(The first part of this article can be found here.)
The blues need their own personal towncriers. You know, with the robes and the breeches and the tricorne hats.
Hear ye, hear ye! The blues will be arriving shortly to drag you into a bottomless vortex of angst, sadness, wistfulness, loss of appetite, unnatural bowel movements and of course, that disgusting aftertaste in your mouth when your world has been rocked off kilter and you feel like a puzzle piece lost in the wrong jigsaw box.
As we’ve all experienced first-hand, the blues either visit regularly like healthy menstrual cycles or at absurd intervals like those annoying neighbours with the knack – nay, gift – of ringing the doorbell when you’ve just stepped in for a bath. Switching things up in your physical environment is comparatively easy. Take a bath, clean your room, travel to another planet. But when no amount of clean sheets or chocolate or sleep seem to work, then we’ve reached a critical point. Because something inside you is on the precipice of giving up, kiddo. Your soul is tired, exhausted, dead. The world has successfully drained you of your enthusiasm.
But you’re still breathing. Withstanding. Sustaining. Surviving. And everyone around you is moving and experiencing and living. The world is still spinning and the universe is still expanding. Everything is in motion and will continue to be in motion tomorrow and the day after that and after that. There is beauty in this sense of continuity because it reminds you that there will be no great ruptures in the fabric of time if you choose to focus on yourself for a couple of days, to deal with your problems and lick your wounds, to heal. The world may not be going anywhere, but the longer you stay static, the easier it is for your mind to latch itself onto invisible hooks of stress, anxiety, hopelessness, after which it’s a straight road to depression. So better clench up, Legolas.
1. Invade someone else’s headspace.
And not in the creepy mind control way; the Force is not with you. An effective way to pull yourself out of the doldrums is to wear someone else’s state of mind like borrowed robes. Do as successful method actors do when they surround themselves with people of a certain profession or culture – whoever’s role they are attempting to temporarily assume: find the most positive individuals you know and show them some lurve. All of us have people in our lives who are relatively calm, stable, relaxed, enthusiastic, kind, optimistic, or – considering the fact that this is law school – maybe some of the above. They’re in a good place at this point in their lives and they seem to have their shit together. Hang out with them and absorb what they have to offer. A study conducted in the USA as part of the Framingham Heart Study over a period of 20 years measured the happiness of 4,739 people at regular intervals and found that a person’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. So if you can’t arrange for a field of golden retrievers or a crèche of the most adorable babies on the planet, locate your happy friends and involve yourself in their lives. Look at the world through their eyes if yours seem temporarily foggy, engage yourself in humourous scintillating conversations, allow them to draw you out of your dark bubble and into whatever their adventure for the day is. There’s no need to confide in them or show them the blueprint of that dark place you’re struggling to escape from; the aim of this exercise is not to talk about it. It’s to welcome the brief respite that the uncontrolled gurgle of someone else’s laughter can bring.
2. Rest, relax, rejuvenate.
This may not apply to everyone in every stage of their blues, but I find myself bed-ridden more often than not when I’m going through a crappy phase. It’s when you can’t muster up the energy to make conversation or to go forth into this exhausting world. On some level, that’s all right. Being alone for short periods is important for personal growth. But locking yourself in like you suffer from ‘glass delusion’ cannot possibly be healthy in the long run, especially if you don’t have social anxiety disorder. Instead, think of this brief period of ‘alone-time’ as a cheat-day before a new exercise regimen or a water-break before the second half of your football match or a weekend before a hectic work week. Mentally reaffirm and accept that you must focus on rehabilitating and healing yourself enough to deal with the next curve-ball life throws at you.
You could watch a good comedic or uplifting movie/show: According to Birgit Wolz, a psychologist studying the therapeutic effects of movies, “Because many films transmit ideas through emotion rather than intellect, they can neutralize the instinct to suppress feelings and trigger emotional release… By eliciting emotions, watching movies can open doors that otherwise might stay closed.” The University of Maryland’s Centre for Preventive Cardiology has found that laughter induced by movies causes your blood vessels to dilate by 22% which means your blood pressure lowers to the same extent as when you do physical exercise!
How about some fantabulous grooves? The way music affects our emotions is ridiculously fascinating. Sure, we’ve experienced the cathartic effect, but why is it that some people enjoy listening to sad music? Why do we get chills when the bow pulls against the violin’s strings to create that perfect emotional dip of sound? Why are we so drawn to haunting voices and melodies? A study conducted in Tokyo, Japan by Kawakami et al. in 2013 found that although “…sad music was perceived to be more tragic, the actual experiences of the participants listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, blither and less tragic emotions than they actually perceived….” Therefore, we have the liberty of understanding the emotions of a musical piece without actually feeling them. “Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness.” If listening to music isn’t as rewarding as enjoying art, then I don’t know what is.
