Lately I’ve been thinking a bit more than usual about the dark. The days are getting shorter, the political atmosphere is tense and some people I know are going through difficult times. We all experience episodes of darkness; periods when we feel down, discouraged, frustrated or hopeless.
There are no easy fixes for truly dark times. Still, I have found a few practical strategies that help me when the world feels particularly bleak. *
Acknowledge The Darkness
The fact that the daylight hours are dwindling is not in my imagination. A quick glance at a weather app can show the shifting times of sunrise and sunset. Trying to operate in December as if the sun were shining as it does in June would be a mistake, and likely result in your crashing into things. It would be better to accept reality and turn on some lights. Likewise, when dark times come along, it makes sense to be honest about their existence and associated challenges. Pressuring yourself to act like everything is perfectly fine will only make you feel worse. Be realistic about the situation and grant yourself permission to wish things were different.
Look For Growth
Everyone knows that plants thrive in the sun, when nourishment is pouring out in abundance. It is easy to be positive when we are healthy, our relationships are strong, our endeavors are going well and we are financially stable. In times of darkness, however, we tend to see ourselves as failures. We obsess about missteps or poor choices, and worry that the suffering will never end. Fortunately, good things may actually be happening even in the midst of the struggle. Most seeds sprout when the heat is on and they are under the cover of soil. Many fungi grow faster in moist/dark environments than in daylight. Anyone who has ever bought potatoes knows they often sprout in the dark back of a cabinet. Though we may never choose them, gloomy times often force us to stretch in new directions, learn new skills and discover previously hidden abilities. When times are tough, remind yourself that this burden may be fortifying your wisdom and strength.
Stressful times make us want to withdraw. We don’t think anyone else can understand what we are going through (which may be true), and we lack the energy to be social. While these are normal emotions, isolating ourselves completely will usually make a bad situation worse. Solitude can result in a loss of perspective, making it difficult to think about anything but our problems. In contrast, spending time with others who are not affected by our situation can open the door to encouragement. Support groups, family, pastors, close friends and therapists can all be helpful as we muddle through. Even a pet can give us a reason to get up in the morning. I recently learned of a program that pairs abused stray dogs with prison inmates who are tasked with training them as service dogs. The dogs receive instruction and care, while the inmates receive affection, respect and purpose. What a brilliant life-saving connection.
Celebrate Every Victory, No Matter How Small
When my first child was born, I was completely overwhelmed. I wasn’t sleeping, I was sick and I felt like I couldn’t get anything done. My mother stayed and helped me for three weeks, and then finally had to go back home. I must have burst into tears and said something like, “I don’t think I can do this.” I’ll never forget what she said: “You have to change the way you assess your progress. Things are different right now. Feel good about everything you can do, instead of focusing on what you cannot. Did you get the dishwasher unloaded? Terrific! Were you able to take a shower? Way to go!” In other words, she taught me to honor each little success and every positive moment. When you are walking through a long/dark tunnel, reward yourself for simply getting out of bed!
Use Your Eyes
Images are powerful. We seem almost hard-wired to respond to what we see. When you are feeing particularly discouraged, think of ways to inspire yourself with images. For instance, write a few inspirational quotes or phrases and tape them up on the walls. Or, display an image on your computer of a “reward” you will give yourself (e.g. a vacation destination or desired possession) when you finally get through this trying time. Anything that makes you smile or energized is a good candidate.
Have you ever noticed how blind you feel when you first move from a bright space into darkness? At first, it seems pitch black. However, after a few seconds, your eyes can adjust as long as there is some source of illumination (the moon, a nightlight, a flashlight, a candle or a cellphone screen…) In other words, a tiny bit of light can overcome a whole bunch of darkness. Doubt is a powerful discourager that whispers the lie that things will never get better. This is not true! It is always too soon to give up hope. Instead, as Winston Churchill said, “When you are going through hell, keep going!”
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No one wants to go through dark times, but almost all of us will. How do you cope when life is difficult?
* There is a difference between periodically feeling down and true depression. If your darkness has been longstanding or if you think about self-harming, find a professional or ask someone else to find one for you.