August 17, 2009

What to Do When Life Looks Bleak

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing. — Agatha Christie

A bleak, foreboding day comes eventually for each of us.

Bleakness binds the mind, makes the chest feel heavy, forces the head down as though a great weight had dropped upon it overnight. Thoughts such as, “What’s the point?” and “What am I going to do now?” come unbidden. In bleak times it may seem as though your well has run dry, that there is no recourse, no salvation.

Yet there is always a path of action, even when you find yourself facing what seem to be limited options. The challenge when life looks bleak is to reclaim the energy trapped in the bleakness trance.


Begin by acknowledging your state of mind without trying to change it. There’s a natural tendency to struggle when one feels trapped. Acknowledge the struggle itself. Acknowledge the condition of bleakness rather than the story of bleakness.

Here’s the difference: The story of bleakness is the tale of woe, the list of fears and worst-case scenarios the mind manufactures. You’ll enumerate those in a minute, but what’s important is raising your awareness about the state you’re in.

At the top of a sheet of paper, write, “My mind is telling me [insert the condition here].” Some examples:

My mind is telling me I’ll never recover from this broken relationship. My mind is telling me we’ll never have money again and I don’t know what to do. My mind is telling me I’ll never find another job. My mind is telling me that I’ll never get over my grief. Writing down your state of mind puts it out in the open where it can air out, so to speak. As soon as you take this step, you already have reclaimed some of the energy trapped by bleakness.

Now you have options.

List the Fears

Get specific. List all the fears your mind creates about the situation you’re in. Write quickly. List all the worst-case options, and for each answer the following questions: What’s the worst thing that will happen? What’s the worst of that?

Write until you can write no more. Then set the list aside and find a comfortable place to sit.

Tune Into the Body

Scan your body slowly from head to toe, going first down the front and returning up the back. Be aware of temperature, tension, and how you’re holding yourself.

Thoughts will rise. Watch them but don’t play along. Bring your attention back to the full body scan. Proceed to the next step after three slow, complete scans.


When bleakness comes, it seems to steal one’s breath away. The result is oxygen deprivation. If you wanted to make yourself feel lousy, all you’d need to do is spend a few minutes taking shallow breaths.

You need to re-oxygenate the body to clear your mind. Why not do this at the outset? Because your mind needed to be distracted from its perceptions about what was happening. It’s a lot easier to focus on breathing once you’ve throttled back the freight train of despair.

Begin by sighing. Sighing comes naturally and has the beneficial effect of relaxing the diaphragm and stomach muscles. Sigh three times. Then take a deep breath and release it slowly. Take 14 more deep breaths, then scan your body again.

What do you notice now?

Step Out and Re-engage the Larger World

Step out of the present situation now. A change of environment works wonders. It isn’t that you’re trying to change the situation. You can’t. But you’re shifting your perspective about it, and that’s powerful.

Walk outside or visit a quiet place such as a church, library, park, or garden. You don’t have to speak to others; simply notice the world around you. Notice that it is always moving forward, no matter what happens. Reflect on the difficulties you’ve faced before and notice you moved forward too.

Remain engaged for at least 90 minutes before returning to the situation you’re facing.

Recognize the Simple Truth

Return to the situation now with a new perspective. The simple truth is that you have survived many trials and griefs in your life, and the one you face now is no different.

The reality is that you’re here, now, confronting what’s disturbed you. You have the opportunity to select the attitude that will best serve you and those around you as you move through whatever is happening in your life today.

It may not be easy, but it isn’t hard, either.

Identify New Options

Read through your list of fears. The list represents what your mind made up as the worst things that could happen. Perhaps now you can perceive the fears on that list from a new point of view. The worst- case scenario could happen, but you get to create the options for handling it.

When you operate from an attitude of conscious choice, you take responsibility for your attitude from a positive position. You reclaim the energy that was bound up by fear and can move with faith that you will be able to respond appropriately to whatever happens.

In so doing, you may discover there is no bleakness, ever.

There is only presence and the positive flow of life itself.

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