[The piece used in the study was Glinka’s “La Séparation” in F minor.]
Identify tiny things that calm you down or make you feel a tad bit better. It could be aimless scrolling on Tumblr till that one quote pops up on your dashboard which resonates with you; browsing through photographs of beautiful places and beautiful things (try Unsplash or Splitshire or Magdeleine); watching random YouTube videos; spending hours on Vine (this child is adorable ohmygod) or 9gag; launching into tuneless renditions of your favourite songs; 2 AM dance parties with your roommates; cracking complicated codes on Codeacademy; whatever floats your boat.
Try not to be a passive participant. Engage with these tiny activities – things that you love to do, things that have a positive impact on your mood – and allow your mind to greedily absorb all the benefits.
3. You don’t have to battle the white bear alone.
Psychological studies encourage talk-therapy or discussing your innermost thoughts and feelings with people to reduce anxiety and stress. In 1987, the ‘White Bear Experiment’ was conducted by Dr. Daniel Wegner based on Dostoevsky’s quote “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University, asked a group of participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness or thoughts and warned them not to think of a white bear. It was found that they thought of a white on an average of more than once per minute. In the next segment, Wegner asked the same group to repeat the exercise, but this time to go ahead and think of a white bear. It was found that they thought of a white bear at a higher frequency than a second group who had been asked to think of a white bear right from the beginning throughout both segments.The results indicated that suppressing the thought at first caused it to ‘rebound’ even more prominently at a later stage.
This finding added to Wegner’s theory of ‘ironic processes’ wherein when we try to avoid thinking a certain thought, one part of our mind acquiesces, but another part ‘checks in’ to make sure that we aren’t thinking of it, thus ironically bringing it to mind.
- When asked for strategies to suppress the white bear, Wegner outlined few of which I found these three helpful:
Focus on an absorbing distractor: In a subsequent study, when Wegner asked participants to focus on a red Volkswagen instead of a white bear, he found that providing something else to focus on aided in avoiding thoughts of the unwanted white bear. If you don’t think you’re ready to deal and focusing on the white bear will do more harm than good, then by all means distract away. But never forget that no distraction lasts forever.
- Postpone the thought: A personal favourite, this can be summed up in the life quote ‘Survive now, cry later.’ Set aside a definite time where you will allow yourself to focus on your white bear and this may prevent you from worrying about it continuously.
- Expose yourself to the thought: Considered ‘painful’ by Wegner’s standards, this entails allowing oneself to think in controlled ways of the thought you’re trying to avoid. The benefits of this is that the more you expose yourself to the thought, the more familiar and less scary it becomes. You come to fully understand its nooks and crannies, and as you invite more perspective about this white bear, you may even move towards finding solutions to heal yourself.
But throughout this entire process of avoiding thought suppression, what could potentially be of substantial help is finding someone to confide in. Someone who is a dead end and not a peep-hole for the rest of the campus. Someone who understands the importance of reserving judgement and offering a practical rational perspective. Someone who won’t hoard this information to use against you at a later stage and grasps the concept of never bringing it up again. Someone who can temporarily share your emotional baggage without crumbling under the weight. Finding a confidant not only allows you to share your anxieties and worries, but also creates an environment where you’re exposed to helpful perspectives that act as the right tools to dissect your emotional tumour when your surgical knife falls short of the job.
4. Don’t throw the Inner Child out with the bathwater.
I have a theory. So does Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, but I’m going to maintain that I developed this theory independent of his thought process. It’s a simple theory – we house a psychological semi-independent entity within us alongside our waking conscious mind. Think of it like you’ve been possessed by an obstinate, tantrum throwing demon child who embodies everything vulnerable about you and spits fire when it senses your presence. Or as pop psychology calls it: the Inner Child.
Who is your Inner Child? What does he/she look like? What distinct behavioural traits do they possess?
Your Inner Child is the weakest part of you. If emotions were to punch you in the face, your Inner Child would take the hardest hit. It needs to be protected. From the world outside, from things it cannot seek to understand, from those it sees as friends, even from you. It’s your duty to create a permanent safe space where it can grow and develop and enjoy a well-lived life. Because the alternative is undergoing emotional trauma and then realising that even though you – your entity as you know it – are capable of withstanding, there’s something embedded inside you that’s heaving and choking from the force of the hit, and you cannot recover because you have no control over that little weak monster who refuses to do your bidding. Your Inner Child, ladies and gentlemen.
