What do you do when you get sad?

Sometimes dwelling in darkness can be a helpful, healthy adventure. Other times, too much time in the dark can prompt stagnation and wallowing. How do you know how far to go? When is it too much? When is darkness healthy and when is digging into rumination too much spiraling inwards?

In high school and in college, I dealt with waves of sadness and depression. I learned what it meant to be too tired. Some days, after six hours of swim practice and a full course load of college academics, I would sob myself to sleep. Missing my family, adjusting to life, and the relationship angst that came from dating as a hormonal teenager all added up to a lot of sadness. For me personally, the biggest challenge is when I work too hard and forget to take time to stay emotionally balanced.

Over time, I turned to writing as an outlet — and I learned about emotional resilience. For me, having a bucket of tools to turn to whenever I’m feeling wonky can help alleviate the pressure.

Darkness and the dynamics of holidays

At this time of year, there’s a lot of built-up stress. People can be tired, run-down, and overworked. In addition, the pressure of the year’s end — hitting financial targets, making performance reviews, or not getting your resolutions completed from last year — can make this a dicey emotional time.

Add to that travel, seeing family members, and navigating the politics of in-laws, and you have a recipe for a tricky situation. Throw in a bunch of sugar from too many cinnamon rolls and maybe eating half a gingerbread house (yup, I’ve done that), and I’m sobbing like a 5-year old after too much birthday party.

In short, winter’s darkness coupled with end-of-year stress can be a recipe for bumming yourself out.

What do you do when the blues hit?

Over the past decade, I’m so grateful to have built a repertoire of skills and tools I can use at my disposal when my mood gets the better of me. But the thing about being in the wallows is, sometimes all the advice in your head goes to naught — and you need to ask, yet again, for some good advice.

Emotional resilience isn’t a one-trick pony. Instead, it’s the ability to use multiple tools to help alleviate the stress. For me, I know that if I go for a walk every day, take time to journal, and talk with at least a few good friends every week, I’ll generally feel pretty good.


I reached out to several friends of mine and asked for advice: what do you do when they blues hit? Here’s what I got back.

I got a surprising number of responses — so I thought I would compile and share them, here, for any of you that stumbles through a melancholy day or two, like me.

“I give myself a set period to wallow in it. Favorite comfort food, retreat from people, think and reflect. Then wake up the next morning and be productive and positive.” — Melinda

“Write a list of specific things I am grateful for in my life.” — Keith

“Close my eyes and go to my happy place! Or actually GO to my happy place. I have several stashed around the area, so I can drive there in a couple hours if need be.” — Heather

“Step outdoors. Listen for birds. Look up. Take a deep breath or two.” — Amy

“80’s hiphop and dancing in front of a mirror, obviously.” — Karen

“Get my body in water somehow (pool, rain, shower, bath). Swing on a swingset. Basically insert myself into an environment different than the day to day — feet continuously off the ground and body in motion is the fastest way I know how to do that.” — Valerie

“Get out and talk to people, and listen to them.” — Bridget

“Do something silly or nice for someone else.” — Lauren

“Run! (The exercise, not fleeing). And run outside!” — Ian

“Going through the self-compassion formula: common humanity, self-kindness, mindfulness.” — Ian

“Listen to music that will make you cry (to let it all out) then something happy to lift you out of that mood. Or skip the first bit, go straight for light-hearted, fun, dynamic, and inspiring tunes.” —Amy

“Exercise and ensure I’m eating well.” — Lee

… Good food, healthy habits, friends to talk to, a good cry, a shower, a way to let off steam… This sounds familiar.

Each of these doesn’t seem like much in and of itself. Sure, I can eat an apple. Maybe a good cry in the shower will help, too. Take myself for a walk? Okay, I’ll do it.

Whatever it is, all the small things — all the small ways you can practice kindness towards yourself — can add up and take the edge off. It’s not one thing that makes a drastic difference, but all these small things that can slowly change my emotional direction.

I’ll add a couple more of my favorites:

Paint, draw, or sing —

Do something creative and expressive, with no pressure on results or outcome. Go sing in a church, sign up for an art class, or pull out some markers and scribble messily and angrily until you laugh your face off.

Hug someone who needs it. —

Compassion and hugs. Give someone a big hug and let the oxytocin out!

Book a massage or a spa date for yourself.

Sometimes your physical body just needs to be touched.

Write in your journal with a snuggly blanket and a good cup of tea.

Whenever I write in my journal, my brain starts to relax. If I take the time to write and reflect in the evenings, I calm down, my energy slows, and I sleep better.

Write letters to friends and people you’re thankful for.

Make a gratitude list.

When you take the time to remind yourself of what you’re grateful for, your brain shifts.

Do “Candle Time”

This is a new habit my husband and I recently started. In addition to turning off our screens late at night (and he’s much better at this than I am; I am still a part-time phone addict) — we’ll turn off all the electric lights in our room and light a bunch of candles for the last hour before bed. We sit in the near darkness and calm down, reflecting, and letting our thoughts unwind.

Go for a long walk.

Walking soothes my brain. Doesn’t matter if it’s cold, dark, or rainy — something about the rhythm of footsteps syncs my brain into a new pattern.

Set your sleep cycle on a more regular pattern.

Cool down your caffeine or alcohol intake — replace it with fizzy water drinks and a splash of lemon, ginger, mint, or honey. Ease up on your adrenals.

Sometimes I’m well past worn out, and my sadness is from being tired. In the evenings I’ll make a spicy cup of tea instead of wine, and in a few days, I start to feel better. (Try this: add a slice of jalapeno, some lemon, and honey to a peppermint tea. I love it!)

Drink green juices and many glasses of water. Hydrate thyself! Hydration can sometimes ease my headaches and sadness in less than an hour.

Still stuck? Still feeling icky?

Talk it out. Find a friend, a therapist, or a coach who will listen to you as you work it out. Words and language and exercise are all ways of moving through our ideas and our stories — our stories change as we give them shape, and talk therapy is a real tool.

When I was too broke for therapy in my graduate school years, I bartered trades and signed up for new coach deals whenever people were looking for new clients. (You can often find new coaches who are starting their business and looking for clients to test tools on, and you can sign up for four sessions to chat at awesome discount prices.)

And if you’re not broke and still need to talk, head over to a new place, take a deep breath, and sign up.

(PS: If it’s a deeper issue and you think you might want to work with a psychologist or therapist, trust yourself. You might be in a spot in your life that could use some professional expertise and TLC. You deserve it, and it’s worth it.) 

What about you? What are your strategies for darker days?

What do you love to do to treat yourself? What are the hidden benefits of sadness, and how do you take care of yourself?

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