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How to feel better in tough times

In dark times, it can be hard to remember that brighter days lie around the corner. Yet how do we feel better and give ourselves a sense of optimism and ease while dealing with the fallout from the global pandemic? This guide offers tips/steps to help you feel better in tough times, find solace and build strength right now.

by Psychologies

Image of 2 women wearing face masks how to feel better in tough times

Anita Chaudhuri consults experts in the field of self-care for their best strategies to help you feel better and find comfort.

It may be tempting to binge on cake or box sets, but the pleasurable techniques in this Dossier will nurture the future you and soothe your soul, including a guide to attaining balance with tips to help you feel better that will last a lifetime. 

Intelligent self-care for today and beyond to help you feel better in tough times

It’s gloomy out there – which makes it even more important to nurture your spirit and pursue hope and joy. Anita Chaudhuri compiles a complete self-care plan that will change your outlook. Let’s face it, most of us could do with cheering up right now. But, by the time I’ve reached the end of my working day and listened to the latest round of bleak news, the last thing I feel like doing is anything self-improving. Yes, I know there is free yoga all over YouTube, not to mention a freezer full of healthy meals I made in a frenzy of optimism – but, most days, all I really crave are a couple of glasses of Merlot, a family-sized bag of posh crisps and all the episodes of The Crown. Here are some expert tips/steps to help you feel better. 

Ride out difficult times

‘What’s happening right now is a bit like when you’re on a long-haul flight and hit major turbulence,’ says Owen O’Kane, psychotherapist and author of Ten To Zen: Ten Minutes A Day To A Calmer, Happier You (Pan Macmillan, £10.99). ‘In order to get through it, the pilot has to make changes, such as switching altitude or adjusting speed. You have to remain buckled up and probably can’t move around safely like you normally would.

My point is that you actually have to plan for how to get through the turbulence in order to deal with it.’ Rather than constantly reaching for treats, which ultimately aren’t going to sustain us for long, he suggests that the best route to finding comfort is to consider what small changes and tweaks we might need to make during challenging times. ‘If you’re going through a tough time, there’s no point in pretending that you can somehow make it great and love the experience. It’s more useful to ask yourself: “How can I make this time more comfortable and enjoyable, trusting in the knowledge that eventually this phase will end.”

O’Kane grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and was badly bullied at school, so he has lived through some extremely difficult times himself. ‘What we know about human distress is that the more you fight against what is happening, the more you will suffer. What can help is to lean into what you’re experiencing and develop more patience and acceptance of the situation,’ he says. As a starting point, he advises: ‘Tell yourself: “This isn’t what I would choose right now but I am going to hold onto hope. It’s all about perspective and how you choose to view what’s happening.’ O’Kane believes that the route to comfort starts with hope because when you have a hopeful perspective, anxiety levels drop. ‘Hope boosts your mood and you actually change your brain chemistry, so you feel lighter and more optimistic.’

woman sitting on bed reading

Hit the positivity switch to feel better

The best way to do this is to focus on the future and plan things to look forward to in the short and medium term. ‘From the day-to-day functioning point of view, it just means that you become less entrenched in the negative,’ says O’Kane. ‘You’re in a much more high-functioning state because you’re anticipating something good.’ Of course, treats are not off the agenda, but people often misunderstand self-care as indulgence, says Suzy Reading, author of Self-Care For Tough Times: How To Heal In Times Of Anxiety, Loss And Change (Octopus, £12.99) ‘There’s a difference between self-care and unhealthy crutches,’ she says. ‘A true act of self-care nurtures you in the moment but also nourishes the person that you are becoming. It helps you cope now but also protects the health of your future self.’

Even seemingly benign activities, such as watching copious amounts of TV or late-night Instagram scrolling might not be as soothing as they seem. ‘Bright screens at night could be depleting your sleep,’ says Reading. ‘Without our health, what do we have? That is one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic. Habitually indulging in unhealthy things just to get us through the day – too much caffeine, for example – are actions that will potentially make our tomorrows tougher.’ During challenging times, the things that would normally sustain us and help us feel better may be unavailable due to lack of funds, difficult family circumstances or, indeed, a pandemic. When holidays and nights out are off limits, we need to be extra resourceful to come up with a new self-care toolkit.  

