To start, I should say that I’m not talking about grief and mourning (including collective grief over national or international events) but if you’re interested in learning more about that you can check out Psychology Today’s page on the topic. I’m talking about those days–travel or “regular life” days–where things aren’t going as planned (in a bad way).
For someone like me, a list-loving, flexibility-challenged planner, bad days like those used to happen all the time. Over the past few years, I’ve learned some strategies to prevent and recover from them.
Mostly, I’ve learned the key thing that makes it way easier for me to be flexible, and the method I use to separate moments and keep a bad day from getting worse.
I was inspired by Susan, my friend from the McVagabonds, who posted about her first trip abroad with her now-husband. The first day of their trip was what Susan calls “the worst travel day I’ve ever had” which turned around by the end of the day to be one of her most memorable and defining travel experiences. At the end of the post, she asked for stories about other people’s bad days, how they turned around to be better days, and what people learned from them.
I’m absolutely not an expert on this (ask my family or anyone who knows me well, I have plenty of stressful and bad days that I don’t handle well), but I am improving a lot. This is what’s working for me right now. If you have things that work for you that I don’t mention, please share them in the comments so we can learn from each other. 🙂
(This is a long post. If you don’t have time to read it all, there’s a summary at the end, plus a make-me-smile music video. But I highly suggest you read it all, of course.)
Lesson #1: I need to be more flexible, but how?
For me, the core of handling bad days seems to be flexibility, a trait I really want to have, but struggle with a lot. Travelling is definitely something that teaches me by experience to be more flexible, so it makes sense that my strongest travel-related turnaround is related to this issue.
When I was visiting Boston, I met up with my friend from high school. We were happy to see each other, but it was difficult because I’d saved most of the Freedom Trail to see that day (which is way too much to do in one day if you plan on spending much time on any one location). Most of my frustration came from a mix-up in communication. I misunderstood whether she cared about seeing all the things along the trail, and about our expectations when sightseeing (how much time to spend on each thing, what’s most interesting to each person, etc). It was hot, I was tired, I had expectations about how great it would be to see my friend again, and nothing felt like it was going that well.
The day turned around rather suddenly when she told me that it wasn’t very fun to travel with me and that she didn’t feel like I wanted her to be there. We had a very honest conversation about expectations, and then she told me something super basic, but very necessary for me to hear: “You have to be more flexible when you travel with other people.”
I’m fairly independent and used to planning my life on my own, whether traveling or living my “regular” life. This was my first trip when I was travelling with a friend (if only for the day), and I wasn’t prepared for the amount of flexibility it required.
Thankfully, we’re good enough friends that she felt comfortable telling me this, and I apologized, and we made up and enjoyed the rest of the trip. To this day I SUPER appreciate her honesty. Our friendship is stronger because of it, and the experience taught me several things, primarily to be proactive about setting myself up for a better day, by understanding how I travel/react to situations.
It’s one thing for a Type A person like me to know they need to be more flexible, but it’s a whole different thing to actually be flexible. I had to get clearer about expectations and travel styles (whether travelling alone or with people). To do this, I ask myself: What’s the goal of this situation?
I’m naturally more task-oriented than relationship-driven, and this comes out a lot when travelling, unless the relationship goal is set at the beginning. For example, if I’m going on a trip to see family, I’m happy to spend time with family without having a list of things I want to do, but clarifying the “family” goal is what sets those expectations. In Boston, my friend’s goal was to spend time together and catch up, and if we saw some things along the way, that was great. My goal was to see those things, and along the way catch up. That’s a huge difference!
I have to remember that the goal may change throughout the trip. If something is suddenly very stressful, I try to figure out what the new goal is. Also, I find that asking (myself and others) about goals and expectations isn’t just useful for travelling, but for situations in work and life in general.
Lesson #2: Separate the moments from each other and from the emotions
For any days (travel or non travel) that are already going really poorly, I try to separate each moment instead of seeing it as representative of the whole day. It makes it way more stressful when it’s one thing after another and I see the whole day going downhill. That makes me feel like the rest of the day is going to be the same.
To do this, I try to step away (even if it’s just in my head) and get some space from what’s happening (because it’s hard to separate each moment if I’m so emotionally involved in them). I usually do this by practicing a 4-6-8 breathing technique I learned: Breathe in deeply for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 6 seconds, and then slowly breathe out for 8 seconds. Focusing on the counting and steady breathing keeps me from thinking about other things. If I do this three times I usually feel dramatically better.
Then I take another deep breath and say (usually aloud) “Well, that happened.” It’s my nonjudgmental way of acknowledging that the crappy thing happened, but without letting my emotions tell me what it means for the rest of my day.
If I need to, I do it for each moment (thinking about the first and saying “Well, that happened,” then the second, etc). Then I ask myself, “Now what?” and try to focus on management and recovery: how to manage the stress from continuing to affect my day (it’s there, I can’t ignore it, so what action do I need to take to fix the situation?), and recover the day (even if I can’t recover the situation).
Many times when I stop and do this, I realize that there’s something making the situation feel more stressful or horrible than it actually is. It’s usually that I’m too hungry or tired or hot. I try to assess whether I’m any of those things and fix that issue (get a snack, take a break to do something restful, or cool down), because it’s hard to manage emotions when basic physical needs aren’t met.
After everything calms down and I’ve had some time and emotional distance from the situation, I review what happened and how I reacted. This reduces the chance of it happening again in the same way or for the same reasons, or at least improve my reaction to it. This process has been essential in my growth in this area.
That was long! Didn’t read it? Summary:
- Ask yourself and others: “What’s the goal?”
- Things change over time, identify new goals as needed.
- Create emotional distance with 4-6-8 breathing.
- Acknowledge non-judgmentally, then move forward: “Well, that happened… Now what?”
- Review the situation and your reaction to learn from it.
What do you do to turn around a bad or stressful day?
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PPS – if you want to smile, watch this music video. It gave me a different perspective on this song, which I’d heard before but used to think was depressing.