No human being is emotionally stable all the time. Everyone experiences sadness and goes through tough times. Anything from major life changes to hormonal shifts can trigger a period of low mood.
Feeling down doesn’t necessarily mean you have depression, but if you feel low for an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a mental health professional if you feel able to. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting around 40 million adults. Worldwide, 322 million people are living with depression, and 6.7% of American adults have had a major depressive episode within the last year.
You are not alone.
It’s important to note that this article does not, in any way, intend to make light of mental illness. During a depressive episode, many people find it impossible to use self-help tools. If you don’t feel able to do anything to help yourself right now, you are not a failure.
Instead, the suggestions here are just that: suggestions. They’re based on a combination of mental health research and interviews with people who have used these ideas to help themselves get through low days. This is not a list of techniques promising to make you feel on top of the world; it is a list of gifts for you to consider giving to yourself if the time is right.
You’ll probably hate some of these suggestions and want to ignore them. But I hope that one or two of them are well chosen for you.
At the bottom of this article, you’ll find contact information for mental health resources in the US. If you’re somewhere else in the world and you feel like you need help, please don’t suffer on your own. Typing “mental health helplines” into Google is a good place to start, and those helplines—or their websites—will be able to help guide you towards support services in your area.
While planning this article, I spoke to eight people who either live with depression or anxiety long term or who are feeling down at the moment. Six of them mentioned the same thing: that they have a tendency to beat themselves up when they’re feeling low and get frustrated that they can’t just shake it off. Adding this to the mix doesn’t help—it makes it even harder. “You’re feeling terrible, and then you feel terrible for feeling terrible.”
Forgiving yourself for feeling low isn’t easy. Most people can’t just say “OK, I forgive myself,” and then get on with their day. It’s more like a practice that you have to return to again and again. But it’s worth it; because allowing yourself to feel the way you do without telling yourself you’re useless will make it easier to get through a difficult time.
Therapist Hannah Rose writes that acknowledgment is an important step in self-forgiveness. Allow yourself to notice the negative-self talk associated with feeling down, and then have a different conversation with yourself. Are those bad things you’re saying about yourself really true?
Practice noticing each time you beat yourself up because of your feelings or low mood. And each time you notice it happening, remind yourself that it’s not your fault you feel this way, and you are working—gently, with empathy and kindness—to feel better.
2) A shower
Basic self-care can be one of the first things to slip when we’re feeling down. We give up on ourselves; we feel tired, groggy, and find it difficult to do anything. Sometimes we feel that we don’t deserve to take care of ourselves; we’re not worthy of feeling good, or there’s no point in trying because it won’t make any difference.
So start with something really simple: take a shower. One person told me, “I was very low for six months and couldn’t pull myself out of it, and no one else could help. But the one thing I could still do every single day, that always gave me a few minutes of relief, was get in the shower and stand under the running water.”
Even better than a regular hot shower, if you can face it, is a cold shower. A number of studies have found that cold water showers activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase both beta-endorphins and noradrenaline in your blood—chemicals which transmit electrical signals within the nervous system, and are known to trigger positive feelings. On top of that, your skin has loads of cold receptors, so cold water sends a vast number of electrical signals to your brain which is thought to have a mood-boosting effect.
To reduce the shock of jumping into a cold shower (and make it more likely that you’ll actually go through with it) experts recommend starting by standing in a warm shower, and gradually turning down the temperature.
(Recommended reading: Here are 5 reasons a freezing, cold shower every day will change your life)
3) New surroundings
When you’re feeling really low, it’s not unusual to want to stay inside. You might even confine yourself to one room, or to your bed.
When you can, give yourself the gift of a fresh environment. Being in a different place, even if it’s just the living room instead of your bedroom, can interrupt the cycle of low mood and stimulate new or different thoughts.
Research shows that spending time outside, and especially in green space, is really good for moods and mental health. “Ecotherapy” is a rapidly growing field of scientific study, based on the idea that spending time in nature reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.
You could ask a trusted friend or relative to head out for a walk with you, and perhaps combine this gift with the next one:
4) Permission to speak
Almost everyone knows that talking is a powerful way to improve moods and ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you’re able to talk with a licensed therapist, that’s really good—they’ll be able to listen without judging you, and gently guide you towards a greater understanding of your experiences.
Talking to trusted friends and family members can also be incredibly helpful, and allow you to build a network of support in your daily life. It’s hard, though: many people feel ashamed of feeling down or don’t want to be a burden for those around them.
Give yourself permission to speak. Don’t confuse this with pressure—because it is your choice when, how much, and to whom you share your feelings with. But remind yourself that the people who care about you want to know what’s going on with you, and want to help.
That doesn’t mean they’ll always know how to help; and if the way they respond makes you feel worse, you could consider pointing them in the direction of resources to help them learn about mental ill-health, such as this article by HelpGuide.
