We all arrive at dark moments from time to time. It comes in various forms and for all kinds of reasons, varying from that feeling of being stuck in the doldrums to full-blown depression and other mental health issues. It happens for many college students, who are balancing sources of stress while also trying to transition into adulthood. It’s a tumultuous time, and one that cries out for coping mechanisms when we often have none.
I’m no expert in this area. I hope that sometime in the future I’ll be able to feature a guest post from someone who is, and can offer specific advice for those suffering from mental health problems during their student years. To those going through serious dark times, I can only say that I hope you reach out to those who can offer help.
For many others, including me from time to time, the question is more about the periods of low energy and general dissatisfaction that can sometimes crop up in life. I tend to call this “being in a funk,” and it happens. Sometimes there’s a reason, and sometimes the exact trigger is much harder to pinpoint. I remember a time during my sophomore year when I was experiencing the common sense of directionlessness and anxiety about all of my choices, all at once. I cured that with a decision to study abroad in Chile, which I did during the spring semester of sophomore year. Returning from study abroad, however, sparked another slump as I returned to boring non-abroad life. I’ve experienced “down” moments in response to disappointments, failures, and events with friends, family, and in relationships. While doing research in Honduras I was in a deeply anxious, sad mood for basically the duration of my almost four months there. My final year in Eugene, when almost all of my undergraduate friends had left town to start their futures, I was often lonely and down. When I first moved to Belfast, I felt very out of place, bored, and kind of trapped. Sometimes I can kind of bully myself into a better mood, and sometimes a funk just has to run its course.
These things happen, and are a normal part of life.
It’s important to develop ways of coping when you’re down. I suppose each method will be unique to the individual, the situation, and the options available. But here’s a quick list of some of the coping methods I’ve used over the years… I hope they might be helpful to anyone out there who’s stuck in the doldrums, as I have been.
I’ve already written about how much I love podcasts. I love podcasts beyond all kind of calm rationality. Part of the obsession is that I first discovered the genre when I was in my bummed-out mindset after returning from my study abroad experience in Chile. I had previously listened to audiobooks, but this was different. Podcasters were personable and reliable, offering an interesting voice in my head and a welcome distraction.
I started listening to podcasts almost constantly. While walking to class, doing chores around the house, working out, blackberrying, etc. If I wasn’t with other people, I was listening to podcasts. And they helped me over that time, and continue to be a positive presence in my day-to-day.
2. Funny internet content
This is a broad category. But it deserves its own note because of another anecdote. While conducting research in Honduras I was living in an extremely uncomfortable and somewhat alarming situation, doing interviews of terribly depressing life stories of kind people, and physically uncomfortable from the heat about 96% of the time. Add to that the loss of most of my belongings to a theft (not going to tell that story here), and I was in what you might call “a bad way.”
Enter Hyperbole and a Half. This blog was my absolute touchstone in a dark time. When I could get to an internet café, I would take care of necessary business and research, then email some friends, and then read two Hyperbole and a Half posts. I would limit it to two—three if one was a re-read and it was a particularly hard day. I’ll never forget how much that helped, and what a difference the funny, thoughtful writing and illustrations made to my life. (If you're not familiar, please, please check it out, starting with "This is Why I'll Never be an Adult.")
At other times it’s been ridiculous YouTube channels, some really stupid gifs and memes (I Can Haz Cheezburger, anyone?), and many others beside. The trick, of course, is not to lose whole days falling down an internet black hole. But making friends with some funny online material can be a much-needed distraction from things going on in the outside world.
3. Get a move on.
Get outside. Walk, wander, explore. Pick blackberries, or whatever else your town has to offer. Just get moving some. Look at your town in a different way, somehow. You might find that you walk the funk right out of your system.
4. Create routines with people.
I find that when I feel down is one of the hardest times to reach out to people. A good way around that is to create low-maintenance routines. One of these, for me, was TV watching and conversations with friends in the evenings. We’d establish a ritual of watching a couple of episodes, talking about those episodes, and then debating whether we had time to watch just one more. It was reliable and easy. It was stress-free. And several times, it made all the difference between feeling that I was terribly alone and feeling that I had a real community around me.
This also works for me with regular coffee dates, sometimes club meetings, and meeting up to go for walks. Whatever works with whatever combination of friends, try to create low-impact ways of regularly hanging out with people. It makes a huge difference.
5. Make plans
Many of my highest-frequency manic list making periods have come when at a low moment in life. It’s usually a sign that the funk is about to end and things will head back on track. I make plans that will mean life is completely different, and the mere act of planning tends to steer me back into comfortable territory. I write down glorious lists of things I could do and places I could go. As soon as one list is finished, I often feel the need to start another. It gets me back to feeling excited about things. And that makes all the difference.
Get out there and discover some new music. Find something that speaks to your bummed-out soul. Look for music about heartbreak or redemption, motion or transformation. Find the mellowed-out music that helps you relax into an evening at home and also new songs that make you feel pumped up and alive. (I discovered Frank Turner in the aftermath of Honduras, and for a series of reasons I won't go into here, that honestly changed my life, as well as helping me get back into the mindset of wanderlust and endless possibilities.)
I have also found that returning to childhood favorites for music can be oddly comforting at times like this. Even if you create a hidden guilty pleasures playlist that you hope no one ever, EVER reads, it's good to return to songs with positive associations. I've mostly kicked the Jimmy Buffet habit, but on a bad day the man can still sing right to my child-of-the-90's soul.
7. All the self-care stuff you hear about so often
There are so many resources telling us to look after ourselves. But seriously:
- Eat well
- Sleep well
- Surround yourself with beauty
- Try learning something new
- Ask for help when you need it
Don’t give yourself a hard time about feeling down in the dumps. It’s part of life, and certainly part of college life. Give yourself permission to feel how you feel. Cultivate some new interests, get yourself a pile of interesting library books, make yourself some decent food, and alternate between allowing yourself to feel crappy and regularly pushing yourself to get out into the world again.
It’s a tough world to cope with. Here’s wishing you all the best in your journey, and every hope that you find your way through with some degree of humor and a clear sense of hope.
If you liked this post, you might be interested in reading about my experience starting over when I moved to Belfast, or about my experience sharing a freshman year dorm with a terrible roommate. Other related posts are "Reading for Fun as a College Student" and "TV and the Over-Committed College Student."
Please share your coping methods here, along with any feedback about mine. Again, I would love to offer a more expert view of this subject, so if anyone wants to share experiences or knowledge, please get in touch.