It feels like unbounded energy. It feels like overwhelming optimism. It feels like inspired creativity and it feels like focused productivity. It feels different than how things usually feel.
This is an emotional high. It can come from anywhere, and how long it lasts varies by person and situation, but the feeling is unmistakable. While it’s there we soak it in. We take on new projects with unknown risks, extend ourselves socially and emotionally, and feel full of optimism and confidence. We are living on a high, way above our emotional set point.
As we ride this high, we look forward but not down. We’ve been through this before, and know it won’t last forever, yet we never think about the drop that’s coming. That drop that brings us back down to normalcy. We also ignore the second drop that will take us even lower.
It feels like pervasive apathy, and it feels like undirected sadness. It feels like weak nervousness and it feels like hazy confusion. It feels different than how things usually feel.
This is an emotional low. It can come from anywhere. How long it lasts varies by person and situation, but the feeling is unmistakable. And while it’s there we don’t know what to do. We may fall behind on commitments, and spend more time alone or in our heads. Or we may pour our energy into distractions- work, television, parties, drugs, facebook. We feel like we are in a rut, and we don’t know why or how to get out.
As we ride this low, we look forward but not up. We don’t see the coming climb back up to normalcy.
I’ve had highs that lasted months at a time, and lows that lasted even longer.
The lowest lows came when I was experiencing an identity crisis. These are periods in my life where I’ve felt completely lost. The stake that kept me grounded vanished. Without a grounding I started to drift. I felt like I was in the middle of the desert with no signs telling me which direction to go.
During my first identity crisis I didn’t know where to go, so I didn’t go anywhere at all. I was stationary. Or really, paralyzed. I let this crisis consume my mind. My second identity crisis was the opposite. I moved. Fast. In all directions. Anything that could be done to help me avoid thinking about the pain I was experiencing was done.
At some point between these two experiences, I made it to a high, but never had a chance to reflect back and put a name on it.
However, after the second low, things started to change around. After moving frenetically for months on end I gave up. I had to stop running. But I couldn’t just stay still. I needed to find a direction. I took my time and assessed my situation. I tried to understand why I was there, and to identify the kinds of things could help.
I started trying some things out, and slowly I started to make progress. I was moving in a direction. I didn’t have an end in sight, but I didn’t turn back. I kept going. As I continued to move, my path took an almost imperceptible turn upwards. Seeing small improvements in my own mental and physical health gave me the confidence to keep moving.
Over time, I turned around and saw how far I’d come. I’d made it to a peak. I felt strong and confident, and was proud of how far I’d come.
However, recognizing that these feelings were cyclical, I began to prepare.
We are on a ride and sometimes we forget that. We all cycle back and forth between highs to lows, spending most of our time somewhere in between. How long we spend in each state varies, but the fact that we move between these extremes is constant.
When making decisions we often focus on how we feel now without accounting for how we’ll feel in a week or a month (or a few months). It’s not only challenging to think about the future in this way, but our bodies and minds actually resist it. On a high we don’t want to bring down our mood by thinking about how things will likely get worse. In a low, it feels like things will be hard forever no matter what we do, and that we just have to wait until they suddenly get better. We sit there hoping that this suddenly is tomorrow.
This isn’t the right approach. And although it’s rarely talked about, I think the right approach is fairly straightforward. That solution is to adopt the mindset of build while you’re strong.
By build while you’re strong I mean that we need to take actions while we are at our best, at high points filled with energy and optimism, to prepare for when we aren’t. We need to think about the tools that we need when we’re low and then create those tools while we’re high.
When we’re at our best, we can be level headed in our approach to building our defenses. We can work on our weaknesses in a holistic way. Instead of fixing things when we have to, in what often feels like a panic, we can work on things as we want to, in what feels like a calm. We can take the whole picture into account, think for the long term. When things inevitably change, we are prepared. Getting out of a these troughs is still challenging. It still takes time. Existing weaknesses will be exploited and new weaknesses uncovered. The difference is that we are stronger than before, and this strength gives us the confidence that we will find our way out. It may not be immediate, and we will still experience pain, but we know that we can handle this. We believe in ourselves.
My preparation for the low points was done with intention and compassion. Intention to identify what triggered my lows, and what would work for me to help improve my situation. Compassion to accept myself regardless of how successful I was.
So what do we build? I think there are really just a few basic things.
First build systems that help us get things done regardless of how we feel. Make ourselves accountable to someone else. Not only does this help us stay productive when we don’t want to be, but seeing things progress helps get us out of a rut. Visible progress helps us see that not everything is slowing down, that things are still moving in the right direction. That we are still moving.
Second, we need to build our personal support networks. We need to be focused and intentional about building the relationships we have with the people we care about. We need to tell them what’s going on with us at a deep level. Ask questions and really listen to what’s going on with them. Really, listen. (If you’re one of those people who gets consumed by new relationships, allowing relationships with friends and family to fall by the wayside, this is a big one for you). This network should be made of both men and women.
Third, build healthy habits. Meditation is the single best thing we can start doing today to drastically improve our lives. (You’ve probably heard this a million times, but it’s true. And don’t say you can’t meditate because “you think too much.” Everyone says that. It’s a cop out. You can). We should try to get into the workout flow where going to the gym is just something we do and not something that we have to do. Eat just a little bit healthier, maybe take some fish oil. These are the basic things that we read about all the time and know we should be doing but maybe aren’t for whatever reason. To point number 1, Build some systems to make these things happen. Use an app like Lift for support in making those systems.
Fourth, learn some mindfulness. This isn’t the same as meditation. With mindfulness, we spend some time during to try and fully release ourselves from what we are thinking about to be present in the moment. Notice the sounds we haven’t been hearing, the things around us that fell into the background. Learning mindfulness isn’t as fluffy as it sounds. Building this skill helps when us when we feel low by giving us the ability to extract ourselves from the emotions flowing around inside of us and connect with the world around us. This connection creates a completely unique sensation that’s actually really profound, beautiful, and relaxing. (Ok, that sounds a bit fluffy, but I swear, it’s real. I find the impact is the greatest if I work on my mindfulness while on a walk.)
Lastly, talk to someone professionally. When we’re at our best, we are ready to tackle our biggest issues. We can view them more clearly and be more honest with ourselves about what’s happened and what’s going on with us now. Opening up wounds we’ve buried isn’t as painful. Speaking to someone at this point may be one of the best investments we could ever make. If we wait until we feel like we have to talk with someone, or we never talk to someone at all, we are missing out on huge opportunities to understand ourselves at a very deep level. I challenge you to try it out a few times with an open mind and see if you get anything out of it.
I still ride the rollercoaster, but it’s more stable now. I’ve hit several lows and they still really suck. I still try to distract myself from more negative feelings- whether that’s by going out to party more, spending time on social media / TV, or more pouring my energy into a project that keeps my mind off of the challenging things. But I know I can’t avoid these feelings forever, so I’ve started facing them head on.
And because of that, I feel comfortable whether I’m at that high or low. I know and accept that things will change regardless of how I feel. I accept that I will feel good for no reason at all or bad for no reason at all, and that in a week, a month or a year from now that probably won’t be the case. The acceptance of this fact creates a peace. And, at least to me, that peace is all I really need.
As Alan Watts said, “ The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
So that’s what I’ve got to say. Build while you’re strong.
Note: This article is not trying describing depression or bipolar disorder, which are both very different than the normal ups and downs we all experience. They both need to be treated in different ways, and with outside support. If you feel like you’re going through something deeper than what’s described, please seek out professional help. If you just need someone to talk to, I’m happy to listen. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on twitter @aportera