Zanny Merullo Steffgen
Managing the Mind in Tough Times
No matter who and where you are, 2020 has been a difficult year so far. The pandemic is still making its way through the world, disrupting our former realities and leaving suffering in its wake, and now the horror of American racism and violence is bubbling up to the surface of society again, adding another layer of pain to the days of millions of people. There are plenty of resources out there with suggestions for donating your time and money to help in the fight against both pandemics (COVID-19 and racism), but I would guess that many people are still struggling to handle their minds during this time.
I personally have been dealing with intense feelings over the past weeks, some of which manifest themselves physically in crippling fatigue and aches all over. From my experiences in the past years of what has been an extremely unusual life — filled with uncertainty, suffering and plenty of risks — I have made huge progress towards taming my moods, to the point where mindsets that would have previously kept me home in bed are now conquerable with some serious efforts. I have compiled the list below with some actions I take when suffering from depression or dark moods along with some resources I know of, in the hopes that at least one person will find it helpful during tough times. Of course, not all of these will be applicable to everyone who reads them, so take my words and use them in the way that is most beneficial for you. Wishing everyone the best, and sending all my love and compassion to those who need it. Feel free to reach out to me for a conversation with any questions, comments, suggestions, or whatever is going through your mind these days.
Ideas for Dark Days (in no particular order)
Close social medias, turn off your devices, and get away from screen time for a while.
Check in with yourself: is your mood caused by anything physical? Are you hungry, thirsty, tired, in pain? Identify if possible and address. Did something trigger your mood? A comment on a post, a news article, a conversation, a fight with a loved one, a negative thought? If so, try to process and let go.
Complete a basic task slowly and mindfully: wash the dishes, fold laundry, shower, vacuum or sweep, brush your hair, make your bed. Try to focus all your attention on the task.
Get out into nature if possible. Take a walk/hike/swim/bike ride. If you are low on energy, sit down outside somewhere and watch a simple, natural process and attempt to keep your attention there. Focus on water flowing, birds feeding, wind blowing tree branches.
Dedicate time to any spiritual practice you enjoy. Meditate, pray, read tarot cards, write in a journal, listen to chanting. Whatever brings you peace. (I find Yoga With Adriene to have some of the best yoga and meditation videos. Gregorian monk chanting is calming to me, even as the background while I go about my daily activities.)
If you can, try yoga or gentle movement. Let yourself be guided by what feels good, and move slowly and with purpose. (Check out Nia.)
Make an obvious act of self-care, something that signals to yourself that you are there for your own support and love. It can be taking a bath, lighting candles, eating your favorite food, putting on a face mask or lotion. Whatever feels special.
Reach out to loved ones for support and to get out of your own mind. Sometimes you may be stuck seeing a situation one way and the words of someone outside of that situation may allow you to consider another, less painful perspective.
Release your emotions in a healthy way. See a therapist, have a good cry, punch a pillow, vent your frustrations in a letter you won’t send, put on your favorite song and dance wildly. If you need to indulge your mood and stay in bed for a few hours, do so without guilt, then get up and try a different idea.
Try to avoid unhealthy ways to soften your pain, such as drugs, alcohol, or eating to excess. Keep in mind that turning to these potentially harmful strategies may increase your suffering and compound the problem.
Seek comfort in someone else’s words. Read a book that transports you to a different world, recite your favorite poetry aloud, search the lyrics of your favorite songs, find solace in the words of your preferred spiritual masters. (I personally go right to Rumi or Walt Whitman when in a dark place.)
If you physically can, sweat it out. Go for a hike or a run, get your heart pumping and remind yourself that you’re alive.
Go for a drive or a ride somewhere that inspires you, perhaps somewhere you’ve never been before. (Psychologists say that the feeling of awe is beneficial for mental health. Learning something new also helps me find inspiration and a new mindset.)
Find a way to give to someone. Go get a coffee and pay for the next person in line’s order, buy a meal for a homeless person, open a door for someone, volunteer for an organization that means something to you. (Research shows generosity is mood boosting for both the giver and receiver, and can make us feel a sense of connection to humankind. I have always found that when I am in a bad mood and go out into the world, I come across someone confined to a wheelchair or begging at the side of the road, someone whose situation instantly puts my life in a different perspective.)
Get comfortable and watch a care-free kids movie, a favorite show, or something that will make you laugh and bring your mind somewhere else. (If you do not subscribe to any of the major streaming services, try accessing your library’s resources for free.)
Try any visualizations or mind tricks that work for you. Maybe repeat a mantra like “This too shall pass,” or attempt to let your negative emotions out with each breath. Maybe visualize yourself as living thing or object that removes you from your human mind, or try to focus on a memory or a person that brings you joy.
If, no matter what you do, the mood persists, or if you’re in a dangerously dark place, try to seek help. Remember that your health and well-being must be in balance before you can help others.