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The trick I use to help me break out of a cycle of sadness


Unsplash / Paola Chaaya

Cecilia Pigg - published on 09/20/22

When you acknowledge your unhappiness, and that what you’re doing isn’t fixing it, you've taken the first step. 

I checked my phone for the hundredth time. It had only been 10 minutes. I was waiting for an “acceptable” time to eat dessert — ice cream at 10 o’clock in the morning just didn’t seem right. One o’clock in the afternoon seemed more okay.

I wasn’t super busy that day, which didn’t help, and made me all the more aware of the clock. I knew the ice cream was sitting in my freezer, getting closer and closer to freezer burn if I didn’t eat it.

Okay, truthfully, freezer burn wouldn’t kick in for a few more months, but it’s easy to imagine the worst-case scenario when it works in your favor.

Even as I convinced myself that the ice cream needed to be eaten, I also knew that once I ate the ice cream, it wouldn’t be as delightful as I imagined it, and I would restart the clock in my head again, tracking when I could eat more of it. Instead of enjoying my day and also enjoying ice cream, I would just think about it and obsess about it and then feel disappointed by it. And then I would start the cycle all over again. 

Ever felt that way about something?

It might be food related for you, too. Or it might be focused on alcohol. Or sex. Or even just verbal affirmation – such as wanting someone to notice you or compliment your work. Certainly anyone who has access to the internet in some capacity has probably had to struggle with learning how to moderate their use of it, especially the gratification that comes with the distraction of scrolling.

In all of these situations, we experience a good feeling, then we want that good feeling again, and getting that feeling becomes a constant presence or distraction. I’ve noticed that for me it comes and goes fairly regularly to different degrees. But, I’ve realized there is a sign that leads me to recognize what’s going on, instead of blindly but stubbornly continuing the cycle. It’s very simple in a way—I become aware of my own sadness.

That may not seem like much, but realizing and articulating, “I’m sad. I don’t feel free; I feel dependent on something and the thing never leaves me feeling fulfilled,” is a big deal. Here’s when I notice it in myself:

  • When I feel preoccupied and discontented on a daily basis, I know something needs to change.
  • When I don’t feel free to live every moment fully, and instead feel like I’m just living for the happy parts of my day.
  • When I think I can only cope with life and make it enjoyable if I have (insert coping mechanism here).

A surefire way to know what you’re too attached to something is to ask yourself, what do I think about when I feel stressed? Once you acknowledge that you aren’t happy, and that what you’re doing isn’t fixing it, you’re a hundred times better off than you were before. 

There are many ways to break free from the cycle of discontent and bad coping mechanisms. And they all require work — more work than it takes to whip up an ice cream sundae. But knowing that freedom is possible, and that there are healthier ways to cope, motivates me to move forward with the work it takes to change.

Interior freedom is worth it. 

Mental Health
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