Going through dark times

Sébastien Dubois / March 21, 2020

11 min read

Heads up: This post will not give you the keys or fix anything in your life, but it’ll give you some ideas about what might help you to shed some light around you. Also, I’m no physician, psychologist or shrink, so don’t take any of this as professional advice; it certainly isn’t!

If you’re really feeling bad and have dark and darker thoughts, please do yourself a favor and go see a professional.

First of all, this post is NOT about the Covid-19! This post is about how to cope with tough times in life, whatever that means for you. What follows are a few ideas of mine, nothing scientific, but steps that I’ve taken and that have seemingly helped me even if just a tiny bit.

When we’re in a depressed state, it’s really really hard to have positive thoughts. Depression is an illness, and like most other ones, it can be cured, so don’t despair (I know, it’s hard). Even if you can’t help but feel down, just accept that you’re suffering from an illness and that it’ll pass after a while, with or without medication.

There are a myriad of reasons why someone can feel depressed at some point in his/her life. It can happen after having lost someone important, after having been fired, because there’s too much pressure, too much stress on your shoulders, too little joy in your life or simply because you don’t know what to do with your life.

So far, I’ve felt really depressed only twice in my life. The first and longest lasting period was during my adolescence, during which life felt miserable most of the time, for various reasons..

I won’t give you the details of what happened to me as I’m not ready to tell everyone about it just yet, but I’ve gone through a rough few months lately.

At first, I didn’t really understand what I was going experiencing. It literally took me months and the help of some loving friends to realize that yes, I was depressed and needed some help. Of course there were lots of red flags all around me, but I simply didn’t accept the idea.

It’s just like the story about a frog that is gently put in water and doesn’t really feels it getting hotter and hotter.. until it’s too late.

When you look around in all directions and can only see clouds and fog in your life, it may just be time for you to pause and reflect for a moment.

There are times in life when you feel like you’re at a crossroads, completely lost, not knowing what to do/where to go next and waiting for some miracle to happen and show you the way.

Sometimes we are delusional and hope that some things will get better magically, while we know perfectly that they won’t. And when reality sets in, we just keep hoping for some absurd reasons.

The thing is that, usually, no miracle occurs out of the blue to fix things up and take you by the hand. More often than not, it’ll be up to you to figure things out on your own.

If you’re feeling unhappy with your life, then action is the only possible answer. But before getting into motion, you first need to put a name on what is wrong and ask your inner self some important questions.

First of all, you need to get a clear idea about what makes you feel sad/bad/unhappy. Once you can clearly formulate the “why”, then you’ll need to focus on the second question: “what do you want to experience instead?”.

Two questions, that’s it (for starters). No big theories, just plain and simple questions: what’s wrong and what do you want instead? It may not seem like much, but in some cases those two questions alone can take a lot of time to get answered.

Don’t put useless pressure on yourself, but do try and think about these questions each and every day. If you just go on with life as is, you won’t break the circle and nothing will change for the better on its own.

Just breathe…

Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and take care of yourself. Go back to your roots and try and find little joys every single day.

In my case, joy meant playing video games again, something I had put on hold for quite a few years. During the last months, I’ve finished a few games that had been waiting for me and that were probably losing hope of ever seeing me again.

It was hard for me to change my daily routine and make some room for fun and games. Since about 2008, my motto was “work work work work work”; but apparently when too much is too much, there’s only one thing to do: LESS.

At first, I thought to myself: “I’m just wasting time, this is not helping”. But after a few weeks, I felt an improvement and saw my mood getting a bit better. Just a tiny bit, but enough for me to notice.

So this might not be the greatest advice ever, but first of all, before thinking about action and change, do take care of yourself. Whether you’re into games like I am, reading, writing, dancing or whatever. Do what you like and take some rest.

Write down the good things (™)

An advice that I’ve also applied and that has helped me is the following one. It was given to me by my life coach, Amélie.

At the end of every day, I write down a list of three positive things that I’ve experienced during the day. Sometimes it’s as stupid as “I was a funny GIF on Twitter” and sometimes it’s more philosophical, but it doesn’t matter.

What matters with this habit is that you learn (or re-learn?) to appreciate the little things. My psychologist explained me that sometimes, people just fail to see the positive, because they’re too focused on everything that’s bad/wrong.

So try this for a few weeks (i.e., to make it an habit!). Write positive things down.

Calm down the inner critical dialogue

In the book that I’m currently reading, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends to write three pages each and every morning, to help silence the negative voice in your head.

We all have one. That annoying voice that’s always putting us down, telling us that we won’t make it, that we’re not good enough, that we can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc.

