A few fellow Empowerful Girls reached out and shared that they felt sad or worried and they hoped an episode could talk about coping with those emotions. So if you, too, have been feeling that way, I sincerely hope this helps. This will take longer than 10 minutes because I want to offer as much help as possible.
No matter when you listen to this episode, I can assume there’s a lot going on right now in your life. Plenty of things can bring on big emotions like sadness and worry: stress at home, drama with friends, struggling in school, health concerns, money, relationships, identity, physical or emotional changes, future plans, conflict in your community or country … It’s a lot to carry around while you try to keep going, especially if you feel alone or lost or in the dark. You might even feel like you’re in a dark tunnel or deep hole, and don’t know how to get out.
When dealing with a struggle, have you ever felt like, “Why is this so hard for me? I should be able to handle this.” Or like you had to stuff down your feelings and force a smile through it, hiding how the change is affecting you? Or maybe people notice you’re having a hard time and they try to help you by saying, “Don’t be sad! Don’t worry!” or “It’s okay! Things will work out!” or encourage you to “Just be happy!” Hearing those phrases has never instantly changed my mood, erased my troubles, or brought me peace.
While I appreciate people trying to help with optimism and encouragement, it didn’t work for me. That’s because we can’t bypass our feelings. You can’t skip ahead, bury them, or go around them. As psychologist and author Emily Nagoski explained, “Emotions are tunnels. You have to move all the way through them to get to the light at the end.”
So first, I need you to know:
You don’t have to be happy all of the time. It’s normal to experience a lot of different emotions every day. Feeling unhappy or worried happens–you’re human; no shame there. Everyone finds themselves in emotion tunnels throughout their life. I’ve been in plenty of them, so I get it. Instead of feeling bad about how you feel, accept it. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings right now. It’s okay to not be okay.
I want you to treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would show to a friend if they were going through a rough time. That’s called self-compassion. Give yourself credit for dealing with all you’re faced with. Instead of criticizing or judging yourself for how you respond or react to what’s happening in your life, recognize it. Like you would tell your friend, say to yourself, “This is hard, so it makes sense I’m having a hard time.” “This isn’t something I’ve dealt with before, so naturally I feel sad/worried about what will happen.” “I did not see that coming, so of course I feel unprepared to handle it.” “It’s okay that I’m not okay right now.”
Show yourself compassion and give yourself permission to feel.
Once you’ve accepted that, explore why. Try to mentally dig to see where your sadness or worry (or however you feel) is stemming from: Was it a specific event or incident? Have a lot of things piled up over time? Are there big changes happening? Are other people involved or is it an inner struggle? And then get curious and go deeper to get to the roots of your feelings: feeling loss, overwhelmed, hurt, lonely, afraid, rejected, or helpless?
An exploration technique I find helpful is to write down my feelings. Some call it a brain dump. Don’t focus on flow or structure. Just let it out on paper–not on a phone or a computer; physically write to release your feelings. Decide later what to do with it (save, share, trash); just get it out first.
I’ll be honest, examining your feelings might not feel very good at first. But this discovery and self-awareness is incredibly important. You’re not making a permanent residence in this emotion tunnel; you’re visiting, just passing through the emotion. Sit with that discomfort just long enough to learn something about it.
Now we’re going to focus on Tools to help you feel better on your journey through this emotion tunnel.
- Reach out. You don’t have to experience this alone. Reach out to someone: a family member, a friend, an adult you trust. I know asking for help, especially when you’re sad, isn’t easy; it’s a brave thing to do. Talking about what’s going on may help you feel heard, understood, and not so lonely. Or if you just need company, a hug, or a hand to hold, that’s fine, too. Ask for help. Connect with someone.
- Focus on what you CAN control. Worry itself won’t prevent something from happening. But accepting what you can’t control is difficult. Dr. Kristen Neff taught in her book, “Self-Compassion,” that suffering = pain x resistance. So the more you resist what’s going on by telling yourself, “That cannot happen,” “It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” or, “Why me?” the more you will suffer. Dr. Neff quotes the Dalai Lama, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Figure out what you can control (maybe there is something you can do about it) and also accept what you can’t control, so you won’t suffer as much.
- Remember. Sometimes when we’re in the thick of something difficult, we are so focused on the obstacle in front of us that we forget all of the hurdles we’ve cleared before. Remember how far you’ve come and what you’ve already overcome. You may not have faced this situation before, but you’ve made it past many others. You’ll get through this one, too.
- Affirmations. These are true, powerful statements to help you maintain control of your thoughts. Say to yourself, Emotions are a part of life; everyone experiences them. I have overcome struggles in the past. I can face new challenges, and they can help me grow.
