I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth. Well, not quite; I’m certainly nowhere near Hamlet’s level of sadness and introspection, but I have found myself somewhat on the grumpy side recently. You know, that state where everything seems like a big deal, nothing strikes you as terribly funny, and life just feels like hard work.
The makings of such a mood can come from any quarter – professional setbacks, disappointments in friendships, money problems. For me, it’s been due to feelings of bog-standard overwhelm. I am coming up to the sixth month of my first pregnancy, and my husband and I are currently looking to buy a house and move just outside of Paris. Not bad when it comes to life-changing decisions, huh? Add to that our full-time jobs, families, friends, my writing and coaching, and it all seems like a mountain from which even the fearless Bear Grylls would run screaming.
The inconvenient truth
And the thing is, there’s not really much to be done about overwhelm. You can roll your sleeves up, make a plan, start a list, make a plan B, and discuss options with your partner ad nauseam, and those actions are practical and wise. But they’re not always enough to quiet the nagging little voice that pipes up at 2am and whispers some variant on, “It won’t all be ok; you shan’t get through this; you cannot manage”.
It is my firm belief that the only thing to do in those situations is to GAG oneself. No, we’re not getting into 50 Shades territory here; GAG stands for “Get A Grip”. It’s an old expression that sounds rather shocking nowadays, doesn’t it? In an age that favours self-examination even to the point of self-torture over the old “buck up” attitude, exhorting someone to simply get a grip seems callous. But I maintain that sometimes it’s the only way.
It’s like a mental self-slap. A reminder that we really are dealing with first-world issues, here. My husband is fond of asking me to imagine how I would feel if the things overwhelming me weren’t happening – if I weren’t able to have children, if we couldn’t envisage getting a bigger home, if I didn’t have employment, friends that want my time, family who need me… The simple answer is: I’d feel pretty rubbish (he can be infuriatingly right at times)!
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes a problem really is a problem and needs talking through and solving, but it’s often just a proliferation of activity, obligations and, well, life that puts us in a tail spin. That’s when a self-shake and a firm “For God’s sake, Jo, Get. A. Grip.” works wonders for me.
Do try this at home
GAGging works best when performed using a specific accent. I occasionally hear a plummy-voiced Malory Towers- type Sports Mistress barking at me. You may prefer an American drill sergeant or even an exasperated version of yourself. Sometimes I like to hear my Scottish grandmother’s voice softly burring, “Now, now, dear, you know I love you, but do try to get a grip for goodness sake”. She never said anything of the kind to me, but somehow the vision of this strong, no-nonsense yet kind and loving woman works every time.
GAGging is also best achieved when used entirely on its own. No extra pep talk, no list of “examples of times when it has all been ok in the past as so will be this time too”, no reasoning or cajoling. Just a mental “No Entry” sign that brooks no argument.
It’s not easy at first, but if you GAG each time you head back down the road of ovewhelm, it eventually comes more quickly and more naturally. Give it a try. I’m interested to know how it works for you!
On bright days when our cup runneth over, it’s easy to be optimistic and roll with the punches – positive thinking is second nature to us. However, not every day is a bright day. Sometimes, we wake up to find that, overnight, while nothing has actually changed in our lives, the world has fallen off kilter… The job offer that yesterday seemed so promising, today looks dead-end and badly-paid. The home in which we felt so comfortable now looks pokey and shabby. The relationships that seemed secure now appear shallow and tenuous.
Most of us want to act in these moments. We want to get to work fixing the problems we perceive to be the cause of our misery. We never stop to realise that the only thing that has changed between yesterday and today is our mood, which is a result of our thinking. What we need at these times is not a solution but a mental shake. When film characters get the blues, they inevitably sit at a bar – alone – and happen to get talking to some gorgeous, semi-mystic stranger who sees into their troubled soul and says something profound and perceptive that gives them just the boost they need. How convenient. Sadly, life isn’t a film, and I have never happened upon a man in a bar who looks like Hugh Jackman and spouts the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Maybe I’m going to the wrong bars. So, we have to create our own contingency plans. Less glamourous than a divine stranger with just the right thing to say but just as effective is the classic note-to-self scrawled on the humble post-it note.
I believe in the power of the ‘Universe’ as much as the next girl, but I also believe in the power of me and my own capacity to pull myself out of the doldrums. I don’t want to leave it to the universe or wait for Hugh Jackman to walk into my life and deliver the killer line that parts the clouds; I take matters into my own hands. I’m preparing now for the days when I’m not my usual sunny self that brims over with perspective – scrawling notes to myself on post-its to be re-read when that little mental shake is needed. So, here are the top three pieces of advice I’d like to come across on a rainy day. The snippets of wisdom that seem so blindingly obvious in the moment, but that I know I’ll forget on my off days.
Worry is like a rocking horse: you can sit and rock all day but it won’t get you anywhere.
