In this article, I discuss how to cope with those days when you’re not feeling good emotionally.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

There are some days when you’re ‘on’ and other days when you’re ‘not on’. When you’re on, you feel relaxed, have positive thoughts and emotions and things just seem often seem to flow along effortlessly. When you’re not on, it’s just the opposite. You don’t feel good emotionally, you frequently have negative thoughts, you feel tense instead of relaxed, you lack energy and feel like getting even the smallest tasks accomplished is a grind.

Sometimes you’re on or not on because of what happened to you that day or because of your ongoing life circumstances. At other times, being on or not on is an internal state unrelated to what’s going on in your life or what happened during your day. Whatever the reason, it can be challenging to get through the day when you’re not on. In the following sections, I will provide ideas from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you do this. These are strategies I give my clients in my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist.

Schedule activities which make it more likely you will be ‘on’

If your day is filled with activities you enjoy doing when you’re at work/school and in your spare time, it will be much easier for you to be on. Under these circumstances, the days when you are not on will be fewer and easier to manage compared with not having activities you enjoy doing.

If you find that not being on is strongly related to not having enjoyable activities in your routine, scheduling more such activities would be a logical first step in coping with days when you are not on. If you find yourself lacking enjoyable spare-time activities to schedule, you will first need to explore and list potential enjoyable activities which you can then schedule.

If the time you spend at work or school is largely unenjoyable, it may be helpful to explore changes in your work or school environment—potentially including a change in occupation or academic program—so that you can spend the many hours in your vocational environment engaged in activities which you find enjoyable.

Drawing of a person with a sad face and worried and stressed mind.

Behavioural strategies you can use when you are ‘not on’

Behavioural strategies you can use when you are not on include:

(1) Use the five-minute rule – When you are not on, your motivation and energy to perform tasks or engage in activities is low. According to the five-minute rule, you commit to performing an activity for the brief time of five minutes. After five minutes, you can choose whether to continue or stop. Many people find that performing the activity for five minutes boosts their motivation and energy to the point that they choose to continue.

(2) Lower the activation energy — Activation energy refers to the amount of time and effort required to get started on the activity. Lowering this energy makes it easier to begin the activity and can be used in tandem with the five-minute rule to help you get tasks done when you are not on. For example, lowering the activation energy to exercise would entail having your workout gear already packed in your gym bag rather than having to pack your workout gear prior to heading to the gym.

(3) Have activities scheduled for particular times – You are much more likely to engage in an activity if you have it scheduled for a particular day and time than if it is not scheduled. Having the activity scheduled combined with lowering the activation energy and using the five-minute rule increases the likelihood that you will engage in the activity even when you are not on. Once you get into the activities you have scheduled, you are more likely to feel on during a ‘not on’ day.

(4) Start with easier tasks and activities first – On days when you are not on, it is easier to get started with smaller tasks and activities. Doing so will increase your energy and motivation to the point that it is ‘doable’ to engage in larger tasks and activities.

(5) Break bigger tasks and activities into smaller components – If you find it too daunting to engage in a task or activity all at once because you are not on, breaking up the task or activity into smaller components will make it easier for you to gradually get into it.

Cognitive strategies you can use when you are not on

How you manage your thinking when you’re not on can make it easier to get through the day. This is best done by using the cognitive strategy known as the ‘Three C’s’ in which you catch, check and change ‘hot thoughts’. Hot thoughts are negatively distorted beliefs which you are more likely to have when you are not on and which make you feel even worse emotionally.

For example, when you are not on you are more likely to focus on the negatives in a situation rather than seeing the whole picture. You are also more likely to jump to negative conclusions including ‘mind-reading’ – assuming someone has negative thoughts about you without your having conclusive evidence to this effect.

When you are not on, you are especially vulnerable to the cognitive distortion known as ‘emotional reasoning’ in which you use how you are feeling emotionally to guide your thoughts. This can lead you to make overly negative inferences such as, “I’m feeling lousy today so my life must suck’. When you are not on, be aware that you are more prone to viewing your life and the people you encounter in an overly negative light.

Using CBT skills like thought records will allow you to let evidence, rather than your emotions, determine the accuracy of the negative thoughts you have when you are not on. This will facilitate your changing hot thoughts to more accurate and less negative ‘balanced thoughts’ which involve viewing yourself and others in a proper perspective.

An example of a balanced thought which would be helpful for you in managing things on a day when you are not on is, “The evidence indicates that my life and the people in it are actually pretty good and that my not being on is leading me to incorrectly assume that they are not good. It will be easier for me to view things accurately and more positively once I get through this day.”

May you use CBT skills to manage those days when you are ‘not on’,

-Dr. Pat