Feeling low for ‘no good reason’

This weekend I woke up feeling low, “for no good reason”.

I often hear my clients express that they are upset or annoyed with themselves for not having a reason to feel low, down or unhappy.

Let’s look at this in greater detail.

When we feel low, it can start with a multitude of ways into the low mood. We can of course have significant events trigger us to feel low, but this post is specifically about when we cannot pinpoint something setting us off.

We can randomly get bothered by negative thoughts about ourselves, our situation or other people, thoughts which can be popping in uninvited. Like those quite annoying people in the pub speaking too loudly so you cannot hear your own conversations, or even hear yourself think. You know, those who take a lot of space and are a bit rowdy. The more our irritation with them grows, the less focus we have on our company or what is being talked about. Eventually we might want to leave, or wish for the evening to be over.

Negative thoughts are a bit like that. Unwanted guests showing up to a party, or noisy people in a pub, and we cannot seem to get rid of them. This is where the problem lies, in simply wanting to get rid of them. The more we try to push those thoughts away, the more they linger, simply because we are focusing our attention on them. Within psychology, this is called thought suppression.

So we can wake up in the morning, with unwanted negative thoughts, and thus start to feel low. Or we wake up with a churning feel in our stomach, or just feeling flat and lethargic. Clients often tell me that they “don’t know what’s wrong”, but that they have a sinking feeling in their body or just feel really empty. So we can start our way into feeling low with physical symptoms, things happening in our body without us being able to really pinpoint why. Perhaps we went to bed too late, or ate too much/drank too much the night before. Or we had restless sleep with bad dreams. Or perhaps, like some of my clients point out in their frustration, “there is no reason” why they feel like they do. So they wonder why their bodies are failing them, not wanting to cooperate with what they had planned for the day. The negative thoughts can thus creep in, as an evaluation of our bodies, and so we may feel low.

We can also have overwhelming emotional feelings without being able to catch any thoughts at all. Waking up with a feeling of dread or impending doom is something I often hear about from my CBT sessions. Or waking up feeling low without knowing what is going on. It is just a felt sense of things being sad, flat or meaningless. This is often what is described to me from my clients. The negative thoughts, yes you uninvited guests who keep just barging in, could suddenly be back. We could be telling ourselves stories in our mind about what it means to feel low “for no good reason”.

“If I feel like this, it must mean ‘m so ungrateful for everything I have that’s good in my life”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“Why can’t I just snap out of it?”

“Other people never feel like this, it’s just me who is weird”

“I can’t cope”

“It won’t ever change”

“It will ruin everything”

And. So. On.

This can continue for quite a while, as we are going further and further down in the depressive spiral. This is also where unhelpful behaviours often come in. People often go back to bed, or cancel plans they have made, or withdraw from loved ones. Or the complete opposite, pretend that everything is fine and keep a facade of coping, when desperately drowning on the inside. But instead of talking about it, pushing on with tasks and trying to push thoughts out and denying oneself rest. We can even have internal, or hidden, behaviours of beating ourselves up for being this way.

This is how thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviours can often be experienced in a big internal mess. But that is just it, these are inner experiences, sometimes seen on the outside in our behaviours. Inner experiences which we need to be mindfully aware of, watching them as they are coming up and observing them without judging them. Seeing them for what they are – stories in our minds, ways our bodies fluctuate physically or emotional states which do come and go.

Within therapies using mindfulness, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or Compassion Focused Therapy, becoming aware of the present moment is very important. When we learn to watch thoughts and feelings come and go, we will be less impacted by them as a result. But as this animation from Headspace shows, we cannot stop the inner traffic when we do not like what is in our minds, or chase after the cars we want. This will result in a traffic chaos and our frustration going up.

So when I woke up feeling low “for no good reason”, I practised that. Sitting with the emotion, understanding that it’s not my fault that this has happened and observing it. At that point, not resorting to self-blame, I could then think of what to do to look after myself. What I might need in this moment. Not to push thoughts and feelings away, but rather to help comfort myself and be compassionate with myself, and others who may also be impacted by my change in mood. I tried to take compassionate action, by eating a breakfast I enjoyed. And cried myself through the porridge. This happens. We keep sitting with it, keep trying. I went for swimming, noticing my thoughts bouncing around as I was swimming lap up and lap down, like through syrup as my body was swimming in a slower pace. This is okay. This is alright. Allowing that wandering mind, but steering it back to what I was doing, feeling the warm water flush against me in every stroke and keeping the breathing smoother and more regular.

Coming out of the water, I still felt low. This happens. This is okay. Emotion regulation or looking after ourselves is not a quick fix and life is full of negative emotions too. Seeking out help and comfort from someone close helped, allowing myself to just be held and knowing that an embrace from someone we love gives oxytocin, a hormone helping us to calm down threat.

Sometimes things we do right do not work. Sometimes it feels like nothing works.

Watch out for those stories again. Or ask yourself, “how helpful is this thought right now?”

The mood slowly, slowly shifted throughout the day. I had acted with self-compassion and worked hard on accepting compassion from others. So this is not a story of how some people have it all figured out, or never get sad or low. This is a post of common humanity. What we all experience from time to time, to different degrees and for different reasons. But how we all struggle, all have tricky minds who are not helping us, and how we all can practise leaving the blame game behind and practise sitting with what feels bad. You might be surprised how many others, this very moment, are experiencing exactly the same across the world.