3 Ways to Cope When You're Feeling Bad

Everyone feels bad sometimes. But the next time you're in a funk, you'll recover more quickly if you treat yourself with kindness by following these three simple steps.

Dr. Monica Johnson
4-minute read
Episode #354
The Quick And Dirty

It's normal to feel bad from time to time. When you're feeling down, you can protect yourself from further harm by treating yourself with kindness. Use these three simple techniques to soothe yourself until you're back on your feet:

  1. Consider your needs
  2. Find sensory comforts
  3. Get up and move

After reading the title of this episode, you might be thinking, “But I already know how to feel bad, Dr. Johnson. I came here to figure out how to feel good!” Hear me out. I recently saw Time Magazine's cover of Naomi Osaka, and her quote was, "It's O.K. not to be O.K." I was inspired. I tell my patients all the time that it's normal to feel bad sometimes, and what it's really about is how we treat ourselves when we are not feeling our best.

When it comes to our mental health, many of us take the approach of: I'm sad, and now I'm going to be angry with myself or judge myself for feeling this way. This approach is completely ineffective. It exacerbates your mood state and inhibits your ability to address the core issue and heal. It's like waking up with a cold and deciding to break your own arm in response!

I want you to listen to me very carefully when I say this: It is entirely normal to feel bad sometimes. You're not weak or silly or deserving of pain because of it. It is simply a consequence of living that we must all learn to radically accept.

I was once talking to someone who plays roller derby, and they told me about how they had to learn how to fall. If you know how to fall, you can do it in a way that reduces the impact and likelihood of serious injury. You can apply this concept to your mental health. Let's talk about a few ways you can do that.

Tip #1: Change Your Mindset

Your mentality about experiencing unwanted emotions is key here. It's important to address yourself with compassion when you are in this state. Instead of screaming at yourself, “What is wrong with me?!” say instead, with care, “What do I need?” This approach helps to eliminate the anger and judgment that I mentioned earlier because you are assessing yourself with an open hand instead of a closed fist.

Tip #2: Use Your Five Senses

I am a Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, specialist. One of the skills I teach in DBT is self soothing through your 5 senses. The goal of this skill is to be kind to yourself by engaging in comforting or pleasant activities to provide relief from mental strain. This skill makes it much easier to get through a low period without making it worse. I usually encourage my patients to write down things you can do in each of the sense categories. Now, let's review some examples together.

Be kind to yourself by engaging in comforting or pleasant activities to provide relief from mental strain.

The first sense is sight, so you'll want to think of things that are visually pleasing. This could be pictures of family or friends, going to a museum (or online) to look at art, spending time in nature, people-watching at the park, or window shopping.

With hearing, you can listen to music you find soothing. The type of music you select is entirely up to you. My patients have chosen everything  from elevator music to death metal. It's important to identify what calms your spirit, and it's okay if it's Sarah McLachlan or Slayer (or anything in between). Nature sounds like a rainstorm or crashing waves, the repetitive hum of a fan or white noise machine could also be helpful. I've had some people swear by ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), so that can be a choice. You could also listen to guided meditations or your favorite psychology podcast, or just call a friend.

Smell is often an underrated sense, but don't skip this one. So many positive or negative responses that we have are linked to smell. If you've ever been on a New York City subway on a very hot day, then you know what I'm talking about. Examples here can include aromatherapy, literally smelling the roses, lighting a scented candle, using scented lotions, brewing some coffee or baking bread and taking in the aromas.

In contrast, taste is one that we often overdo, so you want to be careful with this one, particularly if you have a problematic relationship with food.  You can drink some tea, eat some of your favorite comfort foods, or even simply suck on a peppermint. Whatever you do, do it mindfully and savor the experience as it will help you to moderate your eating. The last thing we want to do is overeat and then guilt ourselves for doing so. The goal here is to comfort, not criticize.

Finally, there is touch. There are so many ways that we can utilize this sense. You can hug someone or yourself, pet a real or stuffed animal, or use a weighted blanket. Taking a hot shower is great as well. I have often talked about getting a square of fabric like velvet or satin or if you prefer harder textures a stone or crystal that you can keep with you and caress or squeeze in your palm to soothe yourself.

My last advice here is to do what I call stacking your senses to heighten the experience of self soothing. So, what does this look like? You could take a warm bath with scented candles and soothing music, which would combine touch, smell, and hearing. Another example could be eating a delicious sandwich in the flower garden at your favorite park which would stack your taste, smell, and vision.

Tip #3: Make a Move

Then there is movement, which some have called the sixth sense. As I'm sure you've often heard, there is a strong mind-body connection. We carry much of our mental pain in our bodies, so it's logical we would use motion to care for ourselves when we are feeling bad. The first example I will talk about here is an O.G.: rocking. It worked when you were a child, and I have yet to encounter an adult who doesn't enjoy a good sit-down in a rocking chair. You can do this in a standard chair as well. Yoga is beneficial, if you are capable of doing this form of exercise. I'm a fan of Yin Yoga, but all forms are good based on your preferences. Other examples are walking and dancing, which I encourage you to do often, whether you feel bad or not.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.