“This is just how it is right now”; a gentle suggestion for coping with down days

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Nothing has gone horribly wrong today. No huge stresses or dramas, no fights or deadlines. I just woke up feeling tired and world-weary, there’s a niggly ache in my hip, anxious thoughts whizzing around my head and low mood lurking somewhere nearby.

My most reliable mood-lifter is to get out into nature so I set off after breakfast with Tisha, my trusty four-legged walking buddy. We head out along our usual route, into the wilderness down beyond the playing fields. We stop by the river. Today the water’s muddy and there are no kingfishers to be seen. I feel heavy and keep slipping on the muddy path in my wellies. I’m too hot and my hip is hurting more as I walk. Turning a corner we come across two muntjac deer, just a few feet away. They stop stock still and Tisha doesn’t even notice them. It usually seems like a kind of blessing, these chance encounters, but even this doesn’t lift my spirits today. I trudge home, aching and grumpy. A woman on the street stops to tell me how beautiful she thinks Tisha is. That’s a nice moment, seeing her delight. But soon enough it passes.

Then I meditate. Often that helps shift me out of my funk, to feel less entangled in anxious or dark thoughts, more spacious and accepting. Today, however, apparently not. Nothing seems to have shifted by the end of my meditation and I decide to go back to bed for a nap, skipping my weekly Pilates class (which I know would have helped with the pain, but the pull of sleep is too strong).

Later I go for a coffee with a family friend. We chat and smile and I feel more like myself for a while.

Back at home I play the piano but I’m painfully aware of how out of practice I am and get frustrated, my fingers stiff and my head too fuzzy to focus on the music properly.

My partner gets home from work. We talk and hug and eat dinner together and I ask him “What’s wrong with me?”

“You’re just having a bad day my love, we all do sometimes” he answers, gently.

His kindness softens something in me.

This is just how it is right now.

I’m having a bad day.

And that’s OK.

And it will pass.

Sometimes that’s all there is to it. There is no magic wand. We do what we can to stay well; we go for walks and talk to friends, we practice mindfulness and some of us take our meds too. But sometimes we all have bad days and just accepting that this is how it is right now is one of the most powerful, liberating and compassionate responses there is. It releases us from the trap of resisting or fighting against our own experience, labelling it as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. We are not designed to be happy all the time, after all. The odd bit of low mood, worry, or physical discomfort are all normal parts of life.

With practice we begin to understand that our thoughts, emotions and sensations are not fixed or static, that they are part of a wider flow of experience that can be both pleasant and unpleasant, joyful and overwhelming. This is the shared human condition.

I sometimes joke that if I ever got a tattoo I would choose the words ‘This too shall pass’. The irony of having a quote about impermanence indelibly marked on my skin appeals to my sense of humour (although I suppose my body is impermanent too so maybe it’s quite fitting after all). But I also find those words deeply comforting in difficult moments.

This is just how it is right now, and it will pass.

 

PS

In this article I’m talking about my own experience of low mood, the kind of day to day blip we all experience sometimes. If you’ve been feeling consistently down or anxious for more than a couple of weeks or are at all concerned about your mental health, it’s always best to seek out professional advice. Your GP is a good place to start. The charity Mind have a wealth of information on their website too. 

Change IS possible. Just ask my dog.

I do not like dogs. Not. One. Little. Bit.

They’re smelly, slobbery, scary and a general PAIN. They whine and moan, wee everywhere and demand to be taken for walks. They eat random stuff off the street (mouldy pizza anyone?) You have to pick up their poo (which is gross enough) but if you’re extra lucky they’ll roll in some fox poo too and then need to be washed, because they can’t clean themselves, obviously. They bark at everything from the doorbell to the moon and are so needy they can’t stand to be left alone for even a half hour. And then there’s that wet dog smell. Yuck.

