Bouncing Back

I am very grateful for my life here in Korea.  Students’ effort, kindness, and sincerity give me so much to smile about.  I live in a fast-growing city with many amenities.  My employer pays my rent, and I’m financially comfortable.  In many ways, I am truly spoiled.

However, not all days can be amazing.  Sometimes I will feel rundown, depressed, bummed out, or downright unhappy.

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But not on this day.  The orphanage Christmas party was one of the highlights of my month.

These moods descend from a myriad of sources.

“It’s tough to say no to alcohol at these teacher dinners.  They look so disappointed in me.”

“Man, that class was chatty.  But I do feel bad rushing them through that final activity.  I could have shown more patience.”

“It’s lonely out here.  I wish more people at work spoke native-level English.”

Negative moods are inevitable, part of the cyclic roller coaster of human emotions.

When I was younger, negative moods would spiral me into fatalistic, self-pitying ruts lasting days or even weeks.  I catastrophized personal apocalypses following events that ultimately proved trivial. For example, I’ll never forget the hell I raised to myself (and my poor family) following my acceptance into the Jeollanamdo Language Program.

It was mid-July.  We had just embarked on a family Eurotrip to Edinburgh, Milan, and Barcelona.  My EPIK contract was in the mail, set to arrive in several days. We would not be home for another ten days.  No one in our area was eligible to sign for this long-traveled and crucial piece of mail. After three failed delivery attempts, I feared the contract would return to Korea unsigned.

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And I would lose all motivation to read Korean.  This sentence identifies two forms of the Korean “Happy Birthday” song.

“Wow, this is just my luck.  I hurry-and-wait myself through applications, interviews, and document collection.  I made it this far only to miss out because I decided to go on a family vacation. How will I recover from this?  How will I explain to everyone back home that I didn’t ultimately go to Korea? I posted it on Facebook! Over 100 people liked it!  All of them will learn the truth. I will have to start over, or give up on moving abroad altogether.”

Fortunately, things worked out for the best.  I was able to contact FedEx, get a holiday hold on my contract, and sign it once I returned stateside.  My doomsday daydreaming was all for naught.

One year later, I am still vulnerable to catastrophizing.  Sometimes minor changes or misunderstandings leave me fearing the future ramifications.  I armor up by forecasting worst-case scenarios.

However, thanks to new practices, these bouts of negativity feel much shorter and infrequent.  Rather than allowing one piece of less-than-ideal news sabotage my week, I often rebound and feel worlds better by the next day.

I would attribute three mindsets and practices toward this improvement in emotional resilience.

First, I diligently and carefully plan a morning routine.  I always aim to start my morning with some kind of meditation, physical exercise, and cognitive exercise.  After rising, I meditate for ten minutes, sip some coffee, study some Spanish on Duolingo, and write about my upcoming day or current concerns in my morning journal.  Following all of this, I trot off to the gym for some form of exercise (mostly lifting and yoga).

What elements of this routine help me bounce back from a tough day?  It’s tough to tell. Maybe meditation calms my mind enough to disrupt the negative emotional spiral.  Perhaps journaling provides me a calming dose of structure, clarity, and perspective. Or maybe physical exercise just releases my negative energy.   It’s likely a combination of the three.

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Part of it may also be my new heating pad. My sheets now feel like a campfire :).

The biggest key is to do these things first thing in the morning.  Regardless of my emotional state or productivity the day before, a morning routine acts as a daily reset button.  After my workout, as I march toward work, I can begin the workday with a clear mind full of possibilities rather than a murky mind narrowed by negativity.

Second, meditation has taught me to watch myself thinking.  In other words, I used to ascribe a great deal of probability and realism to my fatalistic thoughts.  Now, I’m better at taking a mental step back and saying, “Wow. You’re really upset right now.”

It’s not always easy, and it often takes three or four attempts until my rational side can get the attention of my louder emotional side.  But once I do, I can prescribe important advice.

“Everything is impermanent, including this emotion right now.  I see that you are hurting right now. Remember, I love you.”

“This will pass.  You will not feel like this forever.  I am here for you, little one.”

This often requires many attempts.  Self-soothing is not a perfect, linear process.  However, once I can relax enough to focus on something productive, then my third mindset takes over.

Use the power of distraction.

Our emotions are temporary.  Sometimes they will be negative, but they will always be temporary.  Sometimes our best course of action is to distract ourselves, doing something to induce an absorbing state of flow.

Sometimes that involves reading a book.  Other times, I focus on my lesson planning.  Writing is a great go-to as well. Anything challenging enough to demand attention while remaining realistically doable is a wonderful candidate.

I frequently find that 1-2 hours of productive work snaps me out of any poor mood I may find myself in.  Creating something, crossing something off of my to-do list, or engaging with something intellectually leaves me feeling accomplished and more optimistic about the future.

On the other hand, reaching for sugary baked goods, mindless Youtube television, or alcohol often produces the opposite effect.  I lament my actions while failing to forget whatever concern occupied my mind in the first place. The instantaneous hedonic pleasure of food or guilty-pleasure entertainment quickly evaporates, leaving only residues of regret.

If I do indulge in junk food or junk entertainment, I try and be mindful of my mood.  Preferably, I only indulge when I already feel good. Using such vices to soothe a poor mood is a recipe for exacerbation.

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It’s also a recipe for obesity.  This prophetic student-drawn portrait terrifies me.

No one can be happy all the time.  We all slip into foul affect from time to time.  Whether we struggle with fears of the future, regrets of the past, or present preoccupations, the question is not “if”, but rather “when.”  

Therefore, our best course of action is not to avoid bad moods at all costs, but rather to take time in building the emotional and cognitive resources necessary to attenuate their effects.

Some possible strategies for resilience include helpful morning routines, emotional mindfulness, and beneficial distracting activities.

Happy New Year everyone!  May this be your best year yet!

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Relax.  It’s going to be okay.

2 thoughts on “Bouncing Back

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