fog. Crossing the centerline of your body also helps and doing any of this in a group helps too.
7. Add Some Protein
Eat some protein with every meal. Overeating and particularly sugar and carb addiction are very strongly connected to childhood PTSD. A lot of breakfast foods like toast, donuts, cereal, are pure, fast carbs. And carbs will take your energy levels up. But then they’ll make you tired. And anything that’s making your endocrine system spike and then go down — up, then down — tends to be a little triggering for PTSD too.
So, a quick piece of advice is to make sure you’re eating protein with your meals even if you’re eating it with carbs. For example, you might have some eggs on toast. Doing simple adjustments like this just helps to keep the endocrine system a little more balanced. And when it’s balanced, it’s less triggering for childhood PTSD.
8. Make a List
Also, with CPTSD, it’s really easy to start the day with a sense of overwhelm. A sense of overwhelm is familiar for a lot of us, and it can really scatter your focus and make you feel worse because it’s hard to get anything done. So this is number eight — to get out of overwhelm and work deliberately on good, useful activities for yourself and the people around you. It can be good to make a list. For me, every morning after I meditate, I make a list of the most important things I’d like to get done that day. Now I know that there’s a lot of stuff on my list that I’m not going to get to but I go ahead and I list them. Then I try to zero in on the three most important things for me to get done that day. Now these might be things I can get done today or not. And then I zero in again and I look at the one most important thing that I need to get done today. And I make that the top priority.
Sometimes when I’m choosing what’s going to be the first thing I do, I take the one that’s hardest. I just get the hardest thing out of the way so that I can eliminate the sense of dread that comes with having a hard thing ahead of me during the day. Maybe it’s something like a phone call I’m not looking forward to making because it’s embarrassing or I’m going to hurt somebody’s feelings.
9. Resist Negativity
If you just want to get your spirits up, fight the urge to talk about anything negative. Many of us have been conditioned, if we’re feeling bad about something, to talk to as many people as possible — especially if you’re a woman. People go, “Hey, how are you doing?” and we get the urge to tell them all the hard things going on.
If you want to change your mood, I encourage you to experiment with this one. All you have to do is not talk about it. Don’t talk about the thing that’s bothering you. Keep your focus on where you’re trying to go — on the stuff that’s positive for you.
Now I don’t mean categorically that you should never talk about what’s bothering you. Because sometimes it is helpful to talk to somebody about our troubles. Of course, you should do that if it seems to be one of those times. But, as a general rule, try experimenting with not talking about the thing that’s bothering you. You’ll be surprised how easily your mood starts going in a completely new direction when you’re not constantly reminding yourself how upset you are about something.
10. Ask Yourself this Question…
“What am I avoiding?” When you ask yourself this, you’ll often find that a depressed mood is really just a sense of dread about something you’re avoiding. It could be you’re avoiding learning about something that you need to know for work. Or maybe you’re avoiding a person that you really ought to be paying attention to. Or you might be avoiding a task that you need to do and it’s bothering you. I’m sure you’ve noticed how avoiding things can ruin all your free time while you’re busy thinking about doing this thing you don’t want to do, you’re not doing it — and you’re also not doing any of the things you might actually enjoy doing.
So, write down “What am I avoiding?” and make a list. See if you can find the next right action for you to take to give yourself that good feeling of accomplishment, knowing that you’re taking care of your life.
Finally (and this one is like the cherry on a sundae), if you really want to have a good day, find something kind you can do for somebody where they won’t find out who did it for them. If they find out, you forfeit — no point. And if that happens, you have to find another secret good thing to do. The reason I say this is because if there’s any chance that we’re going to be thought of as a great person, it can pollute the beneficial effects of doing a kindness for someone. You’re doing this for your own happiness, and if it helps someone else, all the better.
If you can, try calling somebody who you know is having a hard time. Maybe you can put your neighbor’s empty trash cans back in their driveway after pickup. Or put a few quarters in someone’s parking meter when you see it’s expired.
If you can’t afford to pay for other people’s parking, you can give someone a kind word. You can just say, “You’re doing a great job,” or you can compliment them and say, “The way that you just explained that was so clear.” Be real with them. Don’t make stuff up. If it’s appropriate to put a hand on their shoulder when you say something kind, that can make your words powerful. The point is to pay attention to what other people have done that is deserving of a compliment and just give that to them.
When you do that, you become an agent of Good, which is really what you’re made for. Life feels good when you remember this, and you remember it by acting like it, even when the motivation isn’t really there at first, and you’re just going through the motions. Even when you’re sad, the good things you do could make a big impact on someone else who’s suffering. And that counts too! When you witness their spirits lift, your spirits can’t help but brighten too.
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