Seeing your way through darkness

Practical strategies for surviving tough times

I’ve been spending a lot of time in dark rooms lately. Well, one dark room, in particular. 

As parents of a four month-old little boy, my wife and I are wearing the carpet thin in the same 10-foot radius of his nursery, as we each log hour-upon-hour of pacing, back and forth, in pitch blackness, attempting to coax him to sleep. 

When moving around the room, I can’t see far in front of me—maybe just a few feet. I feel almost blind. I stub my toe on his crib or mistakenly bump into the dresser—and it hurts. But slowly, my eyes adjust. The outline of the room appears; the changing table, the rocking chair, the crib—they all come into view. And my path becomes clearer. Easier. It just takes a bit of time. 

In last week’s article, I wrote about identity-based habits and the mechanics of how we can actually live the identities that we believe we embody. But what happens when none of this is achievable? What happens when it seems like simply surviving is going to take all the effort we can possibly muster? Forget about optimizing habits, what happens when our goal is just to avoid a complete and utter breakdown?

When everything hits at once and the world seems to darken... what happens then?

Now may be an appropriate time to ask these questions. With summer coming to an end, life tends to ramp back up. Our jobs become more demanding. Our kids go back to school. The worries or obligations that we may have gotten a summer respite from are suddenly back—front and center. In short, our responsibilities grow, while our time to accomplish them seems to shrink. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and all of the above can seem like too much to bear. 

It’s particularly easy during such times to find ourselves overwhelmed, down, or in a funk. Really, it can happen anytime, but these times of transition can be especially brutal. Our problems seem insurmountable. The tasks that lie ahead, impossible. Everything is happening at once and we cannot begin to see our way through. It can stretch across every part of lives—work, family, health—all too often impacting them all at once. 

On top of all this stress and worry, it’s easy to feel guilty on all of these fronts. We feel like we are doing nothing well; like we are failing at everything, at home, at work, and in our quest for health—and letting down those who rely upon us. 

And it can seem like it’s just us. Like we are the only ones feeling this way. Our Facebook or Instagram timelines support this notion, plying us with evidence that our friends and families are “living their best lives,” while we struggle. 

But, of course, we are not alone in feeling stressed, overwhelmed and like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. We are all feeling it to different degrees at different times, even if it is seldom fodder for social media. 

When we are in these states, it’s as if a dark filter has been placed on our world. We see the downside in everything. It’s incredibly clear to us that things are impossible, or even hopeless. And one of the most difficult parts is that we can’t always identify this line of thinking in ourselves, even if it is obvious to others that we’re going down a dark path. 

So what do we do? 

Well, I’ve got good news. There are, in fact, things that we can do. Actions that we can take. Small steps that can drastically change our outlook and perspective for the better. Below is a (non-exhaustive) list of tactics that I have personally used, which I believe can help you during particularly difficult times. 

But if you’d rather watch me talk about this, check out the clip below…

Aaaaand, back to the article… here’s that list:

  • Write it down — “I don’t keep a journal,” you might think. Well, maybe you should. There are many benefits to writing down our thoughts particularly when going through challenging times. These include:

    1. Understanding what we’re actually thinking: They say that “writing is thinking” or in other words, we don’t know what we really think until we write it down... until then, it’s just a jumbled mess in our heads. 

    2. Cheap therapy: The act of spewing your thoughts on paper—all your worries, emotions, and complaints—does have a therapeutic effect. It gets them out of your head, which can feel like a weight being lifted off your shoulders. This is not disimilar to the proven method of cognitive behavioral therapy (aka talking to someone) as a tactic for improving mental health.

    3. Perspective: Almost without fail, when I’ve revisited my written thoughts weeks or months later, I am shocked to see how much a particular situation consumed me, only to work out fine in the end. It’s hard to see this when we are in the middle of a difficult period, but some perspective helps us to understand that what we’re feeling today is not permanent. 

  • Ask for help — Some of us like to shoulder life’s burdens on our own. We shouldn’t. Others can and want to help us. We need to let them. In our personal lives, at work, you name it.

  • Help someone else — Don’t ask me why this works, but it does. If you are feeling terrible and just can’t see the light, do something counter-intuitive: help someone else. Maybe it’s about seeing the value in ourselves or improving our own self-image… I don’t know. I just know that it works. 

  • Move your body — Any kind of exercise is good exercise, but for me, when I am in a funk, I need very specific exercise. I need intense cardio. I need to sweat. And I need to be out of breath. If I can do this, it’s almost like shocking my body out of whatever bad space I may be in. Typically in the 30 minutes after such a workout, I feel almost a sense of euphoria—or at least I feel a very significant positive swing in my mood. If you’re feeling down or overwhelmed, ask yourself: Have I sweat profusely lately? Have I been completely out of breath? This may be just what you need to shock the system. 

  • Meditate — I wrote an article on this topic recently, but meditation can be really helpful with your mental state during difficult times. In particular, there is a concept called “metta” which basically means thinking positive thoughts about others. Here’s a really simple technique for you to try even if you don’t meditate: Close your eyes and think of someone you love. Now think of them being extremely happy—maybe laughing hysterically. I like to think of my wife laughing (and snorting) and then laughing because she’s snorting. This simple act can bring me from angry/sad/down to having a smile on my face—it brings me joy. So even if we have to “manufacture” joy sometimes, our body doesn’t know the difference... it may be enough to snap us out of it. Try it for yourself. 

  • Diet/sleep — I’ll write more about these soon, but the more you can eat “real food,” go easy on the alcohol, and get enough sleep (I know, it can be a vicious cycle), the easier everything else on this list will become.

Look, it is completely natural to be down sometimes. Everyone goes through these periods when it seems like every possible thing that could go wrong is going wrong. Times when we are overwhelmed and wonder how we can go on. It stinks. It really does. But we don’t have to just live with it. There are proactive steps that we can take to get through these difficult periods. The tactics in this article have worked for me. There’s nothing scientific to it, just practical, doable strategies to push us back into the light. I’ve found them to be useful, and I hope you do, too.  

I’d love to hear what you’ve found to work (or not work) when it comes to pulling yourself out of bad patterns. Leave a comment below and/or if you know someone who might benefit from this article, or from Intentional Wisdom more broadly, please pass it along. Thanks very much!