Having a Terrible Day? Turn Things Around by Doing These 5 Simple Things

My favorite book growing up was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It told the highly relatable and true story of the author’s young son Alexander, who was having one of the worst days of his young life, suffering frustrations, setbacks, and indignities large and small. 

As adults, we all still have terrible days. While Alexander woke up with gum in his hair, you might wake up to a flurry of emails from your boss letting you know that you made a calculation error in the proposal that went out last night to your biggest client. While Alexander dropped his sweater in the sink while the water was running, you might get a flat tire on the way to work. Whether you’re dealing with a frustrating client, a sick kid, a misplaced document, or all of the above, you need to know how to handle a terrible day so it doesn’t get worse.

Here are five simple suggestions for what to do to shift your day from bad to better:

1. Change your geography. 

Of course, it would be lovely to be able to say, “I’ve had it! I’m heading to Bali!” (And if you can make that happen, more power to you.) But changing your geography doesn’t have to be that dramatic– or expensive.

If you’re in bed ruminating about the day ahead, get out of bed. If you’re sitting at your desk feeling overwhelmed by the influx of emails, stand up and stretch. If you’re hunkered down on the sofa feeling hopeless, go outside and get some air and sun on your face. And don’t underestimate the power of a brief walk to improve your mental and physical state.

2. Distract yourself.  

When I was a kid and not feeling well, my mom made me chicken soup with funny-shaped noodles (“Giggle Soup”, it was called) and let me watch as much television as I wanted. It was a distraction from feeling sick, and, turns out, she was onto something. 

Research shows that purposeful use of distraction techniques can help us cope with challenging emotions. As an adult, I still enjoy a special treat to eat and something mindless to distract me. Now it’s my husband Michael’s sourdough bread, toasted and topped with French butter and truffle salt, while watching The Great British Baking Show.

Think about what you used to do (or still do) to distract yourself when you’re feeling physically sick, and adapt that for your mental health. It could be a rest, a snack, a book, a movie or television show, a favorite song, etc. 

3. Recognize and challenge your secondary emotions.  

It’s hard enough to feel disappointed, angry, or overwhelmed. But our secondary emotions–the emotional reactions we have to other emotions– can make things even worse.

For example, you might be feeling overwhelmed by work, and also be resentful that you’re overwhelmed by work. Or you might feel guilty that you’re feeling sad. That’s now two challenging emotions to deal with, rather than one.

Rather than get sucked into that spiral, challenge your beliefs about how you “shouldn’t” feel. If you believe that you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed at work, ask yourself what’s behind that belief. If you believe that you shouldn’t feel sad, see if you can dig down to explore how you learned to think that way. 

4. Facilitate a small win. 

On my most recent awful day, I was feeling exhausted, anxious, and melancholy. I knew enough to understand that emotions are data and that it would help me to understand why I was feeling the way I was. But that’s hard work and I needed something to give me the mindset and energy to tackle that.

So, I made sure I had a small win to leverage. For me, it was sending all of the follow-up emails I had on my to-do list. The emails didn’t require a lot of cognitive capacity or creativity, and getting them checked off felt like a relief. For you, it could be getting some exercise in, finishing the book you’ve been reading, or declining a bunch of meeting invitations you don’t need to attend. Whatever will make you declare victory, large or small, counts.

5. Pick the right partner to talk to. 

When I am having a down day, I have a few choices to make: do I want to talk to a friend who will listen and empathize? Or with a family member who will try to cheer me up? Or should I reach out to a coaching colleague who will help me move from self-awareness to self-improvement? Or do I just want to talk with my unofficial emotional support dog Nash, who won’t talk back but will gaze at me with affection and expectations of getting a treat?

Knowing what you need– and what you don’t– is critical to getting the kind of support that works for you. And knowing from whom you can get what you need is just as important.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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