12 Things to Do When You’re Feeling Awful

Some days, I wake up and I absolutely don’t feel like working or doing much of anything. I feel like curling up in a ball and staying in bed for a while longer, or maybe even all day.

It doesn’t happen real often, but when it does, it can hit me like a sledgehammer. I wake up feeling terrible.

There are a lot of reasons for that feeling, of course. Maybe I have a minor cold or a gastrointestinal issue. Maybe I got a terrible night of sleep. Maybe, for some reason, my brain chemistry is a little off and I’m feeling melancholic. Maybe I’m just unhappy with some elements of my life right now.

My reaction to all of those things is to hide in bed all day, napping and perhaps reading a magazine. That’s fine, of course, but then there’s a counterreaction.

I’m a productive person, and like other productive people, this kind of downtime is incredibly frustrating. I don’t like feeling awful, but I really don’t like sitting around trying to feel better, either. It’s really a double-edged sword.

Thus, I have a strong personal interest in figuring out ways to not feel awful so that I can get back to being at least somewhat close to my normal productive self. I’ve tried all kinds of things over the years, from buying supplements to “rewarding” myself in some fashion. Some things work. Some don’t. This article contains 12 things that consistently work for me.

The most important thing of all regarding feeling awful is this: It’s normal to not feel so great sometimes, but if that feeling persists over several days, you should see a doctor. These strategies are good for fighting off melancholy, minor illnesses, poor rest, and other such things that can be fixed relatively easily.

Why Does This Matter in Terms of Personal Finance?

So, why am I writing about this on a personal finance website? The big reason is that I consider personal well-being to be a key part of financial success. Here are several major reasons for that.

You’re less productive, which over time damages your income. If you’re not feeling well, for whatever reason, you’re going to be less productive than if you’re feeling good. You’re going to be less focused on your work and somewhat less motivated to complete the task you’re working on. Over time, that means a decline in productivity at your job, which means that you’re less likely to receive raises and more likely to see a pink slip if downsizing occurs.

You’re more apt to make bad money decisions when you don’t feel well. If you’re not feeling well, it actually becomes easier to talk yourself into things that you think will make you feel happier and better in the short term. Impulse buys seem more appealing, as does junk food and other things that might bring you a burst of pleasure in the short term but don’t really help over the longer term.

You tend to be in a worse mood when you don’t feel well, which clouds your interactions with others. If you’re not feeling well, you’re likely to have less positive interactions with the people around you which, over time, can degrade those relationships. This can be financially damaging in a professional relationship but can also have a subtle negative effect on personal relationships, too.

To put it in simplest terms, feeling awful not only doesn’t feel good, but it can actually cost you money.

Key Principles

My solutions for this conundrum revolve around a handful of key principles.

It shouldn’t cost much money. The best solution for not feeling well, whether it’s an ailment or a bad mood or something else, is that it shouldn’t cost much money (unless it turns out to be a medical issue). Throwing money at lifting your mood or your physical sense of well being – at least at first – is a fool’s game that won’t help things over the long run.

It should feel accessible, no matter how awful I feel. My strategies for feeling better don’t involve things that are difficult to do at a given moment. You shouldn’t have to reroute major aspects of your life to lift your mood or your immediate physical sense of well being.

Most tactics should be able to be accomplished anywhere. I’m basically able to do all of these things while at home. I was able to do most of these things when I worked in an office environment, too. I can do most of these things when I’m traveling or on vacation or even while waiting for an appointment.

Let’s get on with the strategies, shall we?

12 Things I Do When I Feel Awful

These strategies work consistently for me no matter whether my sense of feeling awful is due to a physical ailment or a sense of melancholy. They’re also directly in line with the principles above. I hope they help you with your moments of feeling awful, too.

I take a shower and brush my teeth. The simple process of getting my body clean seems to consistently put me in a better mood and a better frame of mind.

For me personally, a long shower in which I really scrub my body all over tends to work the best. I try to give every square inch of my body a scrubbing so that my skin all over gets that “tingly” feeling that you get after a good scrubbing.

Similarly, I find that brushing my teeth for a long while – three to five minutes – has a stronger effect on my sense of happiness and well-being than a very brief brushing. In fact, I often set a timer for this or else listen to a song that has an appropriate length.

I change clothes. This usually goes hand in hand with taking a shower, of course, but sometimes this works separately as a smaller step if I’m really feeling in the doldrums or if there is something else preventing a shower in the moment (such as a pressing deadline).

The mere process of getting up and putting on fresh clothes can often trigger a sense in my head that I need to start doing something different today, that simply lounging in bed and feeling bad is not cutting it.

Fresh clothes also tend to smell different – and usually far better – than the clothes I likely slept in the night before. Putting them on shifts my mindset by altering the smells of the environment I’m in, usually in a very good way.

I eat a healthy meal – usually raw fruits and vegetables. I’ll be the last person to dictate exactly what “healthy” means for each and every person, but I find that for me personally, a meal that consists almost entirely of fruits and vegetables tends to leave me feeling better and happier than before.

I personally enjoy eating an apple or a banana and a bowl full of baby carrots when I’m not feeling the best. It’s very simple food that doesn’t feel like lead in my stomach and usually provides some steady energy for a while after eating it.

I go outside for a while. There are a lot of health benefits to being exposed to the sun in moderation, most notably the effect on serotonin production in the brain and the vitamin D production that occurs when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Both of those things can make you feel better.

For me, it’s more than just those straightforward biochemical things. Being outside means being exposed to fresh air and new smells. It means having the freedom to move and explore in pretty much any direction I so choose. It means that my body is moving around much more than it would inside the house.

Going outside provides all of those things at once. Spending some time outside doing something – anything – provides all of those things in abundance.

I get some mild exercise that involves a little bit of stretching. Mild exercise elevates your heart rate and produces more biochemical reactions in your body than you could possibly count. The net effect of those reactions is a sense of well being, a sense that you’re using your body in a positive and productive manner. And that usually feels good.

Personally, I find that stretching my body goes a long way towards producing many of the positive feelings and effects of exercise. I use a healthy stretching routine before I do much of anything physical, including at the start of the day.

Beware, however, that overdoing it can have a negative impact on how you feel. There’s no reason to go out there and kill yourself. While there is a role for intense exercise, it is generally most beneficial in terms of producing long term positive results and it often doesn’t really help in terms of improving one’s mood or state of mind or physical sense of well-being in the short term.

I find that I get a great deal of personal enjoyment out of combining outdoors time with mild exercise by going to a nearby state park and wandering around on the trails. Walking along wonderful nature trails, enjoying mild uphill and downhill trail walking, and simply enjoying the natural world and the sense of my body at mild work is a powerful tool for lifting my mood and sense of well being.

I learn something new. The simple process of seeking out information on a subject that I’m curious about and then stretching my mind to incorporate that new knowledge into my understanding of the world surprisingly does quite a lot to raise my mood. I walk away feeling this mix of mental refreshment as well as a sense of understanding the world better.

I often keep a list of topics that I’d like to find out more about and when I have a chance, I go through that list, looking up the Wikipedia entry on that topic as a starting point and often heading off to the linked sources to learn more.

This simple act of exercising curiosity and improving my understanding of the world makes me simply feel better about myself and the world around me.

I think about the one fun thing I’ve been wanting to do and then I devote an hour or two to just that thing. Usually, there are a handful of enjoyable things that I’ve been thinking of doing lately. Maybe I’ve been thinking about spending time reading a well-loved book. Maybe I’ve wanted to get out the pieces of a board game and learn how to play it. Whatever it is, I set aside some time – usually a couple of hours – and let myself do it, without worry.

Sometimes, I do have something else that I really need to do that’s hanging over my head. In that case, I might not necessarily choose this option first; instead, I’ll simply throw myself at that important task. However, there are times when I’m simply not making progress on that important task, so dialing back for a couple of hours can really make a positive difference for me and for the task I’m working on.

If I’m not under that kind of pressure and I’m just feeling out of sorts, simply doing something that I personally enjoy goes a long way towards improving my overall sense of well being.

