It’s a non-negotiable fact of life: Everyone has bad days sometimes. We all have different ideas of what constitutes a crappy day and different reasons for having one, but it’s comforting to know that nobody is immune from having a rotten, awful, stinkin’ day at least once in a while. That includes psychologists, some of the very people trained to help others manage their own bad days (and mental health in general). Luckily, psychologists also happen to have some very useful tools for digging themselves out of a funk.
Here, eight psychology experts tell us what they do on those days where everything just sucks. While many of them have multiple methods for dealing with those bad moods, here are their most tried-and-true strategies.
1. Focus on rewarding work.
Work is the number one bad-day fix for Dolores Malaspina, M.D., M.S.P.H., a professor and the director of the Psychosis Program in the department of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “[Seeing patients is] a great way to get through tough days,” she tells SELF.
Immersing herself in patient sessions helps Dr. Malaspina focus on the present instead of whatever is occupying her mind, she says: “Being in the moment with a patient can be centering.”
Rather than compounding her bad day, a particularly hard or tiring session can be an especially excellent way to center her thoughts. As Dr. Malaspina explains, these kinds of sessions require complete engagement in a way that takes her out of her bad mental state.
2. Take time for your passion project.
“When I have a bad day, I try to make some time to work on my podcast, whether that's researching my next episode, editing a current episode, or finding sound bites and music,” Landin says. “It's about women in history who have significantly influenced the culture for women in positive ways.”
Landin is currently editing an episode about Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut to enter space. Ride’s legacy helped open up a field that was historically dominated by men to women. “I enjoy [working on the podcast] tremendously,” Landin says. “It brings me fulfillment.”
3. Try to zoom out.
“I try to be aware of negative thinking that contributes to my own stress levels and to think about problems in a balanced and flexible way,” Martin Antony, Ph.D., an author, professor, and graduate program director in the department of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, tells SELF. To figure out if he’s giving something too much weight, he will ask himself, “Is that thing that’s stressing me out as important as it feels?” or “Will it still matter a week from now or a month from now?”
4. Don't let a bad moment mean a bad day.
It’s all about perspective for Scott Bea, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, psychotherapy trainer, and supervisor in the Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program at Cleveland Clinic. “There are challenging moments, [and] I try to experience them as just moments, not days,” Bea tells SELF.
When he does have an all-around difficult shift, Bea does his best to leave it at the door on his way out. “I have worked on not having many thoughts about work when I am not at work,” he says. For Bea, this is essential for preventing burnout or compassion fatigue. Also known as secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue indicates the emotional and physical depletion that can impact care providers who work with people who have experienced trauma. In severe cases, it can even contribute to mental health issues such as PTSD, so creating boundaries when possible is incredibly important for care providers, Bea explains.
5. Acknowledge and accept the crappy moments.
The first bad-day step for Nancy Burgoyne, Ph.D., chief clinical officer and vice president of clinical services at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, is to simply acknowledge the reality that she’s in a bad mood. If it happens when she’s at work, she doesn’t make it worse by beating herself up for being a “bad” therapist. She asks, “Would you want a therapist who couldn't ‘get it’ that life can take a toll at times?”
After accepting her bad mood, Burgoyne tries to avoid blowing the impact of a crappy day out of proportion, especially when it comes to below-average sessions with her patients. “I ground myself…by taking the long view,” she tells SELF. “I know that therapy is a process, and therefore no one session will determine its impact.”
(By the way, if you’re in therapy, had a less-than-stellar session, and are wondering if your therapist is having a crappy day, it’s OK to ask. “A good therapist will accept that as feedback and be open to looking at what your experience has been,” Burgoyne says.)
6. Get outside.
Shout-out to the beautiful scenery and predictably good weather of Northern California, where J. Faye Dixon, Ph.D., is a psychologist, assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and ADHD clinic director at UC Davis Medical School. “On really difficult days, I try to get out in nature for an impromptu walk just to reset,” she tells SELF.
Since Dixon already runs four or five times a week, many days—bad ones included—have her personal mood-boosting duo of fresh air and endorphins built into the schedule.
7. Have a go-to chill move.
On bad days, Nanci Pradas, Ph.D., L.I.C.S.W., a Massachusetts-based psychologist, turns to diaphragmatic breathing, a relaxation method she teaches many of her patients for times of stress or anxiety.
“You breathe in through your nose slowly, take a little pause, and breathe out through your mouth. You can put your hands on your stomach if you’re just learning it; your stomach should go out when you breathe in,” she tells SELF. Pradas also recommends thinking of a scene or image you find pleasant or relaxing—“I like the beach and the waves”—as well as some kind of a mantra. “I say, ‘In with peace and relaxation, out with all my stress,’” she explains.
Pradas says that this method of relaxation became easier with daily practice, so now she can call upon it whenever she needs it.
8. Talk it out.
Michael Brustein, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in New York City, tells SELF that talking to a trusted friend about what’s going on allows him to find some clarity and perspective. “Expressing my thoughts and feelings with others helps to validate and organize my experience, making it feel less ambiguous and daunting,” he explains.
The back-and-forth also makes Brustein feel less alone in his struggles. “Using social support helps me feel more connected and reminds me that I’m not the only [one] who suffers,” he explains.
As Brustein has seen in his clinical experience, people often fear that expressing their emotions will make them a “burden” on others. But isolating yourself can make a bad mood even worse, he says, adding, “I believe reaching out and using social support [are] key for wellbeing.”