Hot to feel better - expert tips

Make a cocoon

One thing we can all do is learn from the Danish art of cosy living, hygge, to create a comforting corner in our living space. Enhancing your living space is guaranteed to help you feel better. ‘No matter what your circumstances, take a look around and see where you could create a little more beauty and harmony,’ suggests Reading. ‘Put up fairy lights in a relaxed corner with cushions and blankets. Set mood-boosting focal points around your home using objects such as a piece of driftwood or shells from a special beach. Such objects can provide anchors in stormy times. Instead of seeing a big mess of papers or your children’s Lego, you train your eyes to switch to beauty. Let yourself rest there for a moment.’ Reading also suggests bringing nature into your home by listening to recordings of birdsong, watching a video of cloudscapes or simply allowing a breeze to whisper through your window.

Stabilise your core

When we’re in the thick of it, overthinking is the enemy of feeling good. ‘When you observe a tree during a storm, you will notice that the branches at the top are battered from all directions,’ says O’Kane. ‘I think that’s what it’s like for human beings when we’re in our heads too much. We are pushed and pulled in all directions by external forces. But if you look at the base of a tree in a storm, it remains rooted and grounded. It isn’t affected by the storm in the same way. As human beings, it’s part of our responsibility to find our individual sense of inner stability, no matter what storms are going on around us. Whatever is in our mind, whatever other people are doing or saying, we don’t necessarily have to react to them.’

Worry window

It sounds counterintuitive but it is helpful to schedule time for anxious thoughts. ‘The key is to give yourself full permission to wallow in worry, but make sure you give yourself a container for those feelings,’ advises Reading. ‘We don’t want to immerse ourselves in anxiety all day, every day. But, on the other hand, toxic positivity is dangerous too. We are living through genuinely difficult times and that needs to be acknowledged.’ She suggests making a daily anxiety appointment. ‘You might decide: at 4pm every day I am going to give myself 20 minutes to sit with my concerns, give them a good airing and let myself feel them. Then I will go on with my day. Outside of that time, you can remind yourself that it’s not ‘worry time’ till 4pm. Sometimes, you will get to the appointed time and find that you don’t need it.’

Rescript your self-talk

Self-compassion is a buzz word but understanding how to apply it isn’t always obvious. O’Kane says that one constant he has observed is that people give themselves a terribly hard time. ‘When I hear people talking about their lives, they tend to beat themselves up and are super critical of themselves. Learn to talk to yourself with kindness and you will notice you feel better. I ask my clients: “Would you talk to another human being the way you talk to yourself?” Every one of them says no, because their internal tone is so harsh and judgmental.’ By becoming conscious of your inner dialogue, you will automatically be comforted. ‘Everything feels easier because you no longer have this enemy inside criticising you. Instead, you’ve got an ally. Start by paying attention to your inner talk for an hour. What are you saying? How do you value and prioritise yourself? It’s not a luxury item, it’s essential maintenance and a true foundation to keep you functioning well.’ “ “ It’s our responsibility to find our inner stability, no matter what storms are going on around us and take to control to feel better. 

Curate happy memoriesm to feel better

‘Simple things can be so powerful,’ says Reading. ‘If we associate self-care with extravagant spa trips and luxury products, we will only do it once in a while – but if we put photos of happy times around the house, they foster a feeling of tenderness towards ourselves, awakening our capacity for selfsoothing, giving us permission to feel.’ Reading has a trio of photos in her kitchen that are reminders of her beloved Australian landscape and upbringing. ‘The beauty is that these memories can have cumulative power. You might well think “what good is that going to do?” but if you dot moments of feeling and connection throughout your day, they will help release tension and cultivate a more constructive mindset.’

