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How to Feel Better When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong

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Where I live, “How are you?” has traditionally been more of a greeting than a question. You’re supposed to say something like, “Good! You?” and then talk about whatever you were going to talk about.

In the last three months, it seems to have become a question again. People genuinely want to know how friends and neighbors are doing, so there’s often an added inflection to indicate that they are indeed asking: “So… how are you?”

This seems healthy. It also seems healthy that “I don’t know” has become a perfectly acceptable and relatable answer.

Like many people I’ve spoken to this spring, I don’t know how I’m doing, only that some things feel off. I’m not particularly anxious or worried, but getting ordinary things done has become inexplicably difficult.

I hope you’re doing okay in your corner of civilization. But in case you’re not, I want to share something that has helped me move through the murk, even though I don’t know what the murk is exactly.

Ordinary Life is Fragile

One of my hypotheses is that our fancy modern lives are only made stable by a surprisingly fragile configuration of routines. When one or more parts is broken, problems occur everywhere in the machine.

Even the most innocuous change could throw things off. Social distancing changes the way you grocery shop, and maybe that changes your diet. That affects your sleep, which affects your attitude, which affects your work, which affects your outlook, and your view of yourself, and so on, until ordinary life has become completely disrupted, with no indication that it’s all because you’re no longer comfortable in the cramped produce section of your local Price Chopper.

It’s hard to solve a problem when its cause is untraceable. You can’t isolate the issue the way you might dunk a leaky inner tube into a bathtub to see where the bubbles come out.

What’s worked best for me has been focusing on better inputs: pouring more vegetables, books, and exercise into the front end of the system, while reducing the intake of sugar, Netflix, and Reddit. This is all done without knowing quite what problems it will solve. (For what it’s worth, I can report that so far, sleep quality has gone from a three out-of-ten to a six.)

I formalized this strategy by returning to a simple tool I once used to get through a different period of inexplicable stagnation. You might want to try it if you sometimes—or always—feel down, or off, without knowing why.

The Cupboard Sheet

Inside the door of my breakfast cupboard I taped a list of activities that reliably make me feel better: journaling, meditation, cleaning something that’s been dirty for a long time, reaching out to a friend, reading a real book, and half a dozen others.

However, I only included activities that made me feel better in a particular way.

When we feel bad, off, or stuck, we naturally want to do something that makes us feel better. There are two distinct types of feel-better activities.

Some activities immediately improve your mood, but often at the expense of overall well-being. These are easy to start doing, and often hard to stop. Many of them involve screens, caloric intake, or both. They tend not to have long-term rewards.

Then there are activities that improve your well-being. They improve mood too, but often not right away. You never regret these activities. There’s a certain comfort to be found in doing them, or having done them, but they do take effort. These are the ones that go on the list.

Whenever I feel down, aimless, unproductive, or lost, I open the cupboard, pick the most appealing item on the list, and do ten or twenty minutes of it. Read on the front stoop. Send off a few “Hey what are you up to?” texts. Take a fifteen-minute jog around the neighborhood.

Every single time I do something from the list, I’m in a better place afterward. I might not feel amazing, but I do feel more capable, and that is a huge relief. My desire for diversion is also sated, and I no longer feel stuck. It always works.

Your Cupboard Sheet activities might be different from mine. Practicing piano, reading scripture, doing handstands against the wall, whatever your thing is. In making your list, you’re looking for activities with the golden trio of comfort, effort, and non-regrettability. Choose six to twelve items in total.

Why does it work so well?

I think there are three reasons the Cupboard Sheet is so reliable.

There’s nothing moralistic about it. It’s not a list of things you should do. It’s a list of things that tend to make you feel saner, healthier, and more empowered.

It’s humble. There’s no expectation of a miracle. Your activity may or may not shift your mood into “good” territory, but you know it’ll move you some distance away from stagnation and aimlessness.

It’s appealing. Because there are options, there will almost always be one item that feels appropriate for this particular moment. Sometimes strapping on the runners feels like the right thing. Other times it absolutely does not, but sitting down with a paperback does.

Perhaps the Cupboard Sheet’s great secret is that it doesn’t offer the easiest ways to feel better. The modest effort required to access the list’s rewards shifts your feel-better strategy away from the negative feedback loops of snacks and screens, to a different mental territory, where the loops go the other way.

No matter how the next twenty minutes goes, you end up a little higher on the hill, with a better view.

