Sometimes a funk can equal more than the sum of its parts. For instance, you wake up to discover there's no milk for your coffee, the highway is backed up so you're late for work, and you're sinking into another bad—and worsening—day.
You don't have to go there. It's not the events themselves but the way the mind reacts to them that can cause a minor annoyance to snowball into an all-encompassing black mood—good news because, while you can't control traffic or someone hogging the milk, you can change how you respond when things go wrong.
The facts, please: Downward spirals are often provoked by jumping to the worst-case conclusion. You make a beeline from a boss's critical e-mail right to "I'm going to be fired." Or you take a friend's failure to call as a sure sign she doesn't like you anymore. But the boss's complaint is probably just business as usual; the friend is simply distracted by a problem in her own life that has nothing to do with you. So before taking a flight of bad fancy, reread the boss's e-mail more carefully (you may be surprised to find positive comments you hadn't noticed before), and review all possible explanations. Who knows, maybe she was just stressed out by her boss.
Let it be: Humans are highly evolved problem solvers. No sooner do we experience a negative emotion than we feel compelled to fix it. Usually that urge goes with the assumption that there's something wrong with us for feeling blue, which only compounds the depression.
Another problem is that by trying to think our way out of sadness, we paradoxically fuel it. "The more you feed these downward cycles with attention, the more you allow them to proliferate," says The Mindful Way Through Depression co-author Zindel Segal, PhD. "The negative ideas and experiences will just multiply, spinning from one thing to two things to four things to eight things." Instead, he suggests accepting your sadness as a natural state, experiencing it in the moment, and allowing it to pass. This doesn't mean letting yourself slide passively into a deeper slump but, rather, engaging with your feelings in a mindful way. The following meditation exercise can help you do this.
Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take a few full, slow breaths. Bring to mind the difficulty you're struggling with (the boss's e-mail, the incommunicado friend). Now let your attention sink into your body. Take note of any physical sensations that arise—tension, pressure, shakiness, aching—especially in the throat, chest, and stomach. After you identify where the sensations are strongest, focus there in an attitude of acceptance, even embrace. Try breathing as if the air is going in and out of that area, and as you do, observe any changes—are the sensations more intense, for example, or less? If your mind drifts back to your difficulty, simply notice the thoughts (self-flagellating? plotting revenge?) and return your focus to your body.
It's important to realize that this process won't get rid of your feelings, but it should help them pass more quickly. One of the most common mistakes we make when we fall into a funk is to think that the unhappiness will persist, says Matthew McKay, PhD, co-author of Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life. Knowing it's transient will keep you from getting pulled down further.
Pencil in a good time: When you are tugged by depression, not only does the world seem crummy but you don't want to do the very things that could make you feel better, like seeing friends or getting a massage. Research strongly suggests, however, that planning and engaging in an activity you find enjoyable or meaningful can break a negative mood slide. So as soon as you find your spirits sinking, make an appointment for a Swedish rubdown or schedule dinner with a great friend—even if you can't get out and do anything right now, the planning should help distract you from your misery.
Move: Depression also pushes exercise to the back burner, despite its being one of the most effective stimulants of a good mood. To slip through this Catch-22, forget the idea of jogging for an hour or slogging to the gym. Science has now shown that even 10- to 20-minute bouts of exercise can provide physical benefits as well as mood-boosting effects—and a brisk walk to look at a neighbor's garden or a bike ride to the bookstore both count. "The first few minutes of preparing for activity are the most difficult," says Kristin Vickers Douglas, PhD, a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who has been studying the benefits of exercise for depression. "Focus just on the five minutes it will take to put your shoes on and get out the door." Once you're outside, your momentum will likely carry you. It can also be helpful to recruit a friend to join you.
Take action: Escaping the downward spiral is just the first step. Once you've recovered some degree of internal equilibrium, consider what action you might need to take. Perhaps it's relatively minor, along the lines of scheduling a talk with your boss to discuss your report in more detail. Or you may need to think about serious life changes, like looking for a new job or a new husband. Now that you're in a grounded state of mind, you can draw on your inner wisdom to act not reactively, but skillfully.