If misery loves company, here’s a reminder that should be at least a little soothing next time you find yourself in a funk: Even psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists — the people trained to help you find the good in the bad, put things in perspective, and become more resilient to setbacks — have times when they’re just stuck in an emotional low point. No one, no matter how in tune with their emotions, is immune to a bad day.
Where these mental-health experts might have a leg up from the rest of us, though, is knowing how to cope; after all, they spend much of their professional lives advising patients and clients on how to do just that. For example, Amy Cirbus, a counselor based in New York, advises paying close attention to what your mind needs, and calibrating accordingly: “There are days that I come home and I need to numb,” she says, but “on other days, the drumming of my adrenaline calls for more action if I want to unwind and let go.”
Her advice speaks to a larger truth: There is no single universal coping mechanism that’s guaranteed to solve every bad day for every person, or even every bad day for just one person. Still, having multiple tools at your disposal can leave you better equipped in the moment to know what might lift your spirits. Below, nine mental-health professionals share the strategies they turn to when they’re struggling to make it through the day.
Create some emotional distance.
I try to think about why I am so bothered by the day. Was there some particular trigger? Have I done whatever problem-solving I can around the issues of the day? Once I have done that problem-solving, can I acknowledge that any further angst is just my mind staying stuck? Can I try to let it go and realize that life will go on? Accepting that sometimes life is tough — but that worrying about that doesn’t change it, and just adds to our misery — helps me to move on.
— Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist, New York
Take care of someone or something.
After work, I head home and get out in my garden. I pull weeds, water plants, and care for what needs attention. In this way, I am offering and receiving uncomplicated love. I love the plant, and then the plant grows beautifully and does its plant thing, which is how I receive love back. With all of the distractions and complications in life, this simple practice is meaningful and healing for me.
— Dr. J. Andrew Huchingson, psychiatrist, Charleston, South Carolina
Do whatever feels good.
Different days and different circumstances call for different coping strategies. There are days that I come home and need to numb. I put the kids to bed and immediately turn on Netflix to zone out for a while because I need to press pause and completely shut off my brain. On other days, the drumming of my adrenaline calls for more action if I want to unwind and let go. On those days, I hit the trail for a run or walk, take a bike ride with my kids, or catch a yoga class. The movement really helps shift my perspective and my mood.
— Amy Cirbus, licensed professional counselor, Talkspace Manager of Clinical Quality, Whitestone, New York
Spend some time processing your feelings.
When I’m hurt, overwhelmed, or stressed, the first thing I do is recognize that feelings are always there for a reason. This means that I take some time to assess and self-soothe. Sometimes, this means reminding myself that I can only do the best that I can, and that things can be unpredictable. After taking some time to be self-compassionate, I translate what I’m feeling into actions I can take.
— Sharon Asher, licensed psychologist, Brooklyn, New York
Choose your support person strategically.
When I’m having an emotionally challenging moment, I like to be home. My go-to person when I’m coping is usually my husband, but sometimes I go to friends. The person who typically has the best insight is my daughter.
— Sherry Benton, founder and CSO of TAO Connect, therapist, St. Petersburg, Florida
Look up (literally).
I look at the treetops and the clouds. Look around and enjoy the newness of what you see. Try looking down at your shoes and saying, “I feel great,” then looking up at the ceiling or the clouds and saying the same. You’ll notice that one is flat and one has a little more energy. It’s pretty cool.
— Wayne Pernell, clinical psychologist, San Francisco, California
One of the things I find really helpful when I am stressed or need to recharge is mindful photography. This practice uses photography as a meditative medium and requires me to slow down as I take things in. It also serves as a great creative outlet and gets me out into nature, which I find is really important for me, as it clears my head and boosts my energy.
— Dr. Robin May-Davis, psychiatrist, Austin, Texas
Find a more fulfilling replacement for a bad habit.
I love that Apple has given us visibility to our screen time, but I’ve noticed that just knowing I spend too much time on my phone each day hasn’t made me stop. So I challenged myself to make one small switch that will help feed my desire for connection because we have to replace old habits with new ones we enjoy. At the end of the day, instead of spending 20 minutes scrolling through social media, I choose to call a friend, a substitution that satisfies my curiosity and gives me a sense of belonging.
Challenge your internal monologue.
I start paying attention to what I tell myself. In a world that depends on multitasking, we are constantly running a million thoughts through our head each day. I try to identify what these thoughts are for me and determine if I’m bullying myself. If I am, I challenge the negative thoughts by asking myself what evidence I have to support them. This helps me reality-test the nature of my thinking. My larger goal is always to develop a more balanced view of myself and the situations I’m involved in.
— Molly Sherb, psychologist, New York