Sometimes, you just have a bad day. It happens to all of us. But sometimes it’s possible to stop a bad day and turn it into a good one, or at the very least, slow it down. Let’s explore how to turn around a bad day.
Whether it’s the proverbial “wake up on the wrong side of the bed” experience, or just a chain of events or emotions gone wrong, it happens to all of us.
In my case, I can get easily overstimulated by the environment around me. It can make me want to retreat into myself to recharge. When that’s not possible, I can spiral into a negative feedback loop that makes the day worse and worse.
Sometimes, the best tactic is simply to pack it in for the day: go to sleep, and hope tomorrow will be better. And tomorrow almost always is better.
This isn’t by any means a bad strategy, but sometimes it’s possible to stop a bad day and turn it into a good one, or at the very least, slow it down. Let’s explore common scenarios and how to fix them.
Why am I having a bad day?
Maybe your experience has been similar to mine: sometimes, you slide into a foul mood, and it’s hard to shake. By evening, you realize the day was ruined. You’re not exactly sure what happened. At first, the day felt easy and light, and now it feels hard and heavy.
I’ve been there. Here’s how it might work:
First, you allow something (anything) in your day to bother you. It can be something small. Let’s say someone else takes the last slice of pizza. You wanted it, but to keep the peace, you don’t say anything. They could have offered to share, but whatever – it’s not the end of the world.
Second, you don’t say anything. Let that small injustice fester. It’s not about the pizza anymore. It’s about them: why did they take it without asking if you wanted it? They’re thoughtless. Do you really want to be friends with a thoughtless pizza-grabber? It’s also about you: why didn’t you say anything? You never stand up for yourself. You let people walk all over you. You’re spineless.
Third, you don’t name your emotions and don’t know what’s happening in your internal world. You’re experiencing anger and negative self-talk at the same time, but to you it feels like a cloud of frustrating feelings. You can’t identify your emotions and don’t know why you have them. A sense that something’s “off” continues with you into the next part of your day. You start to feel not quite like your best self.
Fourth, you head into a challenging situation with some of your emotional reserves already depleted. Maybe you’re in a long line at the bank, or dealing with a difficult customer, or in a hard conversation with a loved one.
Finally, boom: you’re over the edge. Whereas hours ago you might have handled this situation with grace, now you’re spiraling. Everything is taking on a greater emotional weight than it ought to. Your nervous system is fried. All you want is Netflix and sleep.
Sound familiar? Your triggers may or may not be different than mine, but at the minimum, you’ve probably experienced another version of this.
If you can relate, that’s because to wage a battle against your own emotions and nervous system is entirely human.
How do you get out of a brain loop?
Often, when we land in a negative feedback loop like this (a “cognitive emotive loop”), we think the right thing to do is to “think our way out of it.”
For example, maybe you tell yourself you shouldn’t be feeling this way. It’s ridiculous. It was just a slice of pizza! Unfortunately, this rarely works. (Although I’ll discuss a self-talk strategy that can be helpful in the section below).
Why doesn’t thinking your way out of a brain loop work? Because by the time your nervous system is involved, it’s become a physical phenomenon.
It’s hard to THINK your way out of a nervous system imbalance.
If your fight-or-flight instinct has been activated, a positive pep talk (“You can do this!”) or negative self-recrimination (“You have no reason to feel this way!”) can only go so far, and might make things worse.
Instead, often the solution lies with addressing your nervous system directly.
5 ways to turn around a bad day
Instead of positive pep-talks or negative self-talk, consider soothing your body back to a calm state that tells you you’re safe.
Tools like awareness, gratitude, self-compassion, breathwork and exercise can help. I’ll explain each.
- Breathwork is a great place to start, especially in the heat of the moment. When you’re dealing with a mini-injustice that’s causing you emotional pain, it’s time to breathe with intention. Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom to create an opportunity for a reset, if you can. If you can’t, start where you are. Then, try a breathwork technique. Box breathing is an easy one to remember: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and repeat. This will help your body know it’s safe, and help to bring your nervous system back into balance, which can in turn help relieve the emotions you’re experiencing.
- Exercise helps in a similar way to breathwork. Trust that the movement of your body and the repetitive, rhythmic breathing of a cardio workout will pull you into a different physical state, which has the chance to pull you into an improved emotional state.
- Awareness is important, because without knowing what emotion you’re feeling and what caused that emotion, you can feel like your emotional experience is out of your control. It may seem like a bad day is starting to happen “to you.” Identifying your emotions is better. Journaling is a good place to start, and sometimes you’ll see relief just in writing down and naming what you’re experiencing.
- Self-compassion is a self-talk tool that can actually help. Instead of beating yourself up, talk to yourself as if you were talking to a close friend, or even a child who’s upset. Use tender, understanding language.
“It’s okay: it’s totally understandable that you’re upset about the pizza thing. And of course, then you had to deal with the long line at the bank for an hour and a half. Who wouldn’t be frazzled after that? You should give yourself permission to recharge for a bit.”
- Gratitude is always worth a shot because of how many studies back up its effectiveness at bringing us to an improved emotional state. It’s a bit like a multivitamin: if you don’t know how to fix your emotional world, try gratitude. This could be as simple as picking three things you’re grateful for in the room you’re in. (They don’t have to be big, grand gestures of gratitude).
How to turn a bad day into a good day
Looking back at the end of what could have been a Bad Day, you may realize it’s transformed into a pretty good day, with a few challenging moments mixed in.
That’s what we’re aiming for.
I’ve had days that felt totally lost to my own moody ruminating, because I couldn’t pull myself out of my own negative thought cycles and imbalanced nervous system
I’ve had other days where I was able to follow techniques similar to those described above, and pull myself back into balance for the rest of the day.
Start simple. Recognize the fact that you’re “sliding” emotionally.
Then put a name on what you’re experiencing, journaling if needed, and tell yourself with compassion that it’s entirely okay to be feeling that way. Do what you can to soothe your nervous system through breathwork and bring it back into balance. When all else fails, always give yourself permission to go to bed and try again tomorrow, refreshed.
You can’t remove challenging emotions from your life, but with a little practice, you’ll be going from bad days, to simply challenging moments.
And that makes worlds of difference.