That voice comes from our childhood and can have more or impact on our decisions and behavior, depending on what we’ve gone through in life, depending on how our parents behaved/treated us, depending on the space that we give it (or not).

Our inner critical dialogue (as it is called) is mostly unhelpful. It is our own reflection, based on beliefs that we’ve built about ourselves, based on our past experiences and feedback from others.

The more negative those beliefs are, the stronger the voice becomes. Pushed to the extreme, when we are weak/depressed, those negative beliefs can be paralyzing, making us see everything that we do or plan to do as bad/wrong and putting a gray taint on our every thought.

Clearly, you need a way to break those beliefs and put new ones in place. But again, this takes time. There’s no shortcut, no magic to expect here.

The first step is to pay attention to those negative thoughts and to learn to recognize the pesky inner voice.

The second one is to try and be objective, to rationalize the negative thought. Is what it says really true or false? If not, then you can also consciously dismiss it and rephrase the idea under a different light.

Now, sometimes it won’t be black or white, because you’ll just have nagging doubts. In that case, try to evaluate the actual risk of doing/not doing the thing you had in mind.

Coming back to the advice of Julia Cameron, writing the morning pages can help you put those thoughts elsewhere than in your head. If you don’t know what to write, then write “I don’t know I don’t know, …”. At some point you’ll be bored and write something else. Write down whatever goes through your mind. Your plans for the day, your ideas, your wishes, your hopes and dreams, your fears. Everything.

It’s just a way to take those ideas out of your head and get in touch with your inner self, consciously.

Take a walk.. every day

Another way to feel a little better is to go out for a walk, each and every day (unless if you live in Belgium where it rains all the darn time :p).

Walking for half an hour each day has a huge impact on health. If you can’t make it, then walk whatever you can. Literally every step counts; you don’t need 10K a day to get better.

There are enough articles out there and scientific studies if you’re curious, but basically, simply by walking you can strengthen your heart & lungs, reduce the risk of heart diseases/strokes, reduce hypertension issues, better manage cholesterol, get stronger bones, increase your muscle strength etc.

Last but not least, walking will force you to see other things, hear the life around you, see beauty that you’d otherwise miss. Breathing fresh air will just make you feel better.

Disable notifications and forget about the news

One of the books that influenced my most recently is “Make time”, by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky. I’ve already mentioned it in a few articles.

In this book, the authors recommend eliminating “noise” from our life. And modern life comes with a lot of that.

We’ve got social media, notifications on our phones, alerts whenever we get a message, a mail, whenever there’s an update for X, Y and Z.

That noise is detrimental for our attention (bad), our concentration (worse) and well being (worst).

Most of the time, that noise just pushes us to look at screens all day long and makes us forget about the world around us.

There are tons of articles about this: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/technology/personaltech/control-phone-notifications.html

Just disable all those damn notifications. You’ll feel much better in no time, there’s no doubt about it.

The same goes for the news. Refrain from reading the news every day. Most news articles are written to sell paper and show ads (sad but true). There’s way too much negativity floating around. You’ll know about the important things, anyway.

Make a battle plan and put things into motion

These last sections were all about the little things that you can do to get back to yourself, feel better and regain energy and motivation. These won’t magically cure a real depression, but they certainly can help you feel better. There are a gazillion more things that we could discuss, but I’ll come back to those another day.

While making time for yourself and your well-being, you should continue to reflect and think about what change you’d like to see in your life.

Once you start having a rough idea about what you want (or don’t want), then you should try and make a plan. Don’t put needless pressure on yourself though. To start this stage, you need to feel good enough and you need to have recharged your batteries. If you’re still really depressed, then come back to this in a few weeks/months.

To make a plan, you need to start with the end goal in mind and move backwards to your current position, identifying all the things that could be done to move in that direction.

Here’s an excellent project management technique: start by defining a work breakdown structure (WBS) listing each and every “task” there is to do to reach the objective (whatever it is). Then, evaluate the effort needed for each of those tasks. Finally, identify the critical path: the most important things to do. Then, focus on the critical path.

For instance, if you want to become an author and write for a living, then list all the things that you could do to reach that goal: take writing courses, create an account on Medium, list the topics you want to write about, learn about the tools of the trade, read books on the subject, etc etc etc.

Once done, take the first item in the list and start right away. If you feel like you can’t, then try the divide and conquer approach: simplify and break down the work into small and achievable tasks.

Just like walking, each step, no matter how small, counts. Each step that you take towards the future you want for yourself is one less step to go to reach that goal.

When you feel ready and start taking the steps towards the future you want, nothing will stop you, not even that pesky negative inner voice. You’ve tamed it, no need to listen to it anymore.

Again, take your time, there’s no rush, you’ve got a life in front of you! :)

That’s it for today!

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