Hey There Grief Brain, I’m Ignoring You Today.

Creative Coping / Creative Coping : Litsa Williams

I am in a massive writing rut. Wait, let me restate that. I am in a massive rut that has impacted my ability to write (and to do many other things). I would like to blame the slow pace of my posts here lately on our website makeover, but the truth is I just can’t seem to write. If you follow us on Instagram, you probably know I have been cleaning out my childhood home, getting ready to sell it. Needless to say, it has been bringing up… stuff. All sorts of stuff. Literal stuff, figurative stuff, all the stuff. And I have been coping with other losses this year; not deaths (thankfully) but losses none the less. Losses that have hit me harder than I ever imagined, that have kept me in the dark for longer than I wanted to accept.

It isn’t that I don’t have hope it will get better; I do. I have been through this darkness before and I know it can get better. I know it will get better. I know that I am capable of surviving because I did it yesterday and today and I will do it tomorrow. But it doesn’t change the fact that the darkness sometimes feels suffocating. I breathe in and it feels like it is the only thing filling my lungs. Even with the rational belief that it will get better, it doesn’t feel like it will get better. Luckily (or unluckily), when you’re a mental health person you deconstruct your every thought, mood, and action. Through this rut, I have done that… obsessively. I know well why some days it doesn’t feel like it will ever get better:

  • Unfortunately, you can know or believe one thing but feel another. It’s a very frustrating, but very real, experience.
  • As one of our favorite bloggers, Jenny Lawson, says: Depression lies. It tries to shake what you know and replace it with emptiness. It feels like walking through a long, curved, dark tunnel. You believe there has to be an end, but you just can’t see it. Depression whispers in your ear that the tunnel never ends, and that whisper can feel pretty darn convincing.
  • Feeling like it will never get better can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and create a dangerous loop: You feel it won’t get better no matter what you do, so you don’t do anything and it doesn’t get better, so you feel even more convinced it won’t get better, so you keep not doing anything, and on and on.

I put off writing a post for days. Okay, weeks. Okay, maybe a month. Let me walk you through a bit of what was happening in my head before sitting to write this post today:

stick figure with thought bubbles: "i am in no mental state to write a post"; "if i write a post, it will just be garbage. why bother?"; "if i write a garbage post, i won't post it anyway. why waste my time?"

Needless to say, these thoughts had me feeling pretty terrible about writing a post… and pretty close to looking for a Law and Order marathon. But here I am, typing.  ow, you may be thinking, yes you’re typing but you’re not actually saying anything. Fair assessment. This post may be less about saying and more about demonstrating. Sometimes you just have to do SOMETHING instead of NOTHING and hope for the best.

What ALMOST Happened:

stick figure with thought bubbles: "nothing will make me feel better"; "so i won't bother doing anything"; "i knew it, i don't feel better. nothing will make me feel better"

What ACTUALLY Happened:

stick figure with thought bubbles: "nothing will make me feel better"; "that's just a thought, and it might be a lie"; "even if nothing will make me feel better, i am going to type anyway"

Hmm… That drawing shows me smiling. I’m not actually smiling. But I’m typing and that’s something, right!?

But How Did That Happen???

Don’t get me wrong: There have been more than a few times over the past few weeks that I have opted for the Law and Order marathon. What went differently today? I just forced myself to type, no matter how bad it felt [feels]. Grief and depression can create an inertia that feels impossible to overcome. Not more than two hours ago, it felt unthinkable I would be typing right now. As I type, it still feels unimaginable I will generate anything worth posting. But I am determined to target this stupid, evil, bottomless inertia and I am trying to slowly shake it off.

Yes, but HOW???

Welp, that’s the million dollar question. Well, there is no easy answer. I can tell you what some third generation behavioral mental health peeps might suggest, so you know. I remind myself of these things often when grief-brain sets in. Sometimes they help (like today). Sometimes they don’t (like yesterday). But, in the immortal words of GI Joe: Knowing is half the battle.

A proponent of behavioral activation is going to tell me to make a list of things that have been known in the past to make me feel even just a wee bit better. This can be anything, big or small. Don’t get too complicated because you want to keep these manageable—basic things like “taking a shower” are totally fair game if they are things you know help you feel better. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can even rank these things on a scale of how easy or difficult they are and also the degree to which you think they might improve your mood. The goal is to then DO these things when your mood is down, in either a scheduled way or in moments when you recognize you need them. It isn’t always easy, but having ideas outlined helps. The ranking system can also help, as it can be a motivator to think “I can’t do much, but I can probably muster doing something that is only a 1 or 2 on the motivation spectrum”.  Eleanor has written about this before and does a better job explaining it than I am doing here. Because I’m in a writing rut, remember? I will give you a quick one sentence summary though: You don’t need to feel better to do something, sometimes doing something is what allows you to feel better.