I find myself being dragged into the blues mostly when I’m ashamed or embarrassed or when I’m overcome with guilt. Instead of wandering around helplessly like I do in GTA Vice City when I cannot complete the helicopter-dynamite mission, take the decision to actively deal with these unpleasant emotions that you have managed to push under the rug but has your Inner Child cowering in fear. If it’s embarrassment you’re feeling, explain to this little kid that what may seem like the Boogeyman now won’t be so terrifying in another five years; that our minds always overplay and exaggerate the intensity of our mistakes in the moment, and maybe if we sleep it off, it won’t seem so bad in the morning. It’s a personal rule-of-thumb: when something drastic happens, put a distance of 8 hours between your affected self and your current self. Everybody on this planet (yes, absolutely everybody: I checked) has done something humiliating – a slip of tongue, not knowing the name of your Prime Minister, farting in public, flashing unsuspecting passers-by, yada yada. It’s okay. You will forget about it soon enough.
The more complicated emotion to deal with is guilt. Now I can’t speak for the likes of Ramsay Bolton and those who have committed the Unforgivable crimes (yes, Stannis Baratheon – I’m looking at you); I have yet to do something that lands me in an emotional prison. directs the concerned individuals to accomplished psychiatrists But for the rest, the first step is asking for forgiveness. You’ve made a mistake, now apologize. You know, when children break precious china in someone else’s house and their parents force them to say sorry to that uncle/aunty and the child does it but very reluctantly? You’re the parent in this scenario and that stupid kid is your Inner Child. If you’re not ready to apologize or make amends where an apology won’t cut it, you’re not ready to grow up and accept responsibility; you’re on the same mental level as your Inner Child. Please recognise that guilt doesn’t just dissipate. You can’t passively stare at it and wait for it to go away. Make amends. Actively engage in fixing what you destroyed. There is reward to be found in these endeavours.
If it comes to taking even more drastic steps, then ground your Inner Child. Take away certain comforts and abstain from enjoyable activities till you feel like you’ve punished yourself enough. Because you’re the one who sets the boundaries and is in-charge of discipline, you’re accountable solely to yourself. And the fear of letting you down is a powerful motivator for your Inner Child.
But please remember: grounding does not equal locking your Inner Child in a dingy sub-level dungeon with a puddle for water and worms for food. We’re not trying to resurrect that demon-child from The Omen. Your Inner Child needs a supportive ally, one who wants what’s best for this lonely, small, insecure, unsure, nervous, excited, curious little buddy. You are the only teammate he/she has so be kind to yourself.
5. Bisons wallow. Pigs wallow. Rhinos wallow. Do you?
Animals regularly participate in wallowing. For them, it entails rolling their body about in mud, water, dust or snow to regulate body temperature or rid themselves of ecto-parasites. For humans, however, wallowing is a complex process of steeping oneself in self-pity, emotional outflows and allowing oneself to grieve. There are those sceptics who find wallowing to be a weakness and unhealthy. Personally, I recommend it. When you allow yourself to wallow, you’re giving your mind the space it needs to ruminate and hurt and process emotions without having to worry about the consequences. You’re creating a safe space for yourself and your mind won’t have to keep looking over its shoulder for your harsh ‘Suck it up’ or ‘Stop crying, wimp’. The human experience includes a range of emotions, even the unpleasant ones. We’re equipped to feel sadness and grief and loss, so why is it that we’re always in a hurry to tamp it down and put on a brave face? Kiddo, you have been withstanding since you were born.
We respond to life through emotions. Suppressing bad feelings could either lead to an explosion through destructive behaviour or to a deep festering which manifests itself in the form of stress and anxiety over an indeterminable period. Constructive wallowing is when you give yourself permission to acknowledge the bad feeling, fully experience the negative emotion and get it out of your system. Yes, it hurts; yes, it’s unpleasant. But the best we can do is surround ourselves with what makes us comfortable and prepare to push through it. Lock the door, pull a blanket over your head, dim the lights, play some soft rock, slip into loose cotton pyjamas, keep a container of delicious food nearby, some fresh chilled juice for the summer or hot chocolate when it’s winter, fluff up your pillow, breathe. Because the satisfaction of coming to the end of that arduous journey and looking back to see the steaming pile of crap which you may never have to deal with again is unparalleled.
However, it is imperative to draw the line between productive reflection and dangerous dwelling. The latter only substantiates our worst fears of being overwhelmed by the negative emotions and being unable to escape the wallowing phase. Wallowing must be temporary. You’re permitting yourself to dunk your head in a bathtub of self-pity with the caveat that you’ll surface before your skin becomes pruny. Or else your lungs will fill up and you will drown. So find the most appropriate time, give yourself a deadline, get comfortable and stew in those unpleasant emotions.
“You wake every morning to fight the same demons that left you so tired the night before, and that, my love, is bravery.”
I sincerely hope that both parts of this series have helped in some way. Till next time.