Sometimes you wake up in the darkness; you open your eyes, and you somehow know today is going to be awful, at least that’s what your mind tells you. You might try to shake it off, or you might lie in bed for another hour on Instagram looking at people who seem to have it so much better.
Sometimes the day starts right, until something goes wrong. You make a mistake, bad fortune occurs, or things just aren’t going your way. Small things, the type that many could brush off, but not you. Then you turn around, and it suddenly got dark, the sunglasses are firmly placed over your eyes and dimming the world.
Sometimes your day is going right, and still, it goes dark. You don’t know why. You did the workout, you sang in the shower, you even managed to start writing. But then the invisible timer rings and all you can do it curl into a ball.
There is that fine line, between recognising, you need to slow down and rest, and knowing that pushing through will make you feel better at the end of it. Productivity can help you break the cycle and feel good about yourself, but sometimes the cycle is about pushing yourself too hard and not resting enough. Let’s try to work out which is which, and what you can do in each case.
At the end of the day, only you can know this. That may seem odd for me to say, given that I’m writing an article on the subject. But when it comes to mental health, things are so subjective, and you know yourself best. You may doubt that you may feel like a stranger in your own mind, but remember that it rings true: you know yourself better than I do.
Here are three ways to recognise whether you should pull back or push through:
I used to get so frustrated at how often I’d feel exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I was always tired and yearned to just curl up on the sofa and cry. I’d push myself to work, to keep writing and seeing people, but it made the feeling never end.
Then I came to learn that by doing this, I was just delaying the inevitable. Since I wrote on weekends and most free moments, I was never getting the extended rest I needed, and it made the rest of my time less productive. So the next time I broke down and felt so weary, I took a ‘me day’. I lay on my couch and binge-watched a series. I made brownies and ate the raw batter. I read a fiction book, just for myself. I didn’t try to see people, to work on my manuscript, to multitask. I just existed.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as productive, or felt as good, as the day that followed that. I wrote 6,000 words on my manuscript the next day, and I felt so proud of myself. It quietened all the voices in my head telling me that I was worthless, that I was lazy, that I’d never reach my dreams.
I still write on my weekends, as I love it and have big ambitions to achieve. But I also recognise when my body needs a chill day, and that social outings don’t count. I’m an introvert masked by extroversion, and I need silence and cosy blankets to recover.
I’m not telling you how to spend your rest day, simply to do what makes you feel good, what lets you switch off your busy mind. It could be baking, knitting, drawing, reorganising, walking. Just do stuff that you want to do, not what you think you should do.
And stop feeling guilty for being so tired. People with depression suffer from low energy, so it makes sense that you need more rest, sleep or quiet time than others. You’re not alone in this, as fatigue occurs in 90% of people living with a mental health condition. Stop trying to judge yourself by the parameters of someone without a mental illness, and recognise that you need a little boost to reach their level.
For me, I realised that the tiredness also came from the other aspects of my personality disorder. I suffer from a lot of anxiety, and I’m constantly overthinking things. I panic easily, and I dwell on things that happened, I assume the worst. Of course my brain gets tired, it’s working overtime! So give your tired brain the holiday day that it is entitled to.
We covered that sometimes you need rest days, and this is something I genuinely believe. But I also recognise that it isn’t black and white, that sometimes you’re in that grey area where you could reclaim your day.
It can be a cycle. You do nothing because you feel depressed, and then you feel depressed because you did nothing. We shouldn’t take our self worth from our productivity, but even when we try not to, it can be inevitable. We live in a fast-paced hustle culture, and many of us are working towards the life we want to live.
I joined Medium in May, and wrote 101 articles by the end of the year. Alongside this, I finished a novel and rewrote another one, and I work fulltime in marketing. I’m not saying this to brag, merely to show that even someone struggling with a mental illness has the potential to achieve things. I don’t think this would have been possible without Covid keeping me home, but on the other hand, lockdown also led to many depressed days spent on my couch.
I’ve been struggling with my personality disorder since the age of fifteen, and I’m a toxic overachiever, so I had to figure out what worked for me. I’m still working that out, but here’s the gist of it so far.
You need a reset, a way to differentiate this new period of time from the one before. You’re refreshing your system, hunting for those endorphins that will power you through. Once you’re in the zone, it’s easy to continue; the hard part is getting there.
When I wake up feeling down, it’s all about my shower. I bought my partner a shower speaker, but I think I get more use out of it than he does. It even has fun lights that can add to my hydro concert. I switch it on and play one of my go-to songs. The trick is to resist a sad song, as whilst that might feel satisfying in the moment, it won’t pull you out of the slump. I’m a Swiftie at heart, so I usually go for a 1989 song.
