Before, During and After: Coping With the Dark Side

June 16, 2014

Every happy life contains some unhappy moments, hours, even days. Like everyone, I’ve experienced my share of times when happiness seems just out of reach—I can see it, but I can’t catch it! I’ve also had to cope with periods of depression, what I’ve called the dark side. It’s during these unhappy moments that we most need support, encouragement and comfort, and also when we’re least able to ask for what we need, let alone give it to ourselves. I’ve been paying better attention to ways to support myself to keep the dark moments from becoming overwhelming and lingering too long—preparing support before I need it. Perhaps these things will help you during your own dark times.

The first thing to do to cope with dark times is to avoid or minimize them in the first place—at least dark times that are essentially of our own making. I know I can push myself into the dark side by abusing my body and soul—by eating poorly, not sleeping enough, over-scheduling myself and ignoring my deepest needs. When I’m doing the things I know I need, I’m much less likely to fall into a depression. That means I need to eat healthy, move my body, sleep, and allow myself to play and to have down time. I also do better when I’m clear about my priorities, and make sure I take care of the most important ones.

Even if I were perfect in the self-care mentioned above, which I’m not, I would still face times of depression. It’s before the dark side threatens that I list and collect items that make me feel comforted—things like favorite foods, books and movies that make me laugh or conjure up a happier time (recently, Columbo reruns—they remind me of my childhood). Inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s (author of The Happiness Project) Happiness Box filled with “little trinkets meant to trigger happy thoughts and memories,” I have hanging on my office wall a display of the ephemera of this year’s happy experiences—visual reminders of how much good I have in my life.

Happy mementos
Before the dark side looms is also the time to think about those I can call on for help when I’m feeling down. I still need to work on this because I tend to hole up on my own when I’m feeling down.

When I’m unable to avoid the dark side, I’ve found a few things that help me feel better. Here are some of them:

1. Wear a favorite perfume—I usually reach for the Tea Olive perfume I bought in New Orleans a few years ago. Not only does it smell good, it reminds me of a happy time.

2. Accomplish something, no matter how small. On days when what I really want to do is put my head on my desk and cry, I choose a small, relatively pleasant action—file some papers, wash and put away a load of laundry, trim a spent orchid flower spike.

3. Give myself permission to take it easy…temporarily. Sometimes a dark episode is brought on by simple exhaustion. A break from the usual, busy routine should help. I try not to fall into complete lethargy for too long, however (see previous suggestion).

4. Remember this, too, shall pass. (And if it doesn’t, it’s time to seek help.)

5. Be kind and gentle with myself. As The Bloggess says, “Depression lies.” When I’m down in the dumps, I suddenly see all my flaws glaring at me. Every negative comment anyone has ever made to me comes back, amplified. I (in)conveniently forget every kind comment and any and all strengths I have. I know I should firmly put aside the negative voices in my head.

6. Limit access to bad news—I stay off the internet (unless I’m visiting a site like Cute Overload or one of my favorite blogs), don’t read the paper or watch the news on TV. Now is the time to enjoy the comforting items I stockpiled earlier.

When I’m feeling better, I think about what led up to the darkness. Are there any adjustments to be made? What can I learn about myself from it? Am I consistently ignoring or denying my deep desires? Do I even know what I want—many people, myself included, aren’t always completely sure.

Am I feeling overworked and overwhelmed? Or am I bored with life and looking to do something worthwhile, to be challenged?

I wish I could say that I consistently do all these things, but I’m still learning how to care for myself before, during and after a visit to the dark side. The very nature of depression makes self-care hard, but I’m not giving up. Coming out of the dark just makes the light so much brighter.

How do you support and care for yourself during dark times?

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  1. Kathy prayer always seems to help me when I am in a blue mood. I go outdoors and take a walk and start thanking God for the beauty and even just the capability of being able to move about. Having the blues though is completely different in my understanding from clinical depression. Isn't that more of a physical concern than just feeling down from time to time? Have some friends and even family members who struggle with the clinical type. They take medication and seek professional help. Certainly a disease that should not be ignored.

  2. A very thoughtful & reflective plan of action. For me, being aware of & accepting the changes in my mind & spirit & body is important. Yes, knowing that emotional states pass & change. Resting when my energy is low instead of fighting to keep active. And definitely talking to supportive folks instead of isolating myself.

  3. Debbie--Spiritual practice and being in nature are two great options for lifting mood. It's true that clinical depression is a medical concern that requires more than just self-care techniques, etc. Medication and/or therapy are often needed.

  4. Rita--Awareness is very important, as is listening to your body and mind to know when rest is needed. Great suggestions.