***

Photo by Jarek Ceborski

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Tony June 11, 2020 at 11:05 pm

I believe that we feel aimless, unproductive and lost from time to time because life is cruel joke that has been played on us, and it is in our times of feeling this way that we come face to face with it. And then we try to distract ourselves, or trick ourselves into doing something that’ll take our mind off this empty feeling. From reading contemporary physical and mental health literature that’s out there, we tend to generally take the stand that drugs are bad, exercise is good, idleness is bad, being ‘productive’ is good. In reality, nothing is bad or good.
And then I remember that all my fellow creatures share this misery with me. Then, mindfully, I reach out to the person/creature closest to me and try to cheer them up – improving my own mood in the process.

I apologize if it comes out sounding hopeless or dark; it’s just my perspective. Thanks for another nicely written article that I’m sure a lot of people will find very useful.

David Cain June 12, 2020 at 9:35 am

I think we can all agree that suffering is bad and not suffering is good. Activities are neither bad nor good, but some of them relieve suffering and some create more.

Your perspective here is very dark, but I think you’ve hit on the most important piece. We all suffer to some degree. Connecting with and helping others over their suffering is intrinsically meaningful, because we all know suffering and agree that it sucks.

Mike June 12, 2020 at 11:56 am

I hear you, Tony!

Sudhir June 12, 2020 at 2:31 am

A very nice and useful article – thank you. It is an action do be done after the fact i.e. after ‘I don’t know what I am feeling’. Could you help in coming up with a solution to tackle the uneasy feeling at source? I intuitively know that it is my unclear thinking that is the reason for my unease. Is there something that I can do to get clarity of thought?

David Cain June 12, 2020 at 9:42 am

It depends what you mean with tackling the uneasy feeling at its source. I believe that unease is a persistent visitor to human life and it’s not necessarily a mistake or a problem. Mindfulness has helped me to live with unease, and to establish some clarity of thought. I don’t think it is possible to avoid or always get rid of unease however. There’s a lot to be gained by learning to sit with unease without trying to shoo it away.

Alison Clayburn June 21, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Yes this unease – maybe partner of Buddhist unsatisfactoriness – but feels sharper, is harder than misery during this time, I’ve found. So the choice of shifting things to do is helpful

Rachel June 12, 2020 at 2:41 am

Thank you – that was just what I needed! Have been feeling less than 10/10 all week, without being able to put my finger on why. Good to know I’m not alone in feeling like this from tine to time and I will definitely make my list today!

David Cain June 12, 2020 at 9:46 am

Good luck! I now believe that the “why” behind our unease is never cut and dried. There’s always a complex network of factors behind it, and we’re just attributing simple explanations to it. When we act on those simple explanations (Ah, I just need more sleep) then we start changing some of the factors and sometimes see improvement, and believe we were right, even though there never was a 1 to 1 relationship between symptoms of unease and causes. That’s my suspicion anyway.

Gloria June 13, 2020 at 11:24 am

Your comment, David, reminds me of a book I read recently. It’s “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain”. You may find it interesting if you haven’t already read it.

Love your blog!

Rocky June 12, 2020 at 4:44 am

I don’t have a Cupboard Sheet, but I do have “To Do” lists. I have a long range, a short range, and a today list. In my world, Covid-19 has resulted in a bit of spare time. So I’ve been doing some things on the long range. They might not be major projects, just stuff that has taken a long time to make it on to the today list. It feels really good to get some of these things done, at last.
Chop Wood …. Carry Water
Thanks David!

David Cain June 12, 2020 at 9:48 am

I love the phrase “Chop wood, carry water” and I’m starting to think that it doesn’t matter particularly which wood and water you are chopping and carrying, only that you move something forward and break up the stagnation.

Rocky June 12, 2020 at 2:41 pm

I agree. Like your post today, “Chop Wood … Carry Water” takes it out of the area of high concept solutions, and into the realm of nuts and bolts, real world solutions.

Vishal Kataria June 12, 2020 at 4:52 am

Our fancy modern lives are only made stable by a surprisingly fragile configuration of routines. When one or more parts is broken, problems occur everywhere in the machine.

This alone clarifies why we’re feeling so stuck today. The work part of our lives is broken and other parts (shopping, taking care of kids) have been introduced, throwing us completely off track. We’re being forced to live in and for the moment, something we’re not used to.