We’ve all been there. It’s 3 a.m. and sleep just isn’t happening. We toss and turn and contemplate the day to come. In that moment, even the prospect of a weekend away can take on elephantine proportions and spawn a thousand possibilities for disaster. These range from the practical (Will I get the train on time?) to the anxiously speculative (Maybe I should take the walking boots, after all. What if it rains?), and the downright ridiculous (What if the B&B doesn’t have muesli– I’ll have to eat a full English breakfast – I’ll balloon at least two sizes overnight…). This type of worry is like that rocking horse. No matter how much you stew and how many scenarios you envisage, it will never get you anywhere.
So what do you do at 3 a.m., when the demons circle your bed? The first thing to do is get up and take action to allay the more practical concerns. Make sure the alarm is set, take a quick look at your hotel reservation, pack the walking boots. Then, choose a couple of your more left-field worries and logically deconstruct them: “OK, the B&B might not have muesli, but that doesn’t mean I have to scoff a full fry-up. Two days is not going to make a difference on the scales, and even if it does, letting go for a couple of days will be a well-earned treat, besides the fact that having breakfast cooked for me is a huge luxury to be enjoyed and not feared!” Then, when you’ve taken action to turn the flood of worries into a trickle, get off the rocking horse. Simply stop engaging in those thoughts. Dismount, and trust that whatever happens, you’ll deal with it as best you can – and feel safe in the knowledge that your best will be so much better after a good night’s sleep.
Put a positive spin on it.
Remember the film White Christmas? If you haven’t seen it, break with tradition and watch it now – in the middle of summer. One of my favourite scenes is when Bing Crosby sings to the classy but sleepless Rosemary Clooney:
When I am worried and I can’t sleep,
I count my blessings instead of sheep.
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
When my bankroll is getting small,
I think of when I had none at all.
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
Sage advice indeed. It’s hard to stay gloomy when you’re listing all the things that good in your life. Now, I know what you’re going to say: when you’re feeling down, it feels as if nothing is good. Well, that’s just the point. For example, today the world is against me: it’s raining, I have a really busy work day, I ladder my tights (naturally), I miss the bus, and by the time I arrive at work (late), my morale is in my boots. It takes some effort to find gratitude, but it’s right now that it’s most required. I start listing: ok, rain – what’s good about rain? Well, I won’t have to water the garden this evening. Next, busy day – I’m in demand and my opinion is respected, so people ask me to be in meetings, that’s a good thing. OK, the tights were a casualty of my own haste and are hard to spin… erm, good excuse to buy some fabulous glossy hold-ups! And, yes, the bus was late, but at least I got a seat.
It can take Herculean force to cross to the sunny side of the street when the cosmos plots against you, but even finding the tiniest silver lining helps. And your list will always increase exponentially – gratitude breeds gratitude.
When you’re in a negative spiral, it can feel like driving a car too fast on a slippery road approaching a bend. Panic causes paralysis, and we have a tendency to freeze and, ironically, accelerate. On the days when a pity party sounds like fun, a similar kind of emotional panic sets in. Your logical brain knows you’re behind the wheel and, technically, in control, but your feet can’t seem to find the brakes. You know that staying in your bathrobe isn’t helping, that the portable black hole you bought to crawl into is not the answer, and that listening to Céline’s rendition of All By Myself on a loop is propelling you into worryingly Bridget-esque territory, but your wagon of self-flagellation continues to career towards the abyss.
What will it take to make you hit the brakes? We all take the hint when we see a red light or a stop sign. Well, now’s the time for a well-placed roadside stop sign. A big, red circle screaming DESIST! – yes, you can even give it an exclamation mark if you like. Imagine your roadside STOP sign and mentally obey. STOP. STOP. STOP. Stop hitting yourself over the head and move your arse. Right, that’s enough wallowing. Stand up, put on some music, dance, sing, go to the cinema, have a shower, phone a friend, take a walk, bake a cake, clear out your wardrobe, clean the bathroom…embark upon any activity other than self-destructive thinking.
There’s a lot to be said for a post-it. When the blues come to call, we all need something to shake us awake and back into positivity – or at least something to make us realise that we’re just in a low mood and that action is unnecessary. It is on such dark days that we most need our inner wisdom and yet, in one of life’s cruelly ironic twists, it is in precisely these moments that our wisdom is the least accessible to us. So, in true Boy Scout fashion, be prepared. Keep a list of mood-boosting techniques you’ll be glad to re-read in times of trouble. What about making a list of the perfect films to watch and songs to play? Add some photos of amazing times in your life, a pressed flower from a treasured bouquet, a favourite poem. Remind yourself of the best people to call, and call them. Going out and spending time with other people is often the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling down, but it never fails to give you much-needed perspective. Whether it’s just enjoying the company of people you love (yes, you do have some – seriously, turn that flippin’ Céline song off!) or listening to someone else’s problems and realising that yours are not the only crises in the world. In fact, reaching out a hand to someone in need – listening to a friend, offering help with a project, or simply doing something spontaneously nice for someone – is the ultimate mood-booster. Not out of some kind of schadenfreude, but because being of service and bringing joy to others is the quickest route to bringing joy to yourself. And if you believe you can’t do much, think on the words of Mother Teresa: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do”.
And, if worst comes to worst, offer up your problem to the universe: take your reminder list to read at a local café, treat yourself to a frothy coffee, and keep an eye out for that Hugh/Dalai hybrid. You never know…