Sometimes being self-employed is the worst. There are doubts and a feeling of being behind on everything, like you don’t have anything figured out.
Sometimes being mom is the worst. Being creative is the worst. Being in love is the worst.
Even when you’re happy with your life overall, there are days when for one reason or another you are exhausted, desperate, depressed, burnt out.
On those days we crave comfort, and we need it fast. I have observed that my clients (and, ahem, I) often turn to these activities to find relief:
- turning to food for pleasure
- numbing out in front of the TV, youtube, netflix
- playing mindless games on your phone or computer
You know what’s most interesting about this?
Those things don’t actually help.
At their best they take your mind of off the anxiety you’re feeling for a moment. But as soon as the bag of chips is up or the TV series is over – there are all your feelings again. You’re feeling just as tense as you did before.
Isn’t that fascinating? In my clinical psychology class we’ve talked about something called “safety behavior”. Apparently most disorders come with their own set of safety behaviors, aka the ways that people try to protect themselves to deal with their disorder.
So for depression a common safety behavior is to retreat into bed, because you’re feeling exhausted, lethargic and anxious. For bi polar disorder, a lot of patients turn to self-destructive behaviors like cutting, unprotected sex, provoking fights etc. to manage their emotions.
Here’s the weird and interesting thing about this: The things we naturally choose to protect ourselves usually only make matters worse. The last thing you want to do with depression is get out of bed to go for a walk or work on a project, yet those things are likely going to help you feel better than staying in bed numbing out your feelings with youtube clips. Staying in bed makes room for even more rumination, which can lead you down a spiral of making everything feel worse, actually being destructive to your healing journey.
I’m not saying that we’re always intuitively making the wrong choices about what’s good for us, but it seems that when we are in emotional distress we tend to gravitate towards quick fixes that don’t really serve us in the end.
Here’s what I’m curious about: What if we just “one-upped” our self-care safety behavior? What if we choose things that are one step up the self-care ladder, a tiny bit better than what we usually do?
For example, if you usually eat a bunch of candy when you’re anxious, could you eat a few cookies or treats from the bakery instead (less sugar, maybe even more pleasure)? Instead of watching trash TV, could you put on a movie that you’ve been meaning to watch for awhile?
I’m not even asking you to swap watching TV for reading a book or ditch Solitaire for learning Spanish. Those things can work on a normal day, but on a truly crappy day even considering making a green juice makes you want to snort and flip your ideal self the finger.
So I propose this: Just one step up the self-care ladder.
What would happen if we did that? Can you give it a try on your next crappy day?