A few weeks ago, my therapist referred to a recent rough patch I’d experienced as “an emotional cold.” She said it in passing — it was not her point — but I couldn’t help but interrupt. “That’s brilliant. Did you just come up with that?”
“Emotional cold. Is that a psychological term or something?”
“No, I don’t know. But it sounds like what you described!”
She was right. I’d spent a few days dragging my body around like a kid in trouble, examining my life and the world through blue-colored glasses. I’d experienced feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy and social dread. I’d filtered all my decisions through a sieve of doubt as I lay on my couch and let my house get messy. I felt like a mopey version of myself. And then one morning, the clouds parted, and the downturn proved helpful: All the time I’d spent laying low ushered in a surge of energy; all the confiding I’d done with loved ones converged to remind me I was not alone; all my ruminating gave me a material to mine for flawed thinking once I reached the elevation required to see more clearly. I felt…better. Great, even.
But how could that be? How could I feel so low for a spell but ultimately be just fine?
Maybe, as my therapist suggested, I’d just had an emotional cold. A blip that, while absolutely real and challenging, was contained to the ephemeral experience of itself, and did not ultimately implicate my broader emotional health. If a common cold can be natural, inevitable and random, maybe an emotional cold can be too. Perhaps both can offer that rare, almost silly insight into how good it feels to not have a cold, and serve as an opportunity to tend to one’s self.
“Sometimes you just need to lay in bed for a day,” my therapist said. “And then you’re fine.”
In an era of increased mental health awareness, these kinds of assurances are common, but they always make more sense to me in hindsight. From between my couch cushions, it’s hard to see lying around as “taking care of myself” when it feels more like the inability to get up. How do others weather that incongruence?
I posed that question to Man Repeller’s famously even-keeled photographer Edith Young, and she immediately confirmed she experiences pathological bugs: “‘Emotional cold’ is really the best way to articulate that feeling, which I know I’ll to snap out of eventually, though I can’t do it on demand.” She says she does things like recalibrate her sleep schedule, get outside and plan something to chip away at it. “But occasionally there are just drab stretches of days where nothing can get me excited and pop the bubble.”
I heard this kind of acceptance echoed by my friend Yvonne, who’s always struck me as uniquely consistent in her moods. “I DO indeed get emotional colds and love the way you’ve just diagnosed them,” she told me. “I would say generally the thing that helps me with them is: a) trying to pinpoint what it is (sometimes it’s literally just the weather!) and then b) finding a balance between nurturing my cold and letting it run its course without indulging in it too much, by just putting one foot in front of another.” She also cites extra sleep and general relaxation as her way to combat the random blues.
My final test for confirming the normalcy of emotional colds was diagnosing one in my dad, who is the least mopey person I know. I’m not sure I can recall a single time I’ve seen him burdened with a sense of malaise.
“I suspect my even keel-ness is related to the fact that when I am down, or have a reason to be down, I can usually find a positive somewhere to build on,” he told me, confirming what I already knew, which is that he could find a silver lining in a swamp. “In the past, I would say my worst downs have come from things out of my control. If I can effect change in my situation to get over it, I probably would.” In other words, he doesn’t experience emotional colds in how I might define them, preferring instead to hold himself accountable for his moods — and for fixing them.
Hearing him frame it that way was a lightbulb for understanding where I got that idea that I’m responsible for my own feelings: optimism. There is a sense of empowerment to be gained by imagining that emotions are always in my hands, one that I have no doubt I gleaned from my ever-hopeful dad. But it’s easy to see how a more sensitive soul can take that responsibility too far. It’s not always productive to assume your blues are indicative of a deeper emotional flaw or problem. Perhaps sometimes, you’re just under the weather, and your mind demands its own pause.
Considering the efficacy of the emotional cold helped me understand the value of tending to my mental health the way I might tend to my physical health: first with intention, then with forgiveness, and finally with the understanding that some factors are beyond my control. Just because some downturns are worth exploring for clues and action plans doesn’t mean every moody day is a reliable thermometer for my emotional wellbeing. And yours either. That’s just emotional hypochondria. Maybe, sometimes, we all just need some rest.
Illustrations by Audrey H. Weber.