Unhappy? Change These 5 Habits

Change vs. SameWhen we are feeling blah, or down, or even depressed, we often have “go to” fixes to help us feel better. But too often, these are short-term solutions that bring us to the edge of greater unhappiness. Below is a short list of things we do, should probably stop doing, and ways to do them better.

1. Binge-watching TV.

I know we tell ourselves we deserve it, especially if we’ve been feeling down. But it works against us because it keeps us inactive, alone, and when it’s all over, feeling worse. The “escape” didn’t work and then we beat ourselves up for it.

A better way: use TV as a reward for doing something, or even part of something you want to get done. Or do it socially, with others (there’s even software/apps that let you watch with others remotely).

2. You take mental health days when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Why is that not a good idea? Because it’s not really mental health…it’s more like avoidance of our real lives. So we sleep, indulge bad habits (see #1 above), or do nothing at all.

A better approach: take them sparingly, and if you are going to not go to work or school, then plan a really interesting and useful day. It might mean meditation, physical exercise, contacting people you have missed, or maybe even running errands, or addressing the issue that made you feel bad in the first place. Take the break, but take it with purpose.

Another idea: go to work anyway and give yourself permission to leave after you’ve hung in there for a couple of hours. Feelings change and most of us feel better once we get going.

 3. You distract yourself from the things you’re worried about.

The problem here is distraction typically doesn’t decrease our anxiety because the more you try to distract, the stronger the thoughts come back later. We also get into the habit of not learning how to accept or cope with what’s bothering us or what we are fearing. And our self-esteem then takes a beating.

A better way: distracting temporarily, deliberately is okay if you are in crisis and there is nothing you can do to solve the crisis right now. Sometimes getting through a crises is job 1. But make sure you choose healthy ways of distraction, and limit the time you will use it.

Another idea: set aside a “worry time” of a few minutes each day where you sit and say outloud what you are worried about (I have my patients do this in front of a mirror). Then set aside a time to face and solve your problems. That might mean talking it through with someone, disclosing your fears, seeking advice or help.

4. You journal all your negative thoughts and emotions.

This is something that some therapists have actually promoted to their patients but I suggest caution.  Expressive writing works as long as it doesn’t turn into rumination—that is, spinning our wheels about something and then spinning out into obsession.

A better way: Learn to write in a structured way. Automatic thought records or daily mood logs provide you with lots of room to express the problem situation, your feelings and your difficult thoughts, as well as to start to work with them. And if you want to “free write” use a journal that has lines in it and use the boundary of each lined page as a beginning and ending point. You can even substitute whole sentences and passages for single words and shorter phrases, more like poetry.

5. You’re putting off therapy.

We’ve all done this I think. We wait until we’re sure we really need it. And for some, working things out on your own does happen. But when you’re making therapy into a “last resort,” you’re sending yourself a message that there is something wrong with you, that you are helpless or that you’ve failed.

Much better approach: The truth is, therapy itself is work. No therapist is going to “fix you” or make you feel better per se. Good therapists have tools, but you’re going to have to use them. So don’t think you have to exhaust your options before going to therapy. You can benefit from talking to a professional. Therapy works.

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