How to Turn a Bad Day Around

Just like any start to my day, I woke up at 5.00am. It was dark outside, because even the sun thinks I’m insane for starting my day so early. I slowly climbed out of bed. I felt a heaviness in my chest as I trudged to the kitchen and flicked on the kettle. Shoulders hunched and I let out a soft sigh. It was a Friday – my day off work but I still felt like rubbish. The work week had been stressful, and I was consistently reminded I was working in an industry that wasn’t for me. With no other immediate options available and with colleagues I enjoyed working with for the most part, I have been tolerating work. But this week it was all too much. I felt the stress spill over into my day off. A bubble of nausea rose within me and my stomach was tightly knotted as if I was tensing for a ridiculously posed mirror-selfie. My eyes narrowed irritably as I scribbled haphazardly in my journal. A sense of helplessness enveloped me and I very nearly retreated back to the warmth of my bed where I could cocoon cozily for the remainder of the day.

But, knowing how important my individual actions are in impacting the outlook of my entire day, I quickly put my gym clothes on before I could change my mind, and I drove to the beach. I walked to the sun rising over the ocean, whilst a podcast played in my ears. After my walk I realised that the outlook of my day wasn’t as grim as it initially appeared. I have lost count of the amount of times I have managed to turn my day around after i’ve been in a particularly woeful mood, ruminating about a negative moment from the previous day or stressing about an upcoming event. Whilst in those moments it’s extremely tempting for me to admit defeat and let the bad mood simmer for the rest of the day, I have learnt the importance of being proactive. In the past I would have perpetuated my negative feelings by eating an abundance of chocolate and lollies, or food that made me feel lethargic and weary. I probably would have scrolled on my phone whilst laying on the lounge, my low mood evolving into a depressed slumber. Nowadays, I’m getting a lot better at recognising what I need to do in these moments if I want to turn the day around. The trick for me is being as proactive as possible, and using intrinsic motivation as a tool to motivate me to do what I need to do. Here’s how I regularly turn a shitty day around:

Accept you feel like crap

Sometimes when we wake up feeling a little “off” we often try to ignore these feelings. Even though you spend the day snapping at your partner or staring vacantly at the netflix series all day, you brush your emotions aside and pretend that this is how you want to spend your whole weekend. But in order change the trajectory of your day, or even your week, it’s important that you first acknowledge how you are feeling and explore the source of your lack of contentment. You can do this by talking to a close friend or your partner, or simply by grabbing your journal and writing out your thoughts. It can be disheartening to realise that you don’t feel happy or you’re having another bad day in what feels like a sea of bad days, but it’s important to accept that bad moods and feelings will always ebb and flow. Acknowledging your low mood is the first step in overcoming it.

Remind Yourself that this feeling will pass

When you’re caught up in your low mood and cycle of negative thoughts, it can be difficult to look beyond your current circumstances. What has helped me get through these moments is to remind myself that this, too, shall pass. It might seem like startlingly obvious advice, but it’s important to make explicit nonetheless, particularly when you are in the throngs of the shitty mood. Outside the context of diagnosable mental health conditions, all dreadful moods are transient and fleeting, despite our warped beliefs in the moment that we might be stuck in this mood forever. The ebbs and flows we experience on a weekly basis are an inevitability of this strange and wonderful life. If you focus on all the times you have previously felt like crap, and you recall that 100% of the time your sadness, anxiety or anger dissipated and there were an abundance of happy moments to experience, then this can help you get through your “bad” day.

Focus on What Makes You Feel Happy and Fulfilled

When you’re feeling positive and upbeat, do yourself a favour and open up the “Notes” section on your phone. Write down a list of things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. In a previous article, I talked about the difference between pleasure and happiness, the former being a momentary but fleeting feeling of joy, and the latter an enduring sense of contentment. When constructing this list, we want to think of the things that promote long-term happiness and fulfilment, and not merely pleasurable things that create short bursts of delight but that ultimately leave you feeling empty or potentially worse than before. So on this list you might have things written down like “completing a HIIT workout”, “ringing Grandma”, or “spending time drawing in the sun whilst listening to my favourite music”. Whatever it is that gives you a sense of overarching happiness is what you need to focus on. Significantly, if you can set your mind on a task that helps you get into a state of flow – where you aren’t focussing on anything but the precise moment that you are living in – your negative mood might just dissipate before you realise it. This list is what I want you to revert back to when you are having a bad day. Rather than focussing on your low mood or the events that have upset you, you need to direct your energy on doing something aligned with the happiness list you have written.

Of course this is easier said than done, and sometimes the cause of our low mood is a little more deep-rooted and can’t simply be abated by listening to our favourite song or reading a book. Nevertheless, at the very least it’s important to try to focus on the things you enjoy rather than sitting in a heap on the floor and throwing in the metaphorical towel for the day.