After weeks of feeling low, I made my version of a cupboard sheet too (although I didn’t give it such a nice name). Now I build my daily schedules around the feel-good tasks in it and journal my output at the end of each session. It makes me feel in better control of life since doing the things I avoided push me forward.

I love how thoughtful your posts are, David. This one is five layers deeper, one of my most favorite ones so far.

David Cain June 12, 2020 at 10:05 am

That reminds me of something I was thinking about when I made the original cupboard sheet but have since forgotten. These tasks are tasks I often avoid because I feel like I don’t have time for them. When I’m struggling and behind, I feel like pleasure reading, cleaning, and reaching out to people need to wait until I get my shit together again, because I have so much work to do. But the cupboard sheet turns that upside down. I’m struggling because I’m neglecting the healthy stuff that drives the well-being necessary to stay on top of work.

Kate June 12, 2020 at 11:13 pm

This seems like common sense reading it but the reminder definitely helps. Your comment about feeling like you need to get your shit together before you can enjoy anything resonates with me so much, I do this all the time and because I still feel crap I just end up wasting time with the mindless short term feelgoods, like scrolling endlessly on the internet, in a vicious circle. I needed this today, going to stay off my phone, read a real book, then do some chores once concentrating on a book has calmed me down amd cheered me up. Much appreciated ❤️

Patrin June 13, 2020 at 3:11 pm

YES. This postscript is super helpful. Clarifying and encouraging <3

Manpreet June 12, 2020 at 5:10 am

Thank you for sharing this wonderful tip of making list of feel good things in times when one doesn’t feel great. My only resort until now was Netflix which distracts you for some time but you end up in feeling up more crappy.

David Cain June 12, 2020 at 10:19 am

I’m the same with Reddit… it alleviates the stuckness/dullness for the moment but then you’re just in the same place, with less time, and you feel worse.

jane ainsworth June 12, 2020 at 5:40 am

Thank you – wise words. I realised that that’s what I’ve been sort of doing without realising or verbalising it to myself. It’s nice to have one’s feelings validated and articulated.

Kevin June 12, 2020 at 7:24 am

“…but getting ordinary things done has become inexplicably difficult.”

This has been a huge issue for me too! Even something as simple as making a phone call seems to get away from me. Lots of little tasks will stay on my to-do list for days…

Greg Harbin June 12, 2020 at 7:37 am

This is wonderful tool to combat the duldrums that creep into our isolated lives during this pandemic. I’ll call mine the cupboard mental medicine list!

Nina June 12, 2020 at 8:17 am

“Mental medicine” — I like that!

David Cain June 12, 2020 at 10:20 am

That’s not a bad name for it… doing 10/20 minutes of a list activity really does feel like getting a dose of medicine to the system.

Elizabeth M. June 12, 2020 at 8:00 am

A great idea. Thank you. My version has been to spend time each day in my tiny kitchen alcove/sunroom. It is by the back door. It is a multi-use space: a staging area for things coming into and leaving the house, a food prep and project area, where I open mail and packages, a home for all the electronic bases because of the only phone jack in the house being there. It is highly clutter prone, but one of the nicest spaces in the house when it is tidy. So I now spend purposeful time each day there, tending to the space, tidying, cleaning, reorganizing. It is much more usable now, but the best thing is I get to spend more time each day in one of my favorite spaces in the house.

Beth June 12, 2020 at 8:08 am

This was such a well written post with a great idea! Easily executed, too. I sat down and made my list, modeled after yours, then personalized, and already I have a sense of accomplishment at making my cupboard list! Isn’t that the purpose? :) It has already proved its worth. I like the various types of options-some times I need to self-soothe, hence the activities like journaling or meditation. Sometime I need energy, a walk on the treadmill or sweeping the kitchen floor are rhythmic, productive and active. And in and on. Something for any sort of the blahs! Kudos once again, David!

David Cain June 13, 2020 at 10:29 am

Thanks Beth, and way to go. One of the great things about the cupboard sheet is that it takes very little implementation time. Ten minutes and you’re up and going.

Monique June 12, 2020 at 9:11 am

David, you always share with us so many great ideas and strategies! This one really resonates with me and I can’t wait to put it into practice. Today I will make my cupboard list (such a quaint name!) and start using it whenever I feel “aimless” or “stagnant”, which is a lot these days. At the end of each day, I always wish I had accomplished more or enhanced my life in some small way. I feel guilty for “wasting” my days. This sounds like a terrific way to get going on making some small advancements.