Give yourself 10

If you want to feel better, start by learning to take time out of your day just for you, suggests O’Kane. ‘The human brain is an organ and, like every other organ, it needs time to rest and recharge, and it needs time to process. If we’re on the go constantly, it will start to deplete and not function as well.’ He advocates taking 10 minutes a day to create time and space to simply be with yourself in whatever way works best for you. Finding this space will be different for everyone, depending on your preferences and where you are based. If you’re in a busy office, the only place might be a quiet toilet cubicle or in your car at lunchtime! ‘If many things are bothering you, pick one. Make it an issue that is within your control and let it be your focus. It will give you a greater sense of control than if you’re trying to micromanage the future of the global economy!’

Remember why it matters

Self-care often gets overlooked because we deem it selfish or self-indulgent. ‘Spend time reflecting on what self-nourishment facilitates in your life,’ says Reading. ‘What does it allow you to do and be? What does it cost you not to do it? How does that affect the quality of your choices and the health of your relationships? The answers to those questions will form the basis of your personal why. It’s a useful reminder that we’re not actually transgressing our moral code when we choose to take care of ourselves.’

Woman doing yoga

Slow down and potter to feel better

Doing your own thing in your own time has emotional value, says expert Anna McGovern

AUTHOR ANNA MCGOVERN defines pottering as: ‘To occupy oneself in a pleasant way but without a definite plan or purpose. “Pleasant” implies comfort. “Without a definite plan or purpose” implies freedom.’ After a traumatic period caring for her father and family while working full-time, McGovern decided to make a few life changes. ‘When things got calmer, I decided to take a day a week for myself. I started to say no to other people. I didn’t say it forcefully, I simply withdrew my effort from some things. It gave me such solace, having no one to interfere with my time.’ McGovern didn’t know it but she was creating a manifesto for pottering, which resulted in her book, Pottering: A Cure For Modern Life (Laurence King, £12.99). ‘I sorted out the cupboards, I wandered to the shops, I faffed around in my kitchen listening to the radio. In the book, I have tried to deconstruct the characteristics of pottering, but there aren’t many rules. One is that watching a box set isn’t pottering.’ Pottering, she explains, requires some form of gentle movement. ‘You are choosing to do something satisfying and useful, though sometimes the activity is slightly unnecessary. It’s satisfying because it gives you the illusion of control.’ Ideal pottering includes rummaging in drawers, rearranging ornaments and clearing out your pantry. 

Regain balance when it all gets too much

Psychotherapist and author of ‘Ten To Zen’ Owen O’Kane outlines the essentials for finding peace and comfort when you feel despondent or overwhelmed by difficult circumstances

NURTURE PERSPECTIVE

Start by reminding yourself that when we go through tough times, there’s a real danger that we start to see it as a forever state. Remind yourself that whatever you’re going through is a temporary period of time. It can help to read or watch narratives from history to put what you’re going through into perspective.

AVOID FALLING INTO VICTIMHOOD

Every human being has choices about how they can move their life forward. Remember that you can choose to take responsibility for your own happiness. One of the most important things you can do is focus on your wellbeing and make it a priority. There’s no point in waiting for someone else to make you feel better, sometimes you have to make it happen for yourself.’

LEARN TO TOLERATE DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

I know I don’t respond well when I feel that someone is undermining me. For example, I have to be really conscious when I’m in a meeting and I feel as if someone is talking down to me – so I don’t over-react. Most people struggle with how they deal with unpleasant feelings, such as anger, dread or anxiety, whatever the context. The tendency is to run from the situation that triggered the emotions or try and block them out. Instead, let the emotion be a guide. What is the feeling trying to tell you? Once you get in tune with the feelings, they can lead you back to your point of stability.

GET MOVING

Walk, run or swim. Participate in any form of movement that’s possible for you. Make the most of the nature that’s available to you. Go for a walk in the park. Getting fresh air increases dopamine and oxytocin and these are essential for effective self-care.

HOW TO COMFORT YOURSELF COURSE

In times of worry and uncertainty, such as redundancy, break-ups, lockdown or conflict, we sometimes reach for unhealthy comforts to make us feel better. But what if we didn’t choose food, alcohol or even loved ones to comfort us, and could find solace within? Our four-week programme, ‘How to comfort yourself’, led by coach Gemma Brown, will help you discover positive ways to soothe yourself when you feel triggered and anxious.

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ILLUSTRATIONS ADA DASILVA/GETTY IMAGES