How to Pull Yourself Out of a Dark Place
In a way, I’m writing this for myself – to remember that it is possible to pull yourself out of a dark place in case I ever forget again.
But mostly, I’m writing this for those who are struggling right now. Especially if you don’t quite believe that you have the strength to make it through this, I need you to know that you do.
I’m not saying it’s easy (it’s not – it might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done) but possible. That sense of possibility is the faint glimmer of hope you need to hold onto.
In this strange life, it is inevitable having to go through those dark valleys of despair once in a while. Some feel manageable, but others feel so heavy they threaten to crush us and swallow us whole.
I know it’s hard to believe in moments like these, but: You are – really – not alone in this. Even if it feels like it now. And you will make it through this.
Let me tell you about a couple of things that have helped me to improve my mental health and move past the darkness.
Also, at the end of the page, I’ll add a list of my favorite (free) resources that can support you in this difficult time.
Ways to Pull Yourself Out of a Dark Place
Remember to move
In times where motivation is non-existent, we need to use discipline to keep going with habits that are good for us – one of the most vital ones is movement.
Don’t become stagnant in your body. You need to move – whether it’s gentle walks or working out in the gym. Especially if you don’t usually exercise, this can make a tremendous difference (if you already do, keep it up, even if you don’t particularly feel like it.)
By connecting with our bodies, we do not only get a rush of mood-enhancing hormones, we also process feelings and memories stored in the body.
To work with movement is a bottom-up approach – your body is signaling your brain that everything is alright. Especially when talk therapy does not help (anymore), working with the body can make an incredible difference.
Exercising also is a wonderful way to remind yourself that you can do hard things, even when things are not looking so great right now.
Moving your body really can brighten your day and, over time, cause powerful shifts in the way you carry yourself through life.
So even if you don’t feel strong at all right now, remember to move and feel your body.
P.S.: If you can, do it outdoors. Nature is a source of infinite healing – getting fresh air and feeling the peace of nature helps us to rest our minds and feel more alive, relaxed and happy.
Remember to rest
It may feel contradictory to say this right after telling you to move, but yes, also remember to rest. We need both: The stillness and the stimulation.
This is how our entire nervous system works, by the way. This is how breath works and the phases we move through in life. It is like a never-ending wave, alternating between arousal (sympathetic nervous system) and relaxation (parasympathetic nervous system).
Inhale, you get ready to move. Exhale, you let go. When something troubling happens, it is essential we know how to calm down afterward and get back into a relaxed state.
We all need a break sometimes – and I realized we often don’t give ourselves that anymore.
Being on your phone is not true rest, even if you feel like you’re doing nothing. As soon as you start scrolling, your brain gets bombarded with a million messages, too much input to process.
What we need is moments of truly doing nothing. Where our minds can come to rest and we can check in with how we’re truly feeling, away from distractions.
You can’t rush through life – you’ll exhaust yourself.
I think there is a little Buddhist story that goes something like this: A practitioner asks a monk for how long a day he should meditate. The monk says “hmm, maybe 20 minutes is a good place to start”.
The practitioner then asks: “But what if I have no time?!”. The monk laughs and says: “Then you should meditate for 1 hour.”
I noticed this often enough in myself – when we think we have absolutely no time to rest is when we need it the most.
Get away from the screen
Well, this leads me right to the next point. Get away from your phone, your computer, your TV, all those little sources of mindless entertainment.
Excessive screen time has been linked with an increased likelihood of mental health problems like depression or anxiety.
I’m not talking about the time we’re productively doing something, like actively connecting with a friend, writing an article or preparing a report for work (even though that can be very tiring and draining, too, if you don’t take breaks from staring at the screen).
It is mostly that ‘unproductive’ time we spend scrolling away, maybe not even quite realizing what we’re doing.
Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely don’t advocate for having to be productive every second of the day – sometimes, it can be absolutely fantastic to just come home, put on Netflix and enjoy.
However, often enough we’re using our phones to distract ourselves from emotions we don’t want to feel, from our bodies signaling us that we truly need a rest or using them to procrastinate because we don’t want to feel the fear that’s linked to the tasks we should be doing.
So it’s not just about the time you spend on your screens, it’s also about how we spend our time online.
My suggestion is to get off social media more often (not easy, I know – maybe a week or a month of digital detox can help) and to become more mindful of how you spend your time online.
I definitely notice the effects on myself: When I delete Instagram from my phone (which I do regularly), I become more present with the people in my life. I think more about taking real-life action instead of which show I can watch next. And I almost instantly become more satisfied with my life.
So, if you spend too much time staring at screens (you probably know if you do), try to gradually decrease the time and rather only use them when there’s really something you have to do there.
Seek social support
This can be a difficult topic for many – maybe you’re self-reliant like me and reluctant to reach out for help even when you clearly need it, or worse, you may feel like you have no social support system at all.
Most people, however, do have someone to talk to – we’re just often too scared to speak up about our struggles, out of fear we might be judged. It is vulnerable and scary, but the more used you get to speaking those heavy things out loud, the lighter the burden on your shoulder will become.