A proponent of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is going to tell me: Accept those unpleasant thoughts swimming in your head, and do what you’re going to do anyway. This can be a tough one to wrap your head around, because usually when we have a thought we listen to them: We feel and do things as a result of them. Instead, an ACT therapist is going to tell me I should just notice the thought, that I should simply consider what it is making me feel and what it is telling me to do (or not do). If it is increasing inertia and discouraging me from doing something, I should notice it and say to myself: This is just a thought, it in no way controls my actions or behaviors. I can acknowledge the thought, I am in no mental state to write, whatever I write will be garbage and still say: Those are just thoughts, I can and will open my computer anyway. I can decide to type. I can decide to choose something instead of nothing. Even as I type these words, my brain is saying, This is going nowhere, you’re going to have to scrap it.  And I am saying Yup, okay, probably. But that is just a thought, possibly a lie, and I won’t let it change the fact that I am going to keep typing.

What you might have noticed about these techniques is, unlike posts where we are talking about dealing with emotions from the inside out, these approaches work from the outside in with the simple idea that: No matter your thoughts and emotions, you can push yourself to change your actions. It sucks and it’s hard and your grief-brain or depression-brain might tell you it’s impossible, but sometimes it works. And hey, sometimes it’s the only reason a WYG post ends up in your inbox!

How do you motivate yourself to do something when you can’t even begin to imagine motivating yourself to do something? Comment below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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19 Comments on "Hey There Grief Brain, I’m Ignoring You Today."

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  1. Vicki j  April 6, 2022 at 5:34 pm Reply

    Yes I have days where I don’t do much. When I do do something good I praise myself and right it down in my “brag” book ,and I find that my confidence has increased a little.

  2. Z’s mom  June 25, 2020 at 7:03 pm Reply

    This may have been difficult, but the end result is oh so helpful. I often feel this way & seeing it laid out as you did made me smile knowingly. It’s too damn bad that the world doesn’t adjust itself to our grief brain ups & downs, but a part of me is GLAD it doesn’t. I feel guilty enough already when I’m battling myself to accomplish something…ANYTHING!

    Basically, when I’m fighting myself, I have a list of my ideal day…what I’d do if I was “in the groove.” Then I pick one thing, usually an easy one (like showering) & do it. That & my pets are my gateways into doing other things. If I still feel crappy, I might choose the easy route of playing on my phone or reading a book for the day. If completing one thing makes me feel better, I go for doing something a little more complex. Some days I do VERY little. Others ( infrequently) I’m amazed at what gets done & I feel almost “normal.” Sometimes I’ve even had a string of almost normal days together (rare, but not impossible) & that gives me hope.

    The thing is, even if I’ve had a string of sucky days, a good one can pop up any time. Just like a sucky day can wreck the flow of a bunch of good ones. Nothing seems predictable anymore, so I do what I can. I try to take advantage of the good days to prep for the more difficult ones. (Like grocery shop or prep some easy to fix meals.) It’s been a little over a year & a half. I haven’t starved, been forcibly admitted for a psych evaluation or run screaming into traffic yet. Odds are I will keep learning how to work with this new reality. Especially with the guidance & perspective this group is providing.

  3. Rebecca  June 25, 2020 at 2:03 pm Reply

    THIS is exactly it! I’ve been trying to describe /name what’s been going on with me lately, believing if I could name it, I can tame it. The mental pretzel I twist my brain into with questions so I can identify the problem and thus apply the right remedy and rid myself of this total lack of motivation… and “fix” me. Ugh! The analyzing is exhausting.
    As I read about your list of various therapy theories to apply, asking endless questions, I recognized my thinking process. I remembered something Megan Devine wrote about solving the problem of grief. THAT is where we err, “Grief is not a problem to be solved.” We attempt to solve a feeling issue with logic, reason, and intellect. Over-thinking and getting stuck. Then throwing in a bit of shaming for good measure, like “It’s been 2 years, you should be better at this” or “ I need to do SOMETHING, just one thing!” But this doesn’t help. And no matter what questions I ask, the cause of low motivation or block eludes me.
    If I were supporting a friend, I’d say, “ Of course you’re procrastinating, feeling unmotivated while sorting through your person’s things, getting smacked by every memory each item brings, and endless decisions of where each should go. It’s been months of endless hard tasks of all types that are not fun or motivating. No wonder I lose motivation. No wonder I drag my feet in resistance. This takes longer than we think and is harder than we imagined or expected.
    What I noticed from your writing and others’ comments is the thing that seemed to help is movement. Not thinking harder. But change of scene, taking a break, moving toward the typewriter OR away from it, calling a friend…. a different action rather than returning to the sorting, or forcing the hundredth must-do task. Maybe just for a break, for a revitalization: A movement of body rather than change of mind will help us reset and finally accomplish those hard things that eventually must be done.