- Breathe. I know I talked about it before in ep.005; that’s how important it is. Breathing can anchor you when you feel like your emotions are spiraling. When so much is out of your control, breathing is something you can control that can help you slow down, relax your body, calm yourself and clear your head. Breathe intentionally, with purpose. Do a breathing exercise like box breaths: in for a count of four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. Take a moment and be present with yourself.
- Practice mindfulness. Pause for a few minutes to just notice what your senses experience inside you and around you: see, smell, hear, touch. Notice how your lungs fill and release air as you breathe: ‘in, out,’ ‘rise, fall.’ Notice a breeze and where you feel it on your body: ‘wind’ ‘cool.’ Note without judgement what you sense, like if you hear your neighbor’s dog barking, instead of feeling annoyed, note ‘barking,’ or if the sun is in your eyes, note ‘light’ or ‘warmth.’ This is a form of meditation, which can help you center yourself so your head stops spinning.
- Music. I’m a huge fan of feeling with music. Think of a song you like that really connects with your feelings. Either listen intently as it plays or sing along and belt out your emotions. Put it on repeat or listen to a playlist to release some feelings.
- Move. However appeals to you, move your body. Take yourself on a walk. Dance to a meaningful song. Run up and down some stairs. Punch a pillow. Do a few yoga poses. Ride your bike. Jumprope. ANYTHING that gets your body moving and blood flowing can help physically release some emotions.
- Cry. There is no shame in crying. Cry as you write, as you listen to music, while you breathe, on your walk, when you’re with someone. Cry as you dig your way through your emotions. Crying is cathartic. It releases stress. It may even help you feel better afterward. So it’s ok; have a good cry.
- Gratitude. This isn’t to trivialize your sadness, erase your worries, or make you feel guilty or ungrateful. Practicing gratitude gives us perspective. When we feel bad, it helps us recognize the things that are good in our lives. What’s something you’re grateful for about yourself or your abilities, someone who means a lot to you, something you were able to do, something you have, etc. Try writing down 3-5 things you’re grateful for and why, so you attach meaning to it. Keep doing that for a few days and see how you feel.
- Give service. Doing something kind for someone else can help you feel better. Whether it’s something simple like fixing a toy for your sibling or participating in a service project, turning outward to help someone adjusts our focus, gives us perspective, and helps us feel better. If you aren’t sure how to give service, try a random act of kindness like writing a Thank You note, give someone a high five and tell them they’re awesome, or paint rocks with positive words or pictures and leave them in a park.
- Laughter. They say laughter is the best medicine, and there’s science to back it up. Laughter not only improves your mood by releasing endorphins, it reduces stress, relaxes your muscles, and increases overall satisfaction. So spend time with someone who always makes you laugh, watch your favorite funny show, turn on a comical podcast, or revisit some memes or videos that made you bust up in the past.
- Nature. Spend some time in nature. Get away from noises and disconnect from screens so you can recharge in a natural setting. Get some fresh air, preferably with sunlight. A park, trail, field, nearby wilderness. Go with a friend or family member so you can share the experience together.
- Screen-free. You might not like hearing it, but I gotta say it. Put your phone down. Look up, look around you. The joy that comes from experiencing life and connecting with others–you can’t get that same joy through a screen. Eat meals with family and friends without your devices. Have in-person conversations with people! If you must have a phone for communication or navigation, get a dumb phone, or give yourself app time limits, or take a break from social media–and see how you feel afterward. Try it, and let me know it goes.
- Enjoy. Do an activity you’ve enjoyed before, anything that really makes you feel good. Read, play with animals, build furniture, redecorate your room, craft, play a sport, bake, jump on a trampoline, dance, create art, complete a puzzle, play a game with your family — anything! Doing something you enjoy can help improve your mood.
It’s okay to not be okay, and there’s lots you can do to help you feel better.
If you feel sad or worried for a while, I encourage you to talk to an adult you trust so they can help you. It’s not your fault if this emotion tunnel is longer than you thought. You are not alone, and I know there are many people and resources that want to help you get through it. Please reach out.
To help you remember all of this, I created a “When Sad or Worried” poster that you can print out, personalize, and post on your wall where you’ll see it, remember it, practice it, and believe it — that’s the important part.
So there is a whole series of books called “Instant Help” that includes workbooks and survival guides for teens on all sorts of topics including worry and sadness. Just search for “Instant Help Teens” and you’ll find lots of options.
Some other books that may be helpful are
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner
Who Moved My Cheese for Teens by Dr. Spencer Johnson
And if you’re looking for a book that’s more specific to your emotion or situation, I encourage you to check your local library — there are lots of books that can help with what’s going on.
If you have any books to add to this list, helpful feedback, or a topic suggestion, I’d love to hear from you! Send me an email: hello@EmpowerfulGirls.com.
Lastly, if you enjoy listening to 10 for Teens, I would truly appreciate you telling your friends about this podcast or leaving a review so others can find it and feel uplifted, too! Your support means the world to me!