Tap Into Intrinsic Motivation

Motivation is what gives us the volition to be proactive about our shitty mood and engage in tasks and activities that can help us forget about, or overcome it. Our motivations are closely tied to the concept of rewards whereby we will be more likely to do something if there is a perceived benefit at the end of it. In the context of motivation, there’s often two types that are discussed – intrinsic and extrinsic. The latter type of motivation comes about when you do something on the basis that you will receive some external reward. For example, you might be motivated to walk to the shops because you will reward yourself with a chocolate bar at the end of it, or you might be encouraged to lose weight because your friends and family will give you compliments about your appearance. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, occurs when we are motivated to do a particular task because it is inherently enjoyable or we know that it will make us feel good in the long-run. This type of motivation is arguably more enduring and effective than external motivation because it is more meaningful and based on personal fulfilment and enjoyment.

To relate this back to our topic of manoeuvring a crappy day, I would focus on intrinsic motivation as a means to pull yourself out of your despondency. Remember that the ultimate goal is to feel better and rather than wallowing in self-pity and sadness, you should use your energy into focussing on things that make you feel fulfilled and content. Instead of using external rewards for your behaviour – such as if you lay in bed all day you will get to watch movies and do nothing – you should focus on intrinsic rewards, such as feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction. Working through a bad day might require you to really think about what you find genuinely satisfying and enjoyable, and using your desire to feel like this as motivation to change your behaviour and attitude. Reflect on and analyse how you want to feel and what you want to do for the remainder of the day. Do you want to feel moody and sad, or productive and satisfied? Really focus on the good feelings that may arise if you go against the easy option of what you want to do in the present moment – i.e. bitch to your sister all day or be grumpy at home – and instead focus on how you might feel going for a work or reading a book. Visualise yourself in that moment and use this as motivation to do what you need to do to feel better.

Think outwardly – Help someone else out

Often when I am having a bad day it’s because I’m so heavily focussed on my problems and all the woes of the previous, or upcoming, week. My thoughts are solely focussed on how I am feeling or what I am going through, despite the seven billion other people that exist on earth. We can often become a little too caught up in the minutiae of our own individual lives, that we can lose perspective and forget that there’s other things going on in the world. If we direct our thoughts outwardly towards other people, it can often cause us to forget about our despondent mood. Thinking about what we can do for others or having empathy about what other people might be going through, may make us feel grateful for our our circumstances, and we often feel a sense of fulfilment when we do something nice for others.

On one particularly miserable Sunday morning, I woke up in a gloomy mood. I trudged to the supermarket and completed a weeks worth of grocery shopping for me and my boyfriend. When I went to scan my items, I became frustrated upon realising that they only had one lane open despite my grocery haul which appeared as though I was feeding a football team for a month. I noticed the bloke behind me had one small carton of milk so I obviously let him go in front of me. When his payment was unsuccessful and I realised he didn’t have enough money for the milk, I immediately jumped forward and paid for it. He was incredibly grateful and said that he was stoked because he was able to have milk with his coffee now. Even though it cost me a mere $1.50, it made him feel grateful towards me, and I felt uplifted knowing that I helped this guy out. I’m telling this story partly because I want to brag about what an upstanding community member I am, but mainly because of the positive impact it had on my mood and on someone else. Just this simple act made this man feel appreciative of a fellow human-being, and it improved my mood significantly because it gave me a sense of gratitude for my own circumstances and I felt good helping someone out.

Focussing our thoughts and energies on others is a great way to distract ourselves from how we might be feeling, whilst also making a positive impact on other people’s lives. Even if you comment on someone’s instagram post with a compliment about their new hair, or buy your co-worker a coffee, these seemingly innocuous acts may have a profound impact on someones day and could change your mood entirely. We often think that when we are down in the dumps we need other people to show US with compliments, gifts and any assistance to pull us out of the rut. But what we don’t realise is that when we help others that is when we truly feel a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, and this might just be enough to turn our day around.

Conclusion

As my good mate Buddha said, “life is suffering”. Experiencing sadness and having days where you feel defeated and miserable is an inevitability of our time here on earth. We can’t change this fact, so we may as well accept it. Once we acknowledge how we are feeling, we have the power to be proactive and engage in actions and thought-processes that can help the day turn around. These tools, such as directing your thoughts outwardly to other people, or using intrinsic motivation by focussing on the potential positive feelings that may arise by doing something you find enjoyable – are some of the things that have helped me overcome a bad day. Of course it might be overly simplistic to say that going for a run or hanging with friends is all you need to do, particularly when your low feeling is stemming from something more substantial than surface level annoyance about, for example, a co-worker. But if at the very least you try and implement these tidbits of advice, it’s likely that you will be an a better position than you were by doing absolutely nothing at all and mulling over your thoughts repeatedly. Above all, turning your day around might simply involve accepting the incontrovertible truth that this moment will pass, and there will be plenty more sunshine around the corner if you allow yourself to see it.

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