5 Ways to Break a Downward Spiral
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.