Some call it the suicide hour. Some call it the afternoon slump; others, the daily doldrums.
I call it My Everyday Melancholy.
Every afternoon, at almost precisely 3 pm, a general sense of unease begins to bear down on me. By 3:30, my edginess hits the roof. Troubled thoughts surge through my mind; if I let them spin out of control, I’m screaming at my husband by the time the 5 o’clock news comes on, and either heaped on the floor in tears or pulling out my hair by 7.
I thought I was alone in this but it turns out that most people experience midday slumps that can range from mild to severe. Fatigue sets in post-lunch, between 2 and 3 pm. Concentration plunges and energy plummets, while depression and anxiety crawl in. One theory suggests that it’s because our morning rush of hormones have receded; another points to lunch itself, and the work our bodies must do to process what we’ve eaten, which diverts blood away from our brains and to our stomachs, leading to what is referred to as “brain tedium.” Other culprits? Our internal body clocks and, as Dr. Michael J. Breus and author of Beauty Sleep explains, “…a dip in your core body temperature…Right before you go to sleep at night, your core temperature begins to drop, which is a signal to the brain to release melatonin. The exact same thing happens on a smaller scale between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. It’s a mini-signal to your brain to get sleepy.”
Sleepiness is tolerable; it’s the combination of apprehension and despondency that I dread most. I usually wake up happy, and I like to think of mornings as the ideal reset button. My body is blissfully rested, and my mind is like a clean chalkboard: I can choose what to write on it, or leave it blank for the day. If we choose the latter or are on vacation (when this harmonious state of mind persists by virtue of having no set schedule), then we can remain centered in our hearts and at peace.
On a regular day, however, that clean chalkboard isn’t just written on by the time afternoon rolls around—it’s filled with fretful, incomplete ramblings, self-critical scribbles, and jumpy, incoherent doodles. By mid-afternoon, we’re physically tired. We’ve run out of positive emotional and mental energy, and outside influences, from the news to the opinions of others and disgruntled colleagues, have polluted our brains. The day seems interminable. We tell ourselves that we are, without a doubt, utter failures, and must push ourselves to do more, no matter the toll it takes on our physical and psychological health, in order to feel justified in allowing ourselves to go to sleep. And some afternoons and evenings, we can’t seem to find the eraser for that chalkboard fast enough—if it even exists at all—and are thrown into a well of uncertainty so deep that holding onto our sanity long enough to make it to bed seems impossible.
There are a number of ways to beat back the daily blues. Beyond the obvious—eating sensibly, avoiding excessive amounts of caffeine, and following a healthy, consistent sleep schedule—I recommend these five tricks:
Stave off an Idle Mind but Be Aware of When Your Brain Needs a Break.
When our minds wander, we run the risk of falling into lethal territories where self-doubt abounds and hopelessness runs wild. To daydream is one thing; to allow ourselves to go down dark rabbit holes is yet another. I have a number of clients who complain that they’re awful at this or that; when I ask when these feelings overcome them, they tend to say they hit in the afternoons, when they’re stressed to finish their tasks before the end of the day. Instead of pausing to revive themselves, they usually try to “push through” their insecurities and their inability to think clearly, which starts a vicious cycle—the less able they are to do their jobs, the more their uncertainty in themselves grows, the greater their anxiety becomes. When you find that your focus is petering out and heading towards dangerous places, take a brisk walk. Switch to another task that doesn’t require the same level of intensity, such as filing, tidying up your desk, paying bills, or watering the ivy on your windowsill. Phone a friend you’ve been meaning to reach out to for the last month, or browse blogs that bring you joy. Most of all, be mindful of your mind. Paying attention to your thoughts is crucial, particularly at the point of the day when you are at your weakest.
Take Three Minutes Every Three Hours to Breathe and Meditate.
It’s no wonder why people in Eastern cultures claim to have a better handle on their happiness than those in the West: They meditate often to cleanse their minds and practice yoga to control their breathing. When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, which leads to dizziness, fatigue, and, yes, the dreaded blues. Meditating throughout the day, as well as stretching, closing your eyes, and envisioning clear light flowing through you, will assist you in controlling your breathing and maintaining optimism and tranquility.
Don’t Overlook Unhappiness.
It might sound ironic, but to be happy we must acknowledge our moments of unhappiness. This is more challenging than it sounds, given thatwe live in a society that demands us to be happy at all times—to admit otherwise is seen as a form of failure. Staying positive is an admirable goal, but it can occasionally work against us: The pressure to be perennially cheerful creates anxiety, and ignoring negative emotions that need to be worked out in order to be overcome ultimately backfires. When you’re down, admit it, own it, and, above all else, act on it. If there’s a problem in one of your relationships, recognize it and work towards finding a solution with the other person. If you’re unhappy with something at work, identify it and look for ways to resolve it. If you can’t shake your gloom, reach out to a trusted loved one for encouragement, advice, and affection. Overall, denying our genuine emotions leads to repression, which leads to larger complications down the line. Nipping it in the bud is almost always the best course of action.
Remember to Just Be.
When asked what surprised him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama said, “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived.” We live in a culture that asks us to be not only positive at all times, but productive as well—and this, too, works against us in the end, in that it can be destructive to our mental and physical well-being. Remaining as busy as possible at all times prevents us from relaxing long enough to see the solutions to problems that might be right in front of our eyes. Moreover, it prevents us from seeing the beauty around us (which is essential to keeping depression and anxiety at bay on a daily basis) and enjoying the fruits of our labor. Which brings me to my next point…
Celebrate Your Victories.
The sheer idea of the suicide hour is incomprehensible to those who genuinely love themselves and award themselves for accomplishments big and small. This is not to say that we should pat ourselves on our backs for every single thing, but we should take pride in ourselves when it’s due. During daily bouts of depression—even if that despondency lasts for only a few hours—we question our self-worth, when we should appreciate the very fact that we have the sense to suspect our station in life in the first place: It reveals that we are aware of our temporary limitations and our higher self is searching for a solution, and we should be proud of having the intelligence and drive to move forward. If you truly want to evolve into the next stage of your life, you will—and there’s no question about that. While you’re on your way, thank yourself for the progress you make, forgive yourself when the journey seems slow, show gratitude for where you live and what you have, and rejoice in your successes.
And if the afternoon blues creep in despite taking the steps outlined above? Take a moment to watch this inspirational video. I might be doing the same on Tuesday at 3.
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