And if you really, truly, have no one – a situation I do not wish upon anyone – then I urge you to do your best to connect with new people around you. There’s someone out there for you. And if you struggle to make friends, maybe a therapist can temporarily fill that role for you and help you get there.
It is vital for us humans to connect to others and feel supported in our struggles. Chronic loneliness literally kills people – it is one of the factors that most affect our mental as well as physical health.
When going through a dark time, there’s often the tendency of wanting to isolate yourself. And to fall for thoughts like ‘no one even wants to help’, ‘nobody cares’, ‘no one can love me’. Those thoughts are not true.
If you want to get better, you need to do the opposite of isolating yourself – reach out and speak up. We literally need each other to survive.
Take deep belly breaths
I already touched on the topic of breath shortly, but since it is so immensely important, it deserves its own little chapter.
Breath is our anchor to the here and now – it can bring us back from an anxiety attack to the present moment. Your breath is always there. It is the one thing that you can always hold onto.
But it’s not just a tool to become aware of the present moment, it also regulates our entire system.
If you don’t breathe or breathe too much (hyperventilate), you panic. However, if you learn to control your breath, it gives you the power to calm yourself down.
People who struggle with their mental health often breathe too shallowly – they live in a constant state of stress and fear.
Our body and brain need deep belly breaths to understand they’re safe. You can train those belly breaths. And you can cultivate more and more awareness of how you breathe.
A great place to start learning this is to practice meditation or go to yoga classes (YouTube is a great free resource, too) – yoga instructors will constantly cue you to focus on your breath. And to breathe deep into your belly.
Especially our exhales play such an important role – if they are long and calm, we reassure ourselves that we’re okay.
This allows us to literally breathe through difficult situations and emotions. Focus on the breath and the sensations you’re struggling with will pass.
All you have to do is be here now, be with your breath.
Talk to a professional
Now, to some this is obvious, to others not so much – go talk to someone. A friend is a great place to start, but maybe sometimes they’ll be out of advice.
A professional therapist can help you to work through your issues and help you gain insight into how you can move forward.
As with anything, you need to be willing to put in the work – a therapist can only point you the way, but it’s you who needs to take the steps.
In some circles, there’s still a lot of stigma around therapy, others are disheartened by the sometimes long process of getting a spot.
But I encourage you to try. You don’t need to figure out everything on your own. It is okay and important to ask for help.
In some cases (say if you’re suicidal or suffer from severe childhood trauma), therapy is the only logical next step. Those things are extremely hard to work through, but it can be done.
And even if you ‘just’ feel a little depressed or there are other things that keep coming up for you, don’t think your worries are too little to be heard.
It’s important to voice the unspoken – it takes away its power.
Focus on how you can help
It may seem ironic to say this because maybe right now, you feel like you can’t contribute to this world in a positive way at all.
But most likely, there is something you can do. And it is incredibly uplifting, seeing how we can help each other out.
By helping others, you also help yourself.
Of course, don’t put all your energy into others – you need to take care of yourself first.
But if you can, think of what you can do for those around you. Or the environment. Or your favorite animal.
This gives you a sense of agency which is essential, believing you have a place and purpose in this world.
Feeling in control of your own life – and seeing how your actions can positively affect others – gives you back the important belief that you will be able to persevere, make it through this and see brighter days again.
Self-agency is basically seeing that you can take action to improve your situation. Seeing yourself as the creator of your life, not a victim of your circumstances. And that makes a whole lot of difference.
Focusing on where you can help – yourself and others – might be a beautiful way of turning your situation around, bit by bit.
My dear friend, I hope some of those things that have helped me will help you, too.
I can tell you for a fact that it always gets better (you will get better).
And yes, maybe at some point in the future, things will get worse again, but if they do, you’ll meet them with more strength than before. This is how we grow.
It’s not easy to be this lost. But you can make it through this and the most vital part of it is simply believing that you can.
He who believes he can and he who believes he cannot are both correct.Henry Ford
There is so much to live for and I can’t wait to see a smile on your face again.
Sending you much love. I believe in you.
If anyone reading this has more tips to share, please comment below. Let’s all help each other out.
(Free) Resources to Help You Out of a Dark Place:
- Yoga with Adriene – world’s kindest yoga teacher that feels like a friend
- Hybrid Calisthenics – another great human being making the world better with accessible fitness
- ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brené Brown – on the power of vulnerability & human connection
- ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk – all about how trauma affects the brain & body
- ‘Cure’ by Jo Marchant – a fascinating read on the mind-body connection
- ‘The School of Greatness’ by Lewis Howes – a huge library of self-improvement knowledge with inspiring guests
- ‘7Mind Podcast’ by René Träder (German) – on mindful living and meditation
- ‘Ten Percent Happier’ by Dan Harris – featuring fantastic guests on the topics of meditation, Bhuddism, anxiety & happiness
- ‘The Mindful Sessions’ by Sarah Desai (German) – beautiful meditations and thoughtful conversations
If you’re in acute distress: