We all get a little sad sometimes. It feels like the universe is a twisted gameshow called “How Can We Torture This Poor Soul Today?” — and you’re the contestant.
Other times it can escalate into full-on depression and that dark cloud of emotions follows you around like a fart in a spacesuit. Trying to get anything done feels like trying to climb a mountain of razor blades with a backpack full of anvils while a broken sound system plays a perpetual loop of Sarah McLachlan’s greatest hits.
No one looks good in existential angst. It’s not a flattering color on anyone.
So we seek out the emotional MacGuffin of happiness but often it’s as elusive as a tax loophole for the middle class. The lifetime risk of depression is actually pretty high: roughly 20 percent for women and 10 percent for men.
Here’s the good news: depression isn’t a life sentence, and it doesn’t come with a no-return policy. If you’re seriously depressed, by all means, stop reading this and get help. But if it’s just an attack of the blues, if you’re just dealing with a tough time, there are some things you can do on your own to reduce the difficulty level on the video game of life.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has the power to brighten your day, dissolve those bad feelings and help you be the person you pretend to be on Instagram. It’s so effective it even helps with treatment-resistant depression.
Its secret? Mindfulness. Yeah, that Swiss Army knife of inner peace. No, you don’t have to pay $2,000 to spend a week with strangers in the woods, meditating for 18 hours a day. (That’s not spiritual growth, my friends; that’s a hostage situation.)
And it has effects that go deep down to the neuroscience level. The brain is a mystery. A Jell-O mold that can’t remember your own phone number but can sing every word of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song. When depressed, we become too identified with negative thoughts and all that rumination strengthens the “feel bad” connections. Meanwhile, mindfulness downregulates amygdala signals and reinforces those self-compassionate pathways through that game of cerebral Tetris known as neuroplasticity.
The text we’ll be drawing on this time is “The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression.”
Ready to feel better? Let’s get to it…
Researchers estimate only 5% of our behavior is truly intentional. Most of the time we put little thought into what we’re doing.
Often this isn’t an issue but sometimes we get stuck in bad mental habits. We get caught up in judgments and stories we tell ourselves about the world that don’t produce the best results but we never step back and question them. It can become an endless dance of self-sabotage.
ACT says that depression isn’t something you have, it’s the result of what you do. The bad mental habits get us stuck in a loop that perpetuates the negative results.
Two of the key negative habits are suppression and avoidance. We try to suppress the bad feelings and this doesn’t work. Instead of offering us emotional Kevlar, the emotions only come back stronger. Meanwhile, avoidance is when we dodge anything that leads to feeling ugh – and we end up squeezing out the positive as well. We become the Houdinis of escapism, devising ever more elaborate schemes to dodge social engagements or avoid confrontations. You spend all your time trying not to trip over your own emotional baggage and your life sadly shrinks in the process.
But your nervous system doesn’t work by subtraction. You can’t prevent thoughts and feelings from showing up. ACT teaches us that trying to control your emotions, avoiding the situations that produce them, is the problem, not the solution.
Being mindful is key. Noticing what’s going on in your head. Becoming aware that your thoughts and feelings are just that, thoughts and feelings, and do not have to be obeyed. We need to be less reactive – blindly following those bad mental habits – and start making conscious choices to act on our values. To notice moments of choice. And to make good decisions that aren’t reactive or avoidant. Blindly following the same old scripts is like being stuck in an elevator with the most dreadful person you know — only to realize that person is you.
So how do we do this in the moment? How should we handle it when negative emotions pop up? Life throws challenges at us like some kind of demonic dodgeball coach while reality delivers a swift kick to our collective shins.
How should we respond?
You don’t have to change anything just yet. Just be open. This is the first step to fostering resilience: being open to what occurs inside you. Don’t try to control the feelings; just notice them.
And don’t react. Heck, don’t do anything for a second. It’s all about breaking free from the autopilot mode that keeps us locked into negative thought patterns, like a malfunctioning GPS that leads you straight into a lake. It’s all about letting them in without letting them take over.
No, this isn’t easy. The bad feelings come, sucking the joy out of the room with the force of a thousand joyless Hoover Dam turbines. You’re going to want to act on those bad habits. To respond impulsively, to shout, give up, suppress or avoid. All of which makes things worse.
This is where everyone tells you to focus on your breath. And they’re right. It anchors you in the present moment and focuses you on your body – which means you are not focused on the growing tsunami in your skull.
Observe what you’re feeling and don’t judge it or react. Witness what’s going on like an insurance adjuster writing a report. Label the feelings but don’t get emotionally caught up in them. Get curious about them.
Yes, this is hard. Experiencing strong negative emotions and not reacting seems as compatible as Kim Kardashian and a public library. But give it a shot.
Now describe the emotions without judging them. Don’t get all caught up in the awfulness. Examine them in a critical, nuanced way like an oenophile with a glass of wine. Break out the mental thesaurus. You’ve got your standard-issue feelings like happiness and sadness, sure. But then you’ve got all these weird off-brand emotions like “schadenfreude” and “ennui” that sound more like IKEA furniture than actual human experiences.
This will prevent you from overreacting or from doing a faceplant into a puddle of our own insecurities. The emotions are like the weather – something that happens but not something that controls you. Something you can make a choice about how to respond to.
