Author’s Note: this is something I’ve been working through for the past several weeks. After all, overall I am okay and my life is okay, so how do I help myself feel okay those times that I feel like crap? Or just have habits that generally promote a happy life?Let’s figure it out together. 🙂
Have you ever stopped to think about how ridiculously comfortable our lives are? We wake up on cushy mattresses and clean, soft (bed-bug-free) sheets; we have heat for which we don’t need to chop wood and air conditioning; we have indoor plumbing and hot running water for showers; we have access to clean drinking water without going to a well; cooking is a snap because don’t need to stoke a fire and kill our own chickens; and we’re living in the safest time in history.
Just because our bodies are comfortable, however, doesn’t mean that our minds are comfortable. We are bored, impatient, lonely, dissatisfied. In the words of Louis CK, everything is amazing and nobody is happy.
Why We’re Unhappy Even Though Everything is Amazing
If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, modern life generally provides many of the physiological and safety needs for an individual, and so it’s at the love / belonging and esteem stages that we start to get stuck. Without mindfully tuning in to what’s actually making us unhappy, however, our methods of self-comfort are unlikely to help us, instead just distracting ourselves from our problems for short periods of time and possibly even causing further harm in the process.
The Unhealthy Ways We Self-Comfort
While we expect babies to learn healthy ways of self-soothing, our cultural understanding of adult self-comforting is generally, in fact, self-indulgent and often addictive activities (which may take us away from being healthier and happier for having done them). As a whole, we prefer to take the easy route and flood our systems with dopamine to distract ourselves from our problems rather than finding constructive ways to work through them. This includes shopping, drugs, and alcohol. Here are some of my own favorites:
Food was always my self-comfort tool of choice. For years, when I was under stress or “had a bad day,” I would stop by the store on the way home and pick up the following: a bag of Chester’s Hot Fries, a liter of Coca-Cola, and a “Sharing Size” bag of Peanut M&Ms. Every. Time. Then I’d go home and stuff it all in my face as quickly as possible while re-watching an episode of a TV show I’d already seen a million times. I could go months without actually experiencing my emotions, telling myself everything was fine as long as I could eat a jar of chocolate frosting with a spoon.
I was hardly alone in my abuse of food. In fact, research indicates that “repeated bouts of minor daily stressers that keep the stress system in a chronically activated state may alter brain reward/motivation pathways involved in wanting and seeking hyperpalatable foods.”
Since then, I’ve cut down on the binge eating and lost about 30 pounds. I’ve read books on mindful eating and body acceptance. From a physical standpoint, my hips no longer ache from carrying too much weight and inactivity the way they did before, and from a mental standpoint I’m much more aware of when I’m experiencing negative feelings. All good, right? Well… I cry a lot more, now, and food no longer serves me as a tool of self-comfort because I can’t turn off my feelings the way I could before… and I also have the added guilt over the unhealthy choices I’m making.
I’ve recognized and moved away from food as a good way of dealing with stress, but I’ll be honest: I sometimes miss just eating a sheet cake and not thinking about my life, even though I know it’s not a healthy way of comforting myself.
Netflix and Numb
First, I understand that distraction can be a powerful tool for self-soothing (and we’ll talk more about that in a bit). Unfortunately, however, very often we use social media, cruising the internet, or movies / TV as a way to kill time and split our attention rather than choosing an activity to fully absorb us.
For example, over the past several years (probably to replace my now-managed binge eating), I developed the habit of turning Netflix to a TV show I’ve already watched (so I don’t need to pay that much attention to it) and then playing a casual mindless game like Tetris or Bejeweled on my iPad (which I also don’t need to pay that much attention to) and occasionally checking in to social media to see what other people are doing. I’ve also given up reading books in favor of audiobooks and podcasts so I can “multi-task” and not focus exclusively on either the activity or the book.
These are great ways to numb myself from the lingering stress of my workday, sure, but I would describe none of it as fully-engaging or rewarding. It’s easy, not fulfilling–and my mood during and after these activities reflects that. (Hint: not great.)
Distraction as a Distress Tolerance Skill
Here’s the thing about distraction activities: they need to be fully-absorbing and interesting to work. In order to feel fully-satisfied from a distraction activity, it must distract your entire mind. So zoning out watching TV doesn’t count. Multi-tasking with a million things doesn’t count. These are distractions which don’t ultimately lead to happiness.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) teaches four skills to help with distress tolerance: Distracting, Self-Soothing, Improving the Moment, and Focusing on the Pros and Cons. The methods recommended for Distracting oneself from causes of distress are explained by the acronym ACCEPTS:
Activities – distracting oneself with healthy and happy activities
Contributing – finding a way to volunteer or contribute to a cause you believe in
Comparing – comparing yourself to those less fortunate to
Emotion – identifying current emotion and behaving in the opposite way
Pushing – pushing mentally away from current situation
Thoughts – distracting from negative thoughts
Sensations – using physical sensations to distract from unpleasant thoughts
Author’s Note: If this helps you, that’s awesome. I’ll be honest, some of these techniques absolutely don’t work for me. Comparing myself to others less fortunate than myself or acting happy when I’m sad just makes me feel like this:
Desperately Seeking Self-Comfort
Recently I started thinking back to the times I’ve been the happiest in my life. When I was at my very happiest, I was single, under-employed, in serious college loan debt with ridiculous monthly payments, had no internet or smart phone or TV, had no car, and I rented a tiny studio apartment in Colorado with no heat. I slept in a twin-size bed and ate canned soup for dinner. And in many ways, I was so fucking happy.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I could have been so happy with so much stress and so little physical comfort, and something dawned on me: at the time, I was very good at pursuing activities that fully absorbed myself in my free time. I read actual books. I wrote novels. I played my guitar. I couldn’t check social media unless I was at work or took my laptop to a coffee shop. My life since then has gotten more comfortable and more convenient, but I have actually been significantly less happy.
My current self-improvement project, then, is to re-develop healthy ways of comforting myself, of treating self-comfort like self-nurturing, and of incorporating distress tolerance skills into my own life:
- Exercise and activities which soothe anxious feelings – meditation, yoga, stretching, deep breathing exercises, etc.
- Activities which require full absorption to distract from anxious or negative thoughts – writing, reading, playing guitar,
- Activities which contribute to feelings of security and safety – sticking to a routines when I can, mindfulness when I’m cozy, a focus on the good things in my life, etc.
- Activities which help connections to other people – going to out to lunch with friends, calling people I love, etc.
Author’s Note: What do you think? Anything else? – Lindsay