Your alarm fails to go off and you wake up twenty minutes late. You take a hasty shower, and for some reason the water temperature will only fluctuate between tepid and truly frigid. Despite those setbacks, you manage to grab a cup of coffee for the ride in, which you promptly spill down the front of your shirt. Then, when you arrive at the office you learn that your partner on a critical project has called in sick. Your deadline? Today. At noon.
You’re having an epically bad day. You could choose to wallow in it and be grumpy and miserable, but you (not to mention everyone around you) will be much happier if you can find a way to snap out of it. Science has answers!
What to Do (According to Science) When You’re Having a Bad Day
1 Just breathe.
Negative emotions and stress have physical effects. Our muscles tense. Our heart rate increases. Our breathing gets heavier or too shallow. You might not even notice these stress symptoms in the moment, but if you’ve ever gone home after a difficult day feeling achy and worn out, stress is likely the culprit.
Stop. Take a breath. In fact, take some measured breaths using the 4-7-8 technique, a practice often used in yoga and meditation. (The 4-7-8 technique is essentially a rebranding of pranayamic breathing.)
Find a quiet, comfortable place where you can be alone for a few minutes. Pay attention to your natural breathing for a while and allow yourself to get quiet. Let any distractions in your surroundings fall away. Then, breathe in for a steady count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven, and exhale slowly to a count of eight. Repeat this several times until you’re feeling relaxed.
2 Acknowledge the bad day, and then have a laugh.
When reality doesn’t match our expectations, we pour a lot of our energy into worrying that things should be different. But think about it—have you ever changed an outcome by simply wishing things were better?
Acceptance is the key to happiness. When things go wrong, instead of resisting them, lean into them. Grab lunch with a colleague or friend and regale them with your tale of woe, all while having a good laugh at yourself. When you accept that annoying things happen to everyone, you can shrug them off and move on.
3 Talk yourself out of it.
Do you mentally kick yourself when you’re having a bad day? Many of us do, and it can sound like this:
Ugh! I’m such an idiot.
This stuff always happens to me! What did I do to deserve this?
Why am I so lazy?
You wouldn’t call a friend who was having a rough day a lazy idiot, so why do it to yourself? Instead, practice positive self-talk. When you’re being overly self-critical, stop and reframe things. Be kind! You might refute the negative track playing in your head with positive statements like this:
I’m facing some challenges today, but I’m smart and resilient.
Bad days happen to everyone. I’ll bounce back.
I’m not feeling very motivated lately. I’ll brainstorm some ideas to get myself on track.
4 Write away the stress.
Keeping a journal is a fantastic way to destress. When things go wrong, we tend to ruminate on them. Mulling over unpleasant events can become a destructive cycle that’s hard to break. Our minds run a sort of instant replay on an endless loop without coming to any sort of resolution.
Journaling can help break the cycle of rumination, particularly if you focus on addressing topics that are causing you distress. Instead of hunting for a solution, ask yourself some questions designed to help you understand the issue. If there is a solution, the writing process may help you uncover it. If there isn’t, let journaling guide you toward acceptance.
5 Use your words. Literally.
Your emotional response to bad situations, like running late and spilling your coffee, triggers a reaction in the fight-or-flight part of your brain that causes stress. According to a UCLA study, putting a label on those emotions shifts your thought processing away from the amygdala to the area right behind your forehead and eyes (the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, if you want to get technical). This area of the brain is associated with putting emotional experiences into words.
When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.
—Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology
So, the next time you spill your coffee down the front of your favorite shirt, just put a label on what you’re feeling.
Wow, I’m really angry about this. I’m ashamed to have people see me at work in a stained shirt.
Remember to use labels that represent real emotions. Words like “stressed” label an emotional response, not the emotion itself. Get to the root of the emotion causing the stress.
There’s no such thing as a bad day
What is a day? It’s a twenty-four-hour cycle of daylight and darkness created by the earth turning on its axis. In reality, the only way to have a bad day would be if, say, the earth stopped spinning. That would be a cataclysmically bad day.
But the earth is still rotating, amigos! So, that bad day you’re having? It doesn’t exist in reality, only in your interpretation of it. And you can shape your own reality, so when you think about it, you have phenomenal cosmic power.
See? You’re pretty much crushing it. Now, go get ‘em!