Managing Stress

Why Am I Feeling So Bad?

Seven Questions to Ask Yourself When Something Isn’t Right
Do you find yourself feeling bad—tired, sick, stressed, etc.—on a regular basis?  If so, it’s important that you determine the cause—and Todd Patkin is here with seven questions to "Why Am I Feeling So Bad?"you self-diagnose.

Have you ever noticed that in our society, feeling “normal” really means feeling bad? On a more or less constant basis, we’re stressed, tired, busy, and out of balance. This state of affairs is so common, in fact, that we simply accept it, pour ourselves another cup of coffee (and/or pop another pill), and keep trudging forward on the hamster wheel, knowing that the next day (and the one after that, ad infinitum) probably won’t be much different.

Yes, feeling bad may be “normal,” but according to happiness teacher Todd Patkin, that doesn’t make it okay.

Ignoring how you feel, both physically and mentally, is a big mistake,” says Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. It’s important to pay attention to warning signs before they spiral into something more serious like physical illness, depression, or burnout.

Patkin, who experienced a devastating breakdown at age 36 after ignoring the early warning signs of anxiety, depression, and workaholism, speaks from painful personal experience.

“For years, I told myself that feeling tired, anxious, and overwhelmed was normal,” he comments. “I talked myself into truly believing that these things were an acceptable—even commonplace—tradeoff for professional achievement and living an outwardly successful lifestyle. I was wrong.

“What I learned the hard way—and what I hope you don’t have to—is that we humans aren’t built to endure such protracted periods of feeling bad,” Patkin continues. “But here’s the good news: As we drive ourselves too hard, often in the wrong direction, our bodies and minds set off alarm bells warning us that something isn’t right. We just have to be listening for them, and be willing to take them seriously.”

You don’t have to take your metaphorical temperature every five minutes, but staying aware of how you’re feeling—and trying to figure out why—is a smart strategy. Here, Patkin shares seven diagnostic questions you should ask yourself when you’re feeling bad:

Is it short-term or long-term? Sometimes it’s hard to determine exactly how long an issue has been going on, especially if it started small and escalated over time. For example, perhaps your coworker’s snarky comments and one-upmanship began as a small annoyance, but now, several years after he was hired, you can’t so much as drive past your office without feeling a giant ball of dread form in your stomach. Or maybe you aren’t sure when your migraines started because they were sporadic at first; all you know is that now they incapacitate you on a monthly basis.

Am I getting enough sleep? For many of us, mainlining coffee, stifling yawns, rubbing grainy eyes, and daydreaming about naps is a way of life. Why? Well, for most of us, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, and we (wrongly) believe that all of the other items on our to-do lists are more important than sleeping. We believe that losing a few hours’ sleep is an acceptable price to pay for checking a few more items off our to-do lists.

“While I understand this mentality—I constantly ran on fumes before my breakdown!—the truth is, sleep is a biological necessity,” Patkin points out. “Lack of sleep can make you less efficient, more irritable and moody, more stressed, and more likely to catch whatever cold or stomach bug is going around. And over time, it can contribute to health problems like depression, high blood pressure, and more. So if you aren’t getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night, adjust your routine accordingly. You’ll probably be surprised by how much more productive, pleasant, positive, and healthy you become!”

Is my lifestyle contributing? “Eat right and exercise.” If you’ve heard it once, you’ve probably heard it a hundred times. But often, we ignore this advice. For one thing, changing unhealthy habits takes a lot of energy that we simply aren’t willing to expend. And because we rarely see immediate consequences from eating a double cheeseburger with extra bacon or staying on the couch instead of going to a gym, it’s easy to mentally separate the way we’re living from the way we’re feeling.

Are my relationships helping or hurting? It’s easy to get so used to the people around us that we stop thinking about what they’re doing there. Unless something major happens to shake up our lives, the same friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and (of course) family members can be fixtures for years, or even decades, at a time. However, some of those people might be having more of a negative effect on you and your well-being than you realize. That’s why Patkin suggests taking a fresh look at your relationships to determine if they’re healthy and beneficial.

“The friend who always hands out backhanded compliments, the naysaying coworker, the sibling who never stops complaining, or the in-law who always finds something to criticize—you may think that these people are a mere annoyance,” Patkin comments. “But the truth is, they’re making you feel bad. Toxic relationships act like weights around your ankles, dragging you down and making it much more difficult for you to achieve happiness and health.

“I’m not saying you have to cut all of these people out of your life; just make an effort to spend less time with them, and more time with people who make you feel positive, validated, and confident,” he clarifies. “And in general, remember that in terms of your attitude, outlook, and general happiness level, you will be the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time.”

Is something more serious going on here? Sometimes, feeling bad may seem like a mere inconvenience while actually pointing to a much more serious issue. And to complicate matters, symptoms don’t always point clearly to their root cause. For instance, the annoying headaches and indigestion you experience may actually be the result of stress that’s quickly mounting to unsustainable levels. Or the constant exhaustion you feel might actually be a sign of depression.

“With depression and anxiety disorders in particular, physical symptoms don’t always ‘match’ the illness—and in my experience, men are especially prone to not making the connection,” Patkin comments. “For instance, depression manifests itself differently in men because their emotional circuits and brains are designed differently. So instead of getting tearful, a man who is depressed might become irritable, hostile, and fatigued. He might dive into his work or a hobby until he literally can’t carry on. He’s also likely to blame other people or other circumstances for his problems, rather than admit that he is experiencing troubling symptoms.

“Overall, though—whether you’re a man or a woman—it’s very important to identify and address the root cause of why you’re feeling bad, even if you think your symptoms are explainable or innocent,” he continues. “You need to make the right connections, often with the help of a medical professional, so you can avoid treating the wrong thing.”

Is my medication working? Modern medicine is capable of some amazing things. Today, we can take medication to alleviate pain, control blood pressure, regulate brain chemistry, and so much more. Once you become used to taking a particular medication, it can be easy to take its presence for granted. But as powerful as your prescription might be, it isn’t perfect.

“When you begin feeling bad, take time to evaluate whether your medicine is still doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” Patkin recommends. “Might the dosage need to be re-regulated? Might there be any side effects that you haven’t connected back to the medicine?”

Is my life out of balance? What if the questions Patkin has presented thus far haven’t led to any helpful answers, yet you still have an uneasy, worried feeling all the time (perhaps even accompanied by physical symptoms)? If that’s the case, your life in general may be out of balance. For instance, are you spending too much time at work and feeling guilty about it when you are at home? Are you in a career that doesn’t utilize your strengths? Do the goals you’re working toward really fulfill you, or are you just trying to keep up appearances?

“Do some soul-searching and be honest about which parts of your life are and aren’t working,” Patkin urges. “And keep in mind that despite what society tells us, success and happiness are not always the same thing. Some of the unhappiest people I’ve known—my past self among them—had all of the exterior trappings of achievement. In general, if you aren’t living your life in a way that honors your values and allows you to love yourself, you’ll be out of balance—and you will feel bad in some way, shape, or form.”

“Feeling bad isn’t normal, and you don’t have to accept it as such,” Patkin concludes. “Figuring out what the problem is and addressing it may take time and effort, but I promise, your health, peace of mind, and overall well-being are well worth it.”

Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People, and Destination: Happiness (coming 2014), grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.

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