  4. a3krause  May 29, 2018 at 8:25 am Reply

    Many years ago, I started thinking about the difference between being a hypocrite and trying to become who I wanted to be. I thought if I didn’t ‘feel’ a virtue, any virtuous action was hypocritical, insincere. But I knew that if I waited to ‘feel’ kindly (for example) before I acted with kindness – it wasn’t going to happen very often! And I really wanted to BE a kinder person. So, I went ahead and just started to act like I wished I felt, and wouldn’t you know, the feelings followed! This changed my viewpoint remarkably. I like what you said, “these approaches work from the outside in with the simple idea that, no matter your thoughts and emotions, you can push yourself to change your actions.”
    I now often need the reminder/help to work on the “inside to out” stuff. And I’ve found your website very helpful since my husband died last summer. Great article! Thank you!

  5. a3krause  May 29, 2018 at 8:25 am Reply

    Many years ago, I started thinking about the difference between being a hypocrite and trying to become who I wanted to be. I thought if I didn’t ‘feel’ a virtue, any virtuous action was hypocritical, insincere. But I knew that if I waited to ‘feel’ kindly (for example) before I acted with kindness – it wasn’t going to happen very often! And I really wanted to BE a kinder person. So, I went ahead and just started to act like I wished I felt, and wouldn’t you know, the feelings followed! This changed my viewpoint remarkably. I like what you said, “these approaches work from the outside in with the simple idea that, no matter your thoughts and emotions, you can push yourself to change your actions.”
    I now often need the reminder/help to work on the “inside to out” stuff. And I’ve found your website very helpful since my husband died last summer. Great article! Thank you!

  6. Sue  August 10, 2017 at 10:27 am Reply

    One tip I used to do: say to yourself – “I will do fill-in-the-blank for 10 minutes.” Set a timer. Often when the timer goes off, I would want to continue to finish the task, even doing dishes by hand. The other ones is promising yourself a reward if you finish something. Having a dog or child or other family member that needs caring for also helps, or a volunteer opportunity that is scheduled, so you “have” to show up.

  7. Cindy  June 20, 2017 at 4:31 am Reply

    Today is my sons 14th anniversary.i really don’t know who decided to use that term regarding the day a loved one dies. Anyway normally I have grief brain thw week leading up and the week after. I usually hide away, turn my phone off, eat comfort food, sleep, read and watch movies but today an old childhood friend of mine buried a very special relative in her life so I forced myself out of the house so I could at least offer her support the way she did for me all those years ago when my son died. I could have easily cancelled, she would have understood but I made myself go and think of her on the day rather than my own grief. You are right sometimes you just have to do something, anything to snap back to existence

  8. Gilda  May 3, 2017 at 1:33 pm Reply

    Wonderful article! Aren’t you glad you wrote it because it is so helpful to me and others, haha!

    My husband died 2 1/2 years ago and I still get grief brain and I see no end in sight. It does seem to come a little less frequently though. I think all of these strategies work sometimes and it is good to try as many as you can. I keep a list in my planner of things to do when I am in “The Dark Place”. One other suggestion I heard but have not tried is to just allow yourself the time to curl up and ignore everything. I believe most of us, after a few minutes or hours or a day, would feel the urge to move on. Sometimes fighting these feelings makes the process take longer. Also, I have tried setting a timer for 20 minutes and just letting myself think about all the bad things and feel sorry for myself until the timer dings then I get up and do something simple to feel an accomplishment.

    It is very helpful to me to know that others have these feelings as well. I often feel I am the only crazy person in the world. Thank you so much!

  9. GC  May 3, 2017 at 3:25 am Reply

    Great post. I had grief brain late yesterday afternoon and my first instinct was to go to bed and binge watch box set. Whilst that has been the right thing for me to do on occasion I decided instead to cook a new recipe. Felt a sense of achievement. Your post reinforces what I think I knew already, its the small steps, the small actions, the minute by minute decisions that can make such a difference to my mood. Thank you for expressing it so well .