Rob Thilo June 12, 2020 at 2:32 pm

Mindfulness is easy.
Remembering mindfulness takes effort.

Yard by yard, Life is hard.
Inch by inch, find the niche.
Moment to moment, Life is bliss.

I see your story pointing in the direction of gratitude. Well done! (Again)

Becca June 12, 2020 at 2:42 pm

The golden trio of comfort, effort and non-regret. 12 things I came up with for my computer monitor sticky note:

– 30m run.
– 8k walk.
– 30m give kittens 100% attention.
– 20m(+) Russian learning session.
– Read a book about programming and capture thought notes in learning journal.
– Build something (programming).
– Call friend/family.
– Make something with clay.
– Micro crochet something.
– Deep clean small area of home.
– Drink water.
– Weights (YBell or bodyweight).

Valerio June 13, 2020 at 6:28 am

This is very good advice. I made a list of activities and put it on display. I like to call it the “1% list” :) (I think you can guess where that comes from)

Eric Teplitz June 13, 2020 at 12:38 pm

Thanks for this, David. And how are YOU?? :-)

I think it’s interesting you keep your list in your breakfast cupboard, because I use the metaphor of a menu in a strikingly similar post I wrote some years ago about how I address this same issue:

https://inspiredlivingblog.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/prescription-for-a-bad-mood/

I like your distinction about choices that do no involve snacks and screens. Here’s to saner and healthier choices for a saner and healthier world, inner and outer.

David Cain June 13, 2020 at 7:16 pm

I’m not bad Eric! Thanks. Still working through some pandemic mind-fog symptoms, although I’m starting to understand the larger pattern it seems to be a part of.

Al June 13, 2020 at 3:38 pm

I normally look forward to your articles and enjoy getting your perspective on things. I notice today that although it’s a very well written article it says nothing specifically about the state of our nation or the problems dealing with the pandemic and racism. I know that your writing addresses these problems in a general way but I feel you might want to acknowledge exactly how you are dealing with these specific National and International problems if you really want to capture our interest.

David Cain June 13, 2020 at 8:16 pm

I will assume that by “our nation” you mean the United States. For what it’s worth, I’m not American and neither is the internet.

This site has always been about the universal conundrum of being a human being, and navigating the day-to-day emotional and mental landscape that entails. There are a million angles to discuss that from, but I avoid conveying my themes by reacting to what’s currently dominating the news.

This trend of calling people out for not writing about a particular hotbutton issue is a little absurd. I didn’t mention the Rohingya crisis either — why not demand my opinion on that? The above post is about unstable mental health, which, like racism, quietly harms millions of people every day, even when the news isn’t covering it.

For the sake of satisfying your curiosity, I participated in my city’s Black Lives Matter protest. I’m currently educating myself about race issues rather than spouting off about them. I have plenty of heated opinions about police use of force, Donald Trump, and confederate flags, as well as callout culture, token activism, and outrage-mongering, but this blog is not a place to dump those reactions. If you want my reflexive takes on the news for some reason you can follow me on Twitter. (@daviddcain)

Elizabeth M. June 14, 2020 at 6:36 pm

You had my complete interest, David. I am following the news, and the ever-changing advice on how to avoid the virus, but this is one place that I can count on getting some ideas and thoughtful approaches to keeping healthy mentally that will work in the now and in the future. It is a missing piece.

I’ve never heard you sound annoyed with a commenter before. I’m not criticizing that, you understand. I just normally see the results of your search for calm.

David Cain June 15, 2020 at 9:01 am

Maybe I’ve become less argumentative in my old age, which may or may not be a good thing, but this comment section has seen many heated exchanges. I think it’s a healthy thing, generally speaking.

Elizabeth M. June 15, 2020 at 11:08 am

Part of being authentic and human, no doubt. I have probably been self-selecting for calm when I read your posts.

Susan Carroll June 14, 2020 at 5:04 pm

This is so true, I find it hard to be motivated sometimes to do things that I know are helpful, when my mood is low. I think the trick is in setting the bar low, e.g a ten minute walk or run is very doable, I will most often go for longer once I get started, but if i set a high target, it puts me off starting at all. One of my favourite sayings is “Sometimes Action Comes Before Motivation”

Patricia Johnson June 15, 2020 at 6:22 am

Thank you for such a good read! I love the idea of a list with no strings attached…just actions that make sense and that I might enjoy. Before I had to stay on the homefront 24/7, I hired a lot of my house jobs done. Now I am doing them myself and, surprise, I find that even the most menial tasks are therapeutic. I’m not in any rush to get them done, but I find that working with my hands and my body brings healing to the rest of me.

