How To Pull Out of a Downward Spiral

When my father turned 70, he decided one day that he just couldn’t stand going to work any longer, so he stayed in bed for the next ten years, not because he was physically sick but because he was so depressed he couldn’t function.

I am thus genetically loaded to be depressed, so it’s not surprising that I’ve struggled most of my life with depression, which in my case takes the form of the horrible feeling that everything in the world is going wrong at the same time.

I know exactly what it feels like to be in a downward emotional tailspin. While I’m perfectly capable of doing an emotional tailspin when my life seems to be going well, it’s more difficult to keep afloat during times that involve real-life challenges.

I’m facing one of those challenges tonight.

As i write, I’m quarantined in my home office because my wife, who teaches elementary school, had a rapid onset of coughing, sneezing, weakness, with fever. She was tested for COVID this morning but we may not get results until Monday morning.

Like many other folks, I’m also worried about the upcoming election and the potential for violence, the increasing COVID numbers, and the realization that if the science deniers stay in power, COVID will kill millions, one of whom will probably be me.

So there is, objectively, a lot for me, personally, to be depressed about. I’m weathering it pretty well, though, because I’ve found a way to cope, which I’d like to share in the hopes that it will prove useful, if you’re feeling as if you’re on a downward spiral.

When I find myself complaining, either while I’m writing or talking or even thinking to myself, I keep a running count of each time I switch from grousing about one thing to grousing about another. If that count reaches the number three (3), I know that the problem is me, not the outside world. I call the my “Rule of Three.”

I see this as the application of simple logic: what are the chances that three completely separate, disconnected parts of my life will go south simultaneously? Very, very small.  Even if I’m 100% convinced that all three (or more) things are horribly askew, when I hit three (3), I stop. I say, usually aloud: “Well, that’s three, so my brain is broken today.”

I then accept the fact that I’m going to be miserable for a while but eventually my brain will self-correct and I’ll see that the things that were bothering the crap out of me aren’t in reality that big a deal. Most of the time, in a day or two, I’m actually amazed that I was making such a big deal out of stuff that’s actually pretty irrelevant.

The advantage of this approach is that it’s entirely independent of emotion. You count; you make a logical conclusion; and then you behave as if that conclusion is correct. You use the power of your rational mind to tell your emotions to go take a hike.

Back in the day, I made the mistake of thinking that I could get myself out of a downward spiral by “expressing my feelings.” That’s a mistake. Focusing on what’s making me miserable simply makes me (and everyone around me) more miserable. Better to just assume my brain is broken and move on.

Unfortunately, I figured out my Rule of Three after my father died, so I never got to share it with him. But I’m sharing it with you. Meanwhile, I’m committed to keeping my spirits up, regardless of how my wife’s test turns out and regardless of how the election turns out.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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