by Margaret Cabaniss
I ran across an article in the New York Times (via A Cup of Jo) a couple of weeks ago that’s been knocking around my brain ever since. In it, Akhil Sharma describes the crippling anxiety he suffered while working on a novel, and the revelation he had that finally began to shake him out of it:
Sitting on the bench by the river that day, I remembered having read in Reader’s Digest — a periodical my family has undue reverence for — that when you are feeling bad, one way to make yourself feel better is to pray for others.
I began to pray for the people who were passing by. I prayed for the nanny pushing a stroller. I prayed for the young woman jogging by in spandex. I prayed for the little boy pedaling his bicycle. I prayed that each of them got the same things that I wanted for myself: that they have good health, peace of mind, financial security. By focusing on others and their needs, my own problems seemed less unique and, somehow, less pressing.
Sharma sounds almost apologetic at times when describing his “trick of life” – prayer isn’t necessarily a part of everyone’s daily habits, of course — but anyone who prays, volunteers, or simply performs acts of kindness for others will immediately recognize the truth behind it. It has a lot to do with breaking out of your own mental feedback loop: As Sharma describes it, when he was in the worst of his depression, “My mind had become uninhabitable.” It’s a perfect way to describe that feeling of being hopelessly mired in your own worries — however real or pressing they may be — and simultaneously hating the feeling while being entirely incapable of escaping it.
The solution? Shifting the focus off yourself entirely. That simple act of reaching out to another (mentally or otherwise) can break the cycle: Suddenly you notice the cares of the person next to you, and how they share many of the same fears, hopes, hurts, and loves… You feel less alone with your own worries — less consumed by them — and more grateful for even small blessings that can go overlooked when you’re too much in your own head. And, as Joanna put it, “It makes you really love strangers in a funny way.”
I’ve noticed that all my other tricks for beating a bad mood — getting outside, going for a run, focusing on the things I’m grateful for — all involve a similar perspective shift, even if just in a basic physical way. And on those days when even walking outside feels overwhelming, the smallest prayer of thanks or care for someone else can be that spark that helps set me on the right path again.
Obviously, for people who pray, the main goal isn’t usually just to beat a bad mood, but it often goes hand in hand anyway. Have you tried Sharma’s “trick” — or, if you’re the praying type, have you noticed the same result? What other techniques do you use to break out of a bad mood?
Image: via Dustjacket Attic (source unknown)