Keeping Your Head Above Water: Ten Suggestions for When You Feel Yourself Going Under

I’m one of those people who have studied all the “right” things to do.  I’ve consulted my share of therapists and healers, read the best self-help books, participated in support groups and been to spiritual retreats.  And I’ve given out some damn good advice to other people.  Yet I still find myself, from time to time, staring down the dark tunnel of self-loathing, feeling like a hopeless, useless failure.

I know, you’re probably saying, “God, what a drama queen.”  And you’re right – it gets pretty self-indulgent to stay in that place for too long.  But c’mon, admit it.  We’ve all been there.  I’m talking about those low moments when you wonder if everything you’ve ever dreamed about or worked for is just an illusion… when you wonder if you really are nothing more than a legend in your own mind…  And then you really start to get depressed when you Google your old friends from college to see how successful they’ve become…

Yogis and monks and spiritual leaders across the globe will remind us that the greatest and most divine rewards lie within us.  And they are right.  While everyone has to find their own connection to God, the divine, the spirit world, the earth mother, or whatever term you have for the unexplained forces that guide and protect us, I believe we all carry the seeds of that power within us, and we need to figure out a way to stay in touch with that force each and every day.

Hard economic times, natural and man-made disasters – life can get completely overwhelming sometimes.  Whether you are trying to hold a family together or write a novel, make enough money to pay your mortgage or meet your rent, or just make it through a day feeling good about yourself, your relationships and the work you are doing in the world, here are some simple things you can do to combat feelings of discouragement or hopelessness:

1) Take at least five minutes in the morning to tune everything out and start the day with some deep breaths. 

You don’t need any special gear or training.  You don’t even need a special place to do it – you can sit on a pillow, at the edge of your bed, on a comfy chair or a couch, even in the bathroom!  Practice breathing deeply and avoiding any worrisome thoughts or concerns.  If anything unwanted enters your mind, don’t beat yourself up about it, just gently push it to the side and replace it with a neutral, pleasant image such as a candle or a flower.

Don’t worry about what you call it.  Just do it.  What’s five minutes?  It’s a great way to start your day, and a helpful break from all of the anxieties that will be waiting for you once you finish.  And if you decide you like doing this and want to do it more often, you can always look more fully into meditation or some other spiritual practice.

2) Don’t waste time worrying about things you can’t change. 

It’s true what your friends in Alcoholics Anonymous say.  You need to accept the things you can’t change and focus your strength on the things you can, but first you have to figure out which is which.  A good basic rule is this – if it’s something you think or do, then you have the power to change it.  If it’s something that someone else is thinking or doing, you have no real control over it.  Don’t waste your energy!

3) Eat at least one thing that is good for you, each day. 

Most of us spend a lot of time worrying about our health and our bodies.  Many of us struggle with diets.  My advice is to take it one step at a time.  Make at least one good food choice each day.  I’m talking about eating some whole grain bread or a piece of organic fruit or even some plain steamed vegetables.  Or even just avoiding the most oversized fried chicken plate or opting for the roasted potatoes instead of the fried ones.  Don’t think of it as deprivation.  Think of it as an offering to yourself.  Try to give yourself at least one reason to praise your own food choices each day.  Choose the yogurt and fruit for breakfast instead of the pancakes.  Just for today.  Quit giving yourself excuses to beat yourself up.  Focus on one of your good choices.  Even if you do indulge later in the day, at least you’ll know you are capable of doing the right thing.  Changing old behaviors takes time.  Don’t try to do it all at once.

4) Focus on appreciating at least one good thing about yourself, each day.

Please.  Stop beating yourself up.  There must be at least one thing you like about yourself.  Do what you have to do to find it.  And appreciate it.  Every day.  Every single day.  Who knows, maybe tomorrow, you’ll find two?

5) Complete at least one small thing on your mental to-do list, each day.

It can be something as small as paying a bill or returning a phone call, doing the dishes or writing a letter to an old friend, exchanging something at the store or fixing something in the bathroom.  Take it off your list.  Don’t think you have to do it all in one day.  That would be way too overwhelming.  Chip away at that list, one item, one day at a time.  If you stick with it, you will begin to see progress, I promise.

6) Take at least one step towards reaching a long term goal, each day.

Few dreams are insurmountable if you work at them one step at a time.  If you are a writer, then write something.  If you are an artist or musician of any kind, spend some time practicing.  If you are working on solving a particular problem, take a concrete step towards finding a solution – read an informative article or book, or contact someone whose advice you value.  If you are building or creating something, spend some time on your project.  Don’t expect immediate results.  Be patient with yourself.  And don’t forget to identify and appreciate each step you take towards reaching your goal.

7) Stop worrying about what other people think. 

Really.  Just stop it!  I used to spend a ton of energy wondering about how friends and colleagues were responding to the things I said and did.  I thought for sure they were talking about me behind my back, and thinking all sorts of terrible things about me.  Until one day, when a very wise therapist told me, “You’re not that important.”  Believe it or not, it was a relief to hear that.  The truth is, most people are too busy thinking about themselves to spend that much brain time on you.  Once you realize that you are not the center of anyone’s world but your own, you can take the pressure off yourself.  Give yourself a break.

8)  Remember that every mistake is a learning opportunity.

You might be tempted to beat yourself up for your errors.  I know it’s often my own first instinct.  However, you must resist!  Mistakes really are gifts.  They give us the chance to review the quality of our choices and our work and figure out ways to make improvements.  Sitting around feeling terrible or guilty for something you screwed up is self-indulgent and an excuse for not correcting a problem.  Instead, honest self-appraisal can help determine where you may need assistance or even additional training.  Fully engaging in this process can also do wonders for your self-esteem, as you increasingly discover that you may already have the answers to your questions inside you.

9) Get out of your head and move your body.

Exercise and other forms of physical activity will make you feel good, but they’re also good for you!  Do some stretches in the morning after your deep breathing.  Take a walk.  Dance to some music.  Make love to someone you love who loves you back.  Don’t lose touch with your body!

10)  Surround yourself with good people.

The people in your life reflect back to you the person you want to be.  Don’t waste time on people who are overly critical or abusive with you.  You need to surround yourself with people who are loving and kind and appreciate you for who you are.  Believe it or not, you may prefer being alone than to being with some of the toxic people currently in your life.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Of course I know it’s not always that easy.  Even knowing the right things to do is no guarantee that you’ll always do them, and habits, especially bad ones, are very hard to break!  If all it took to make us feel better was reading an article or a book, there’d be no need for therapists or prescription medications.  In fact, some of us do require professional medical or psychological help, and should seek it when necessary.  But even if we are under the care of a doctor or a therapist, we can still remember to do one or two little things to be good to ourselves, each and every day.

Photo courtesy of Hamed Saber


6 Comments to “Keeping Your Head Above Water: Ten Suggestions for When You Feel Yourself Going Under”

  1. “Believe it or not, you may prefer being alone than to being with some of the toxic people currently in your life.”

    It was such a relief to me to not be housed with toxicity that I took it a little too far, once free, and kept my privacy. And I was prepared to remain alone, until a glorious, intelligent, beautiful, exasperating little woman met me in the sagebrush. Still, I agree that being comfortable in one’s own skin and with one’s own company can be preferable to destructive – or even wastefully frivolous – associations.

  2. Thanks for sharing what so many people are afraid to share. Good advice. You’re a special person, Deb. Truly.


  3. There is a part of me that truly believes that the struggles you speak of are also indicators of a huge heart, intuitive mind, intellect and artistic talent. Gifts can be burdens at times. With your gifts, you inspire many. No one can take that way.

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