I come from a family of “cat people”. Growing up there were always cats around (and sometimes rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens and goats too, but that’s a whole different story…) Cats were great and dogs were bad. They were not part of our vocabulary or our experience and they were definitely not to be trusted. I never understood why you would go to the trouble of housing such needy, noisy, messy creatures as dogs when there were lovely cuddly self-sufficient cats in the world. Right?

As a kid my gut reaction to dogs was to run and hide behind the nearest adult. And when I grew up, my response was still to run and hide behind the nearest adult! For years I got by just fine by crossing the street whenever I spotted a canine enemy up ahead, or swerving out of their way on my jogging route through the park. Yes, I probably looked a bit weird but I was OK with that as long as it meant I didn’t have to interact with dogs.

And then, aged 28, disaster struck: I started dating a man with a dog.

At first it didn’t really come up. He would leave his dog at home when we met. Then, when we eventually got to the point of visiting each other’s homes (it was a slow, slow burner), he would keep her under close control, and I would stay well away or cower behind him. I was terrified that I’d get bitten (not that I had any prior experience of being attacked by a dog but I told myself it’s a fairly rational thing, to be scared of a howling beast with huge sharp fangs and claws… don’t you think?)

Ever so slowly though I learned to tolerate Tisha (see, she has a name now). My partner taught me to ‘speak dog’, how to offer her the back of my hand as a greeting, to turn my back if I didn’t want her jumping up at me and to be firm when giving her commands to sit or stay. I resigned myself to having her in my life: “If I want to be with him, I’ll have to put up with his dog I suppose…”

As we spent more and more time together, I saw different sides to her. Rather than just the over-excited hello and frenzy of her walks I also saw her relaxing by the fire, curling up next to my partner, gently licking his hand when he was sad. I could see how much contentment she brought to his life, how much he valued her company.

Four years down the road, Tisha has slowly but surely worked her magic on me, and it’s official: I’m in love.

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I honestly think she’s the most perfect creature I’ve ever come across (I mean just look at her!) Her sleek, shiny coat, her distinguished white whiskers (she’s a “senior” now, according to the vet), her deep brown eyes fringed with thick black lashes, the way she stops to ever-so-delicately sniff individual flowers in the garden. I miss her when we’re apart.  When I’m ill or low, she gives me a reason to smile, laugh, and leave the house each day. I know I can always count on her for affection and companionship even on those days when human interactions seem too difficult.

We even meditate together. As soon as I begin she arrives and curls up next to me, paws and head gently nestling into my legs. I don’t know if she’s attracted by the sense of calm or is just pleased to have found a comfy spot for a nap (the latter, I suspect) but I savour those moments together, her warmth and soft breath, her little sighs and yawns.

So there we go. This creature who once terrified me has become one of my best friends. My fear and aversion have been transformed into love. Now when I meet dogs in the park I’m enchanted by their enthusiasm and zest for life. I look up into their owners’ faces and recognise the loving glow in their eyes as they watch their cherished pet racing around in circles of pure joy, fuelled by the sheer delight of being alive, and outside, and in possession of a tail which needs chasing.

I feel ashamed of the way I used to pity and judge people who went on and on with ‘boring’ stories about their dogs, or who seemed to love them a little more than was natural. I’ve become one of them, and it seems the most normal thing in the world to me now.

And so I can’t help but wonder… If my attitude to dogs can change so dramatically, what other sources of joy might I be missing out on or saying no to out of ignorance, fear or prejudice? In what other ways do I box myself in and  limit my experience? “I’m not a dog person”, “I’m not good with numbers”, “I’m terrible at public-speaking”, “I’m not….”(you fill in the blank).

What if the things which make us most afraid and uncomfortable are the very ones which could bring us the most happiness, if only we opened our minds for long enough to allow them to change us?

Thanks Tisha, for showing me that people can – and DO – change.

Try this: What new opportunities, relationships or experiences might you be missing out on because they’re ‘not you’? Start by just noticing which people, situations, or places you tend to avoid, fear or dismiss and – if you’re feeling bold – start approaching them (with baby steps, plenty of patience and a good teacher, if at all possible).