Speaking your feelings out loud can bring a sense of relief. It might allow the people closest to you to help you carry the weight until things get lighter.
5) Ten deep breaths and an affirmation
Although Instagram might try to convince you otherwise, not everyone’s into yoga and spiritual healing. But even if you’re not sold on a spiritual path (or spirituality in general), you can still benefit from some of the tools available from those practices.
Studies show that deep breathing can improve the body’s responses to stress, lift moods, and help to manage overwhelming feelings. And although the Depression Alliance cautions against thinking of affirmations as “magical”, it suggests that with daily practice, affirmations can be very useful tools for changing your internal dialogue and creating a foundation for positive thoughts.
I’ve rolled these two into one to create this practical exercise:
Start with ten deep breaths.
To do this, place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your chest. First practice breathing only into and out of your right hand—filling your belly with the breath until you can’t fill it anymore and then emptying the belly of the breath. Then practice breathing only into and out of your left hand, filling the chest right up to the collarbone, and then emptying the chest.
Then connect the two. Inhale into your right hand, filling the belly as much as you can. Then when you can’t fill it anymore, breathe into your left hand—filling the chest.
Then exhale out of your left hand—so the chest falls first—and then right hand, so the belly falls.
Continue for ten breaths. Inhale right, left; exhale left, right.
When you’ve finished your ten breaths, close your eyes (if they’re not already closed). Repeat the following affirmation to yourself a few times, either out loud or silently in your head:
I don’t have to solve everything, and I will feel better.
Or, of course, you can write your own affirmation.
7) Sunlight (and a vitamin D supplement)
Many people start to feel down in autumn and winter when the days are shorter and we tend to spend more time indoors. Sometimes this low mood is just that; feeling a bit rubbish, but not really bad. But for some people, low mood in winter can develop into depression, and this is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that winter blues and SAD can go hand in hand changes in sleep patterns, appetite, and motivation. If your mood is linked with fewer daylight hours, it could be related to a lack of vitamin D. A large study in the Netherlands found that vitamin D levels were, on average, 14% lower in people with minor or major depressive disorder than in people without depression.
So, three things: spend time outside during the day time whenever you can; consider getting a light therapy lamp, and take a daily vitamin D supplement. While a light therapy lamp is a bit of an investment, vitamin D supplements are very cheap to buy.
7) Movement, even just a little bit
This is my personal favorite because exercise is the one certain thing in my life that always makes me feel better. It’s the gift I never really want to give myself, but never fail to appreciate when I do.
The good news is that you don’t have to run ten miles to feel the benefits. Studies show that even a short, brisk walk can lift your mood. However, more intense exercise has a bigger impact on how you feel; improving your mood, social confidence, and attention; as well as reducing tiredness and calming down overactive thoughts.
If you like the gym or running outside, go for it. But if you’re not comfortable exercising in public, or you’re finding it hard to get out of the house on your own, try High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). You’ll find loads of videos on YouTube and you can do it at home, with no equipment. It combines short, intense bursts of activity with brief rests in between, and studies are just starting to emerge that suggest HIIT is really good for mental health.
8) A simple task
When you’re feeling down it’s really easy to let your to-do list get out of hand—and that’s OK. All of those things can probably wait. But performing a simple household task that doesn’t require much thought can be a really good way to interrupt a spiraling mind, and improve your mood.
Try doing something. Instead of putting off small tasks because you know there are bigger ones waiting for you, make the decision to do the washing up, put some laundry in the machine, or tidy your desk. One person, who has ongoing anxiety and minor depressive disorder, said:
“I’ve taught myself to just get up, even if I feel like I can’t, and put the laundry or fold the clean stuff. That usually leads to more cleaning and tidying, which makes me feel productive and more hopeful about things, and then a clean apartment makes me feel better too.”
A study by the University of California discovered that people who describe their own homes as “chaotic” or “messy” had increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood, compared with those who described their homes as “calm” or “restful”.
Household tasks serve the double purpose of setting you in motion and making your personal environment feel cleaner, fresher, and clearer.
How to get help
- If you are feeling very low or suicidal, go to your nearest emergency room, call 911, or call the 24 hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). NSPL also has a Live online chat if you don’t feel able to make a call.
- To get information on mental health disorders and find out about treatment services available near you, you can call the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline on 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)
- MentalHealth.gov is full of up-to-date information to help anyone wishing to find out more about mental health conditions, resources, and treatments.
Whether you’re going through difficult events, struggling with mental ill health, or both; remember that there are people who want to help. And when you can, start building your own list of gifts to give yourself on the tough days. When you’re feeling down small acts of self-care can be surprisingly powerful. Life is never easy all of the time, but things really can get better.