Returning to the world
By Dr Erlend Slettevold, Clinical Psychologist
If you experience low motivation and feeling sad over long periods of time without apparent reason, this article might be helpful for you. However, if you are feeling low because of a recent difficult experience, such as losing a close one or another life event, your low mood is a natural reaction and you may need to give yourself time to process what has happened before following the advice given here.
When our mood is low we tend to lose interest in activities we usually enjoy. When we stop engaging in activities, this is likely to lower our mood even more. You can imagine how this may lead us into a “downward spiral”. After some time in this spiral we might start feeling like things will never get better and that everything is hopeless. Although people have come up with various explanations for why humans can fall into this cycle, I like to think about it through the eyes of the hunter-gatherers of the past, who had brains almost identical to the ones we have as modern humans.
We can imagine a hunter-gatherer who started to notice that conditions for finding food in the wild were taking a turn for the worse. This would have made it increasingly difficult to hunt and gather. At times it would have even required more energy to seek food than the energy food provided. In times like these the hunter-gatherer would have benefitted from feeling like things were hopeless in order to stay back and save their energy until conditions got better. The hunter-gatherer’s advantage would have been that they could clearly see it once conditions improved, at which point they would get their hope back and return to the world of hunting and gathering.
Much like hunters and gatherers, we can experience conditions in our lives becoming more challenging. This may lead us to lose hope that things can get better. However, the problem in the modern world is that it may not become obvious to us when “conditions” are getting better. We can always find signs that times are hard if we look for them, for example in social media, on the news, or in our social circles.
Below we have suggested three steps meant to help you with returning to the world from low motivation and low levels of activity:
1. The first step is to try to move our attention from the things around us that makes it all seem hopeless. For some, this may mean spending less time on social media, where it is often portrayed that everyone else’s lives are amazing. For others, it may mean getting less caught up in the news, where pessimism can often be a dominant attitude. Our attention may be more helpfully placed on something we feel grateful for, such as a close friend, a nice park, or music.
2. The second step is to remember activities that we have previously enjoyed, and perhaps even write some down. For example, if we have previously enjoyed going for walks in nature, this would be worth making a note of. Some will experience that it gets hard to remember because when we are feeling low, our memory tends to make negative past experiences more available than positive ones. If this happens, we can discuss options with someone who knows us well.
3. The third step is to gradually start doing those activities. The word gradually is really key here. It may seem overwhelming to start by going for a long walk in the park. However, it may feel more doable to break it up. For example, by putting some shoes on and taking them off again one day, stepping out on the doorstep the next day, walking around the block the next, and so on, until you are going for a nice walk in the park again. However small the activities may seem, you will be taking steps out of the downward spiral, and you will be walking in the right direction.
If you want to know more about how to overcome low mood and low motivation, check out David Veale and Rob Willson’s ‘How to Use Behavioural Activation Techniques to Overcome Depression’ or search for some YouTube videos about behavioural activation.