I think of the one task that’s been bothering me the most and then I simply do it, no excuses. Often, there’s something that I need to take care of that’s hanging over my head. That stress tends to drag me down, reducing my mood and making me feel even worse.

The best approach to that problem that I’ve found is to simply tackle it head on. I sit down and simply take care of as much of the problem as I possibly can.

If it’s a personal problem, I don’t “deal with it” by spreading rumors or backstabbing people. I handle it directly with that person or else I try to figure out a way to make it a non-issue.

If it’s a project that needs to be completed, I take care of it myself or at least do as much as I possibly can so that the input from others can easily be fitted into place to finish off the project.

Often, it’s just a matter of sitting down and taking care of a straightforward task. Just doing it can relieve some real negative feelings and stress.

Whatever it is, I usually feel far better once I’ve invested the time and energy to actually tackle a problem instead of worrying about it.

I sing along with a song that I know the words to. Music has always had the incredible ability to take me mentally back to a particular place and time in my life. Most of the time, that past place and time is a good memory, a point in my life where I was happy with myself and with the world around me.

Often, by simply playing one of those songs that takes me back there, I feel better. I somehow mine the good feelings that come from that time and place and they bubble up to the forefront of my life right now, lifting my mood and making me feel good again.

I actually have a bookmarked folder with dozens of these songs on my computer. Among them are Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham! (reminds me of my childhood babysitter), Knights of Cydonia by Muse (reminds me of a really great road trip), Birdhouse in Your Soul by They Might Be Giants (early dates with my wife), and Screen Door by Uncle Tupelo (another great road trip).

I hang out with a trusted friend, often with the understanding that I’m not in the best situation. When I’m not feeling the best, sometimes I’ll call up one of my closest friends and just suggest that we do something together, but I’ll usually preface it with the fact that I’m not in the best situation at the moment.

The thing is, most of my closest friends really don’t care. I’ve been there for them when things weren’t perfect for them, so they’re often there for me when things aren’t perfect.

We’ll usually go do something that fulfills several of the ticks on this list. We might go to the park and play disc golf (exercise, outdoors) or simply play a game together. Whatever it is, it usually lifts my mood because a good friend tends to remind you of the best moments in life.

I go on a short road trip. I don’t mean that I travel somewhere, per se. What I do mean is that I’ll drive somewhere for the sole purpose of driving somewhere.

I’ll fill up my car with gas and drive somewhere for a while, going here and there on the backroads. I’ll listen to some of that joyful music on the radio that I mentioned earlier and simply look around at the things around me. I’ll see people in towns and cities living their lives. I’ll see vast quiet stretches of cornfields. Maybe I’ll see rain or maybe I’ll see sunshine.

It really doesn’t matter what I see. What it does is reminds me that I’m not really alone in this world, that in fact there’s so much to this world that I can’t possibly see it all or know it all. I don’t feel alone any more – I feel intrinsically a part of the broader world, and that feels really good to me.

Sure, this does eat up some fuel. It’s probably the most expensive thing on the list. Sometimes, however, it really does the trick. (And by “expensive” I mean that it costs maybe $20 in gas.)

I turn off all electronic distractions and spend time with my family. This is the thing I turn to the most often, and it’s probably the most effective thing on this entire list.

If I’m ever feeling down in the dumps or just not feeling really well, rather than getting lost in my cell phone or a gadget or something else, I turn it all off. Instead, I seek out my children and my wife. I ask them what they’re doing and do my best to get involved with it.

More than anything, I try to focus on the moment of that activity. Whatever it is we’re doing, I try to make that the centerpiece of my mind.

Doing this creates this great sense of togetherness and joy that I really don’t find anywhere else in my life.

Sure, there are times when my loved ones are busy or they’re doing things that I can’t really be involved with, and for those times I have lots of other options for making myself feel better when I’m awful. However, nothing really beats turning off my phone, getting out of bed, and doing something with my family. It’s even better if I take a shower first, put on some fresh clothes, and go outside with them.

Many bad days and awful feelings have been cured by playing backyard soccer with my children or going on a walk with my wife.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.