Geri Lennon June 15, 2020 at 11:16 am

Per usual, David, you have knocked it out of the park. I loved every single word and actually do the cupboard gig without the cupboard. So sometime today, I will construct my wee list and slip it inside next to the peanut butter. All fabulous ideas for this spooky time. I am now privileging my walking in early morning. I’m a hermit these days and actually prefer squirrels and deer to most two-leggeds. But like you, I write. Thanks again for the uplifting.

Peter June 15, 2020 at 5:46 pm

David,

I think the word you are missing from your “why it works” list is: control. There are some aspects of life that we control, and this list is one of them. There are other aspects of our life over which we have no control. When we focus on the “control-less” aspects, we feel, in your words, “off”. It’s stoicism at its best and you have written about it extensively. I’m surprised you missed the punch line! Back to the list, I suppose…

Mary June 19, 2020 at 2:31 am

I’ve just found this thread via a link on Twitter. It’s very sound advice, but as I can barely walk 75 yards or stand for more than five mins without having to sit down, it makes doing all the household tasks I need to do so difficult. I have a mound of clothes at the end of the bed because hanging them on the top rail of the wardrobe is almost a stretch too far now, I have to sit down after hanging one item. I do one small task & have to sit again. I’m 76 with probable Fibro (acc to Doctor).i just don’t have the energy any more to do anything. My poor OH does a lot, but he can’t do everything, nor would I want him to! The one thing I’m missing most are my two choirs, parish choir & choral society.Singing in the shower or online isn’t enough – I need to hear the harmonies WITH and AROUND me. Sorry to sound so feeble, but that’s literally how I am now. I just can’t find the mental & physical energy any more.

Cam June 21, 2020 at 1:59 pm

Thanks for sharing, Mary. I appreciate your fearless honesty. It helps to put my problems in a wider perspective. I’m 31 and have (for my age, I think) my fair share of aches, pains, and limitations. Chronic lower back pain, weak wrists, a dislocating knee, and lately a series of strange and fluid symptoms that seem to fit the bill of Lyme’s disease, or some kind of immunocompromisation.
(Not to mention the pain that comes with awareness of the staggering injustice of this world.)
I sink deeply into the murk – for moments, minutes, and sometimes hours.
Sometimes, though, I meet my surroundings, and my thoughts and clouded emotions disperse for awhile, and I’m just there, with the intelligence of the breeze that tickles blades of grass, and the emerald fly crawling across my leg.
I’ve been practicing meditation regularly for quite a few years now. I think it’s done a lot to save me from myself and loosen me from the grip of my own ideas.
I’m sending my own kind of prayer for you, Mary, that you find the strength to do what you’re doing, be where you are, and hear the harmonies that are all around us.
Love & Peace :)

DB June 21, 2020 at 5:11 am

David thanks again for sharing an insightful post, I’ve been following your work for a few years actually and this is the first time I’ve commented. Some of your writings have actually been the inspiration for myself to read further into topics and start my own blog (https://dailybliss.co.uk) and ideas into mental health and wellbeing.

I couldn’t agree more with your article – it was interesting and relatable- any movement/productivity is better than stagnating – especially if your cupboard sheet contains something like ‘exercise’ which I find infallible – endorphin produce, health benefits. Anyway thank you again for continuing to share and write.

Bonnie June 24, 2020 at 8:56 pm

Thank you for being vulnerable with your readers. It definitely relieves the “stuck” feeling a bit when I know I’m not the only one experiencing this. Thankful for your insights

Nancy July 15, 2020 at 8:40 pm

Great stuff! My version of this was picked up online somewhere- “Improve, Appreciate, Protect, Connect.” When stuck, do something that fits under one of those 4 categories. Vacuum, call a friend, fix a leak, brush my dog, take a walk; and so on. Just do something that helps. The act of making a decision and doing a thing imparts a sense of order in chaos, which is ultimately (for me at least) usually where that unsettledness comes from.

Zohra August 4, 2020 at 5:34 am

This is a great idea- thanks for the post! Am sharing with those I know who need a mental medicine list!

chechilas August 15, 2020 at 3:48 am

Thank you for sharing this wonderful tip of making list of feel good things in times when one doesn’t feel great

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