So far all this has been less enjoyable than a dental appointment with the Marquis de Sade. But you avoided being overtaken by the negative feelings. What now?
By and large you can’t just choose to change internal events like spontaneous feelings or thoughts. So you know what we do with things we can’t change? We accept them.
Emotionally you are now a Walmart greeter, welcoming all those thoughts and feelings with open arms. In the moment this seems like an insurmountable challenge, akin to scaling Mount Everest in flip-flops. Those emotions are gnawing away at the very marrow of your soul. But following your old mental habits usually makes things worse.
Acceptance is not “giving in.” Acceptance is when someone crazy is ranting at you and you just nod your head. You acknowledge that they are speaking but you don’t have to agree. And that is how we handle the sad, angry or scared emotions – as someone crazy trying to make us crazy. We don’t have to give in, but we do accept that they are here for the time being.
You don’t have to engage with the mental Cirque du Soleil that’s unfolding. Accepting negative emotions is like welcoming an annoying relative to a family gathering: we may not enjoy their company, but we acknowledge their presence and offer them a polite nod.
This is where true resilience comes from. It’s not suppression or avoidance. It’s acknowledging and accepting but not giving in.
But the negative emotions are still yelping. They’re calling your name like a drunken karaoke enthusiast who’s just discovered “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And you’re desperately scanning the room for an escape route or perhaps a conveniently located trapdoor.
How do we make this stop?
One of the keys to mastering ACT is learning to detach ourselves from our negative thoughts and feelings, like breaking up with a clingy ex who just can’t seem to take a hint.
So far you’ve done a good job of not engaging the thoughts and feelings. Now we need to fully relinquish ownership of them. So how do we do it? One way is to give the feeling a nickname. If it has a name, it’s not you. And the thought or feeling probably deserves a name because you’ve likely met it many times before. “Okay, Saddy, I hear you.”
Another way is to simply thank your mind. Your brain is just trying to help you, following those same (bad) habits it’s always followed. Treat it like a child that is trying to help but isn’t doing a very good job of it. “Thank you, mind.”
You’re dismissing the smartphone notification. Not screaming at it to stop or questioning its nefarious existence. Think of how a boss often ends a conversation with an employee. That “thank you” is actually communicating “we’re done here.” Yes, this takes practice but with time naming it or just thanking your mind can make those bad feelings vanish faster than a magician with commitment issues.
So the mental calamity has died down enough for you to make a decision. What now?
You’re not impulsively reacting to negative thoughts and feelings. That’s great. Now it’s time for the big questions: What do you want life to be? Who do you want to be?
Wow. That’ll make your mind go blank. Our values are often as coherent as the plot in a David Lynch film. So take the time to think about them. This is how you build the new habits you want your brain to react with in the future. Consider some possibilities:
But it doesn’t stop with choosing your values. Influencers with more followers than brain cells will say you can just “manifest your dreams.” Uh, no. Life is not some sort of cosmic vending machine just waiting to dispense success and happiness. (If just wanting something makes it comes true, I’d like to request a pony and a million dollars, please. I promise I’ll think about them really, really hard.)
You paused the onslaught of negative thoughts. You defined your values. Now it’s time to act on them. To be the person you want to be and achieve the things you want. And the more you act on these beliefs the closer you’ll get to replacing those old defaults with new, healthier mental habits.
Detach from the negative and act on the positive. May not get you a pony and a million dollars but it’s far more effective than glorified wishful thinking.
Alright, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn about the thing that makes all of this much easier…
Here’s how to get happier:
When you’re feeling down, doing all this stuff can feel like a lot. Like you don’t have what it takes. And that’s where the final key comes in: self-compassion.
Self-compassion is offering feelings of caring and kindness toward yourself. Taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward your difficulties. And recognizing everybody deals with this stuff. It’s normal.
People who practice self-compassion experience lower levels of depression and anxiety. When we know it’s normal to experience problems, they don’t overwhelm us. Everything gets easier when you remember we all have bad days, and we all occasionally screw up when trying to make them better. You’re a “work in progress.” We all are.
So practice accepting difficult feelings, acting on your values, and engaging in some self-compassion. These skills are not something that can be acquired overnight, like a bad spray tan or an ill-advised tattoo. Sorry, just reading about them is not enough. That’s like trying to lose weight by eating a cake made of diet tips.
When we start accepting all emotions, life gets richer and we learn important lessons. No, you’re not always gonna be as happy as a mosquito at a nudist colony. Thinking like that is the problem. Nonstop joy is as unattainable as the secret location of my underground lair.
Our obsession with happiness has led us to believe that life should be one continuous string of happy moments, like a dazzling necklace made entirely of sunshine and puppy kisses. But that’s not how life works. Think like that and you’re stuck in a never-ending game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, except you’re the marbles. Life is more like a quilt, a patchwork of experiences and emotions, stitched together with the threads of laughter and tears, triumphs and heartaches, and that time I accidentally superglued my fingers together while attempting a DIY home repair.
Accept the bad feelings and then do something about them. You’ll have battled the fiercest of foes – your own mind – and in doing so, you’ll have proven to yourself that you possess a strength you never knew you had.