  10. Shirls  April 28, 2017 at 8:33 am Reply

    My husband died last July and I am in the process of trying to clear out our home we shared for 35 years with a view to downsizing to a little cottage in a retirement village. I was doing quite well but in the last few days I’ve been feeling just as you described in your article. Thank you for clarifying that all this sorting and delving into cupboards and desks and shelves has stirred up so many emotions that I’ve come to a horrible sort of stasis. There’s stuff I can’t seem to be rational about. I can’t go forwards or backwards or even sideways. All I want to do is curl up under the duvet and listen to audiobooks, nap, rewind and repeat. So tomorrow I have committed to going out to the country for a day to help out on a charity event. Maybe getting out of the house and being surrounded by people will shake me out of this lethargy and anxiety and sadness.

  11. Meg  April 26, 2017 at 6:59 pm Reply

    Thank you for writing such an honest piece – it is so relevant to me and I will print this out to put in my journal. I have days where I am inspired and ambitious where I feel capable and competent which cycles through to days where I feel despaired and incapable of contributing anything of worth which leads to hopelessness. I know these negative thoughts and feelings aren’t truth so I have started tracking my moods and feelings in a bullet journal to look for potential trends. Just documenting them has helped me to acknowledge them more and helps me to keep on going.

  12. Michelle Padula  April 26, 2017 at 6:38 pm Reply

    Thank you for writing this today. I really needed it because I am feeling grief brain for several different things that are going on in my life. One of the things I do when I have no motivation and am depressed or grieving is telling myself I need to do 1 productive thing during these types of days. Usually after doing 1 productive thing I end up doing a couple more. However, there are days I only do 1 productive thing and I accept that and applaud myself for doing 1 thing instead of beating myself up for “wasting a day.” People who are grieving or depressed have to learn to be their own best friends. It’s a struggle every day and if we have to struggle with ourselves instead of accepting our situations it turns into more of a struggle. Accept your circumstance and what you are feeling but don’t let it control you. You are in control of your emotions.

  13. Karen  April 26, 2017 at 5:24 pm Reply

    I really loved this post! It get’s to the CRUX of what we are truly going through. I notice that I feel crappy for a few days and then I have a list of things that must be done; once I am in motion, it is easy to continue to get things completed – but your article was SO PERFECT for me today and I thank you so much!

  14. Sylvie  April 26, 2017 at 3:37 pm Reply

    What are my options? I can fall into the sink hole and let it suck me up, or I can be happy with the memories of my past and move on into the future. I tell myself, I am too strong to allow myself to be a victim of my own emotions. We become, what we THINK . So I force myself to turn up the tunes and dance. You’d be amazed how that gets your brain into a happier place. My motto, JUST DO IT !!!!!!

    (God is always there for me, as He is for you. He is my solid rock, that can get me inspired to do anything).

  15. Abby  April 26, 2017 at 3:21 pm Reply

    I am in a serious rut for EXACTLY the same reason and I feel like you took what has been in my head and put it down on paper. My dad is selling our family house and I am going back home this weekend to clean out my stuff and my moms stuff. I have been dreading this for weeks, it has brought me down to an incredible low and I am slowly digging myself out with the help of my support system (including a great therapist) thanks for just doing it, it made a difference in my day!

  16. Laurie  April 26, 2017 at 3:09 pm Reply

    Thank you for putting words to what I’ve been experiencing – just didn’t know what it was! I have become a master at just doing what I have to do but couldn’t figure out what was going on those times when I felt completely unfocused, distracted, uncentered, and unproductive! It’s something that comes and goes so I know it won’t last forever…and that helps me in dealing with it! As Sheryl Sandburg says, sometimes we just have to “lean into the suck” (quoting her Rabbi)!

    Again, thank you for the insight. And for your wonderful contributions to those of us on this journey.

  17. laurajay  April 26, 2017 at 1:45 pm Reply

    A few things that sometimes helps to motivate myself are: offering a reward or treat, ok if you do X you can get a pedicure or have a cinnamon roll, or I promise myself I can not skip X if I just give it a 10 minute attempt. Sometimes this works sometimes not but its a finite period of time, and gives myself an out if I am really not feeling it. As you know some days you have to take things a minute at a time and just trying for that minute might get me over the hump. For me sometimes phoning a good friend is just what I need to get me through.

  18. MBK  April 26, 2017 at 1:29 pm Reply

    I really love you guys. I wait for the next post like a dog waiting for it’s family to come home. I’m glad you ignored grief-brain today, and it gives me the strength to do the same.

  19. DGJ  April 26, 2017 at 1:09 pm Reply

    Awesome, genuine, practical. I’ll refer to this again and again. A pat on the back for writing such a great entry that will help so many.

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