When you're feeling down

Stress happens, or as I often say Life Happens. Life happens and unfortunately, we live in a society of high stress, but it is important to remember what is IN our control and what is out of our control. We can’t always control others or what is going on in the world, but we CAN control our thoughts and our reactions to others. Our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked. So, by changing the way we think and act, we can affect the way we feel.

How many times have you had a stressful day and just grabbed the first thing you saw in the kitchen? People use food for a variety of reasons, including social and emotional reasons. How many times have you been upset and grabbed that pint of ice cream or chocolate bar? Eating is one way that people deal with stress or emotions, but unfortunately, it is not the best way to cope.

There are adaptive (or healthy) coping mechanisms and maladaptive (or unhealthy) coping mechanisms. Eating falls under the latter category, although many people participate in this behavior (emotional eating). Typically in the moment it feels good to eat during these times, but being that eating out of an emotion is typically an impulsive act, it is usually not a healthy food choice (i.e. “comfort food”) and later we either don’t physically feel well or we may feel guilty and be upset about it. Since our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, feelings of guilt could cause a downward spiral of additional negative emotions and behaviors that would not leave you anywhere but in a bad place (i.e. feel worse, then eat more, then feel worse, etc.). So the question is if eating is not a good option, what is? What can you do that is in YOUR control the next time you are feeling down or emotional?

When I work with clients I like to ask them this question and get them to think before I give them ideas. The reason for this is because what works for me may not work for you. If I tell you that I go on a walk or take a run when I feel down and that is not something that you could actually see yourself doing, then it is not helpful for us to have that listed as a coping mechanism for you. With that being said, I suggest everyone has a handful of adaptive coping mechanisms identified that they can use at any given time. The reason for this is if you decide that you are going to take a walk the next time you are sad, but the weather is bad, then what will you do? What if you identify calling a family member or a friend, but that individual isn’t available? We want to fill your toolbox with many tools so no matter what comes your way, you will have a good tool to use in that situation.

Although there are many things we can list as healthy coping mechanisms, I tend to first encourage my clients to take a mini time-out. When we become sad or emotional we can easily act out of that emotion in an impulsive manner. Perhaps we will say or do something that we will later regret. So, first, when we feel stressed or emotional, the key is to calm down. The easiest and quickest way to do that is by taking a few minutes to yourself. Take a few deep breaths and then you will be able to think more clearly, as opposed to out of strict emotion. If we think about it, stress and relaxation are two completely different, and opposite, physical states that our bodies cannot be in at the same time, so all we need to do is take a few deep breaths and our body will return to homeostasis and feel more relaxed. Then, once we have a clearer mind we can think about the tools that we have in our toolbox, or our list of coping mechanisms, and choose accordingly. I typically recommend any behavior that may be a good distraction for you that is NOT alcohol, drugs, smoking, or food.

Here are some of the most popular I hear from my clients:

  • Taking a bath
  • Taking a walk
  • Making a phone call
  • Cleaning
  • Crocheting or knitting
  • Watching television or a movie
  • Reading a book
  • Journaling
  • Meditation or other breathing exercises
  • Yoga or exercise

So, the next time you are feeling down or stressed, remember what is IN your control and what is not in your control. YOU CAN control your behaviors and your reactions. You CAN make a decision to participate in a healthy behavior that will help improve your mood. Remember, our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all linked, so if you change the behavior, your thoughts and emotions will follow.

To being in control of your mind and to a healthy and happy life!

About the Author 

Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., FTOS is a Clinical Psychologist licensed in New York specializing in health and wellness. She is Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. She currently maintains a private practice in NYC where she sees individual clients specifically related to behavior change and weight management, as well as providing consulting services to other professionals and corporations, including corporate wellness workshops and executive coaching. She has been quoted in several health-related articles, has been an expert guest on Sirius XM Doctor Radio. She serves on many professional committees and speaks at national conferences related to the behavioral aspects of obesity and weight management.  She believes anyone can have a healthy lifestyle and it all starts with making one small change today.

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