I play it on the shower speaker, use my best products like a coffee skin scrub, and I sing. The singing part is vital, as you can’t help but feel better once singing, and it ensures that you don’t zone out to a dark place or get lost in your thoughts. So perform for your shower, use a shampoo bottle as a microphone if you like, and dance away.
Alternatively, you could do your dance out of the shower. The length of a song is usually enough to give you the jolt you need. Let completely loose, sing, shout, jump. Release everything inside of you so you can start fresh with the task ahead.
I’m a rubbish singer, like honestly one of the most tone-deaf possible, but I recognise others might feel less comfortable doing this. So some alternatives would be going for a quick job, even ten minutes of running can give you the boost you need. It can be hard to go for a run whilst feeling depressed, but the endorphins are a rush like no other.
You could do a quick cleaning sprint. You’ll need a tidy area to get into the zone, as distractions will try to steal you from productivity. Playing a song is a great way to keep time in check, but otherwise, just use a timer on your watch or phone. I love using some elbow grease to make my stove shine. I don’t know why, but cleaning my stove is so cathartic.
Maybe you cleaned your area in step one, but otherwise now would be the time. Your depressed mind won’t want to work, so it will search for any way out. A distraction to cling to, a procrastination method, truly anything. Don’t give it any temptation to tug on, and instead prepare the scene.
Personally, on such days I only have a bottle of water (as hydrating can really help!), a cappuccino and my notebook. Keep it simple and lowkey, making it feel more accessible.
I recommend having a nice, warm drink there. Such small things can give you a boost and make you feel comforted. I invested in a milk foamer when lockdown started, and it really helped me to work from home and find a small delight in my day. The consequence is that I’m drinking far too much coffee now, but sacrifices must be made to the art.
Part of setting the scene is deciding what will make this a productive session. You need to break down your to do’s, and ensure that they are manageable and focused. If the task ahead feels too big, you’ll be tempted to stop and give up.
‘Why bother if I can never get that done?’
So make your to do’s within reach, and write them on paper. Anything that you write down is 42% more likely to happen! I like to use colours to make me feel a bit better, but don’t waste too much time on it - this is a prime procrastination moment, so keep an eye on yourself.
You may want to be over-ambitious, but this can do more harm than good. Keep an eye on how much you usually get done, and use that as a template. Because if you finish all your tasks and have more time/motivation, you’ll likely just continue. If you’re on a roll, you won’t stop because your list is over, you’ll start another article and do one of tomorrow’s tasks. But if your list is too long, you might not even end up halfway.
Be wary to start with, treat yourself as you would with a physical illness, as mental health can be just as debilitating. Ease into the work by setting time limits. Again, for this, I love the tomato timer, as it ensures that I don’t feel overwhelmed by the task ahead and that I can force myself off my phone for this period. It usually finishes before I even realise, yet I manage to get so much done.
I follow each twenty-five-minute increment by a stretch and walk around. I might refill my water, or more likely my coffee, or put on a load of laundry. Even when you’re on a productive streak, you need to take care of yourself or fear facing the consequences later. So stay hydrated, stretch, move around, do whatever you need to ensure that tonight you can feel proud rather than sore.
Easing into things also involves the task you do. Working on days that you feel depressed is more challenging than those you don’t, so save the worst for days you find easier. I like to ease in with something I want to write. I check my list of ideas, and see if anything rings out to me.
Often, if I’m writing articles, it will be a more personal article. As when I’m struggling, I prefer not to feel overwhelmed by research, and just free-write. I don’t focus on what the article will earn, and I write for me, I write to climb out of the hole.
This helps me get into the flow of things, and I find it easier to do other tasks afterwards. Maybe to write another article that I find more difficult, or even to dive into the vast expanse of my manuscript. I consider it as warming up by doing something easier until my fingers and brain feel ready to tackle a bigger challenge.
It’s all about finding your rhythm through trial and error, discovering what works for you. This routine helps me on days such as this one. I wrote this article on a day that I felt truly low. I woke up today and wish the day was already over. I cried before noon. Prior to writing this article, I spent an hour mindlessly scrolling through Tiktok, eating Reese’s and berating myself for being so lazy.
I tried to claim back the rest of my day, and part of it was writing this article on exactly how I achieve that. It’s not about being perfect, and I’ll never claim to be, but merely being better than the version that you were yesterday.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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