Long Distance Relationships And Emotional Whiplash
I often hear people compare being in a long distance relationship to being on an emotional roller coaster, and there’s a lot of truth in that analogy.
Long distance relationships give you long periods of “standing in line”—full of anticipation as you wait to be reunited.
Then there is the slow climb towards a reunion—your heart in your throat, feeling excited, nervous (maybe even a bit sick), but so intensely alive, all at once.
There is that sweet still-spot when you’re together—perfectly poised between greeting and goodbye—looking out over the world.
But it’s all followed, of course, by a quick plunge to the depths, and here is where the analogy starts to break down. Long distance relationship farewells are rarely thrilling and scary. They’re mostly just depressing, and that up and down cycle of reunion and farewell can give even seasoned long distance riders some serious emotional whiplash.
We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all ridden that surge of intensity and emotion right up to a farewell, and then crashed down emotionally after the goodbye?
So what can we do to take care of ourselves when we’re in the depths—stuck at the bottom of the roller coaster feeling depressed about life and love? Are there strategies we can practice to may help us navigate those sudden shifts from sweet togetherness to solitude more gracefully?
Yes, there are!
During the last twenty years, a growing number of psychologists have started focusing on flourishing and wellbeing, instead of mental illness, stress, and other things that make us unwell. This research is is yielding some interesting findings—pointing us to things we can do that will make us happier and healthier.
If you practice these ten strategies (especially if you do them over time) they can help buffer you from the worst of the emotional whiplash that comes with long distance relationships. They can shorten the amount of time you spend stuck at the bottom of the roller coaster, depressed. They can help make you happier, healthier, and all-around stronger.
Ten Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier
1. Practice gratitude
Did you know that on a day-to-day basis, most people are better at focusing on and remembering negative experiences than positive ones? This is called the negativity bias.
The good news, however, is that we can fight this negativity bias and rewire our brains to think more positively. And if we teach ourselves to scan our environments for good things, this will improve our mood in the short term and make us happier over time.
Here are two ways to do this…
Every day for a week, take a moment to say thank you to someone for something or to recognize someone for their efforts and contributions.
Or, every evening for a week, try writing down three good things that have happened that day and think about what caused them to happen.
Research has shown that even just a week of doing one of these two exercises will usually deliver a happiness boost that lasts for months.
2. Do something nice for someone else
Did you know that doing something nice for someone else usually makes youfeel happier? So, look for ways to make someone smile, or do something thoughtful for someone.
Any stressed colleagues need an extra cup of coffee or a snack? A special treat for the kids? Can you do something extra to help out on the home-front? There are probably a thousand ways to be nice to people around you once you really start looking for opportunities.
3. Exercise more
Did you know that exercise has such a fundamental impact on wellbeing that it has actually been proven to be an effective strategy for helping overcome depression?
In the short term, as little as 20 minutes of walking changes your brain activity, causes a shift in hormones, and improves mood.
Over time, exercise acts through multiple pathways to help improve your emotional and physical hardiness. This makes you more emotionally robust and less vulnerable to stress, injuries, and illness.
4. Spend time with someone important to you
Overall, having good relationships with others is probably the single most important contributor to your happiness. Even for introverts, time spent with family and friends makes a big difference to how happy they generally feel.
Time spent with people you love is never wasted, so make time for that shared dinner or coffee. Pick up the phone or power up Skype. Write an email. Reach out to people you love and invest in those important relationships.
This is especially important to remember when you are in a long distance relationship, because there is an ever-present temptation to withdraw from other relationships in your life. When your partner is around it’s tempting to isolate yourselves to you can concentrate exclusively on each other. And when you’re apart it can feel like too much effort to seek out other company.
Don’t let yourself fall into this trap!! Don’t let other important relationships in your life wither away while you’re focusing all your energy on your long distance love. That will only hurt you (and ultimately your relationship) in the long run.
5. Get more sleep
If you’re feeling glum and you can’t put your finger on why, part of the answer might be that you’re not getting enough sleep.
In their book, NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how sleep influences mood and our capacity for happiness:
“Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories get processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.”
So don’t idle the midnight hours away cruising on the internet when you’re feeling low! Turn the lights off and go to bed. You’ll feel much better for the extra sleep.
6. Do something meaningful
It makes us happier and healthier when we feel like we’re part of something worthwhile and more important than just ourselves—something that involves a sense of mission, a community, and shared goals.
What gives your life meaning? What do you in life that is more important that just yourself? Do you find meaning in family, work, religious faith, community, political causes, charities, or professional or creative goals?
Sometimes the most meaningful things we do in life are also highly engaging and creatively fulfilling (e.g., creating art). Other times, however, the things we would point to as meaningful in life feel more like plain old hard work than pure joy most of the time. (Raising young kids, anyone?)
If you know what you value most in life and what you find most meaningful, that can help you make decisions about where to invest your time and energy. It will also help you view your work and other efforts as worthwhile, track progress, and feel more satisfied.
7. Celebrate progress
Do you feel like you’re making progress in work and life?
The Harvard Business Review article, The Power Of Small Wins, suggests that: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
This holds just as true for someone who is working full time in the house as it does in the office. In fact, it can be more challenging to feel like you are making progress when your primary role is raising young children and running a household.
If this is a challenge for you, start here: What are things you accomplish during a normal day/week that you tend to discount as achievements? In other words, what are other things you do that you could celebrate as accomplishments, but generally don’t.
Also, think about what helps you feel you’ve made progress (to-do lists, going after a small win before tackling a larger task, setting goals etc.)
And remember, this progress doesn’t have to be major triumphs. Minor, incremental steps forward—the small wins—can evoke outsize positive reactions.
8. Go outside
Research that Shawn Achor described in The Happiness Advantage has found that spending as little as 20 minutes outside in decent weather not only boosts positive mood, but also broadens thinking and improved working memory.
So unless it’s sweltering or freezing outside, take your lunch break outdoors. Or kill two birds with one stone and go for a brisk walk.
9. Practice mindfulness
While you’re outside, pause for a couple of moments and practice beingmindful.
Mindfulness is about focusing your awareness on the present moment. It’s about paying attention to what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. It’s about acknowledging your feelings, thoughts, and sensations, and accepting their existence calmly, without judging.
Mindfulness helps train you to be more present in your life, and to notice what your bodies and our minds are telling you. The practice of observing your own thoughts and feelings from a distance can help you learn more about how you tend to react to everyday events and to suspend judgment and self-criticism. It can help you respond to pressures more calmly, put things in perspective, and help you feel more content to “be” in a moment instead of rushed or overwhelmed by your to-do list.
10. Nurture positive emotions
At first glance this last point might seem like circular reasoning—like I’m telling you to feel happier by… feeling happier.
Come to think of it, I sort of am. And the funny thing is, it works.
Did you know that experiencing positive emotions does more than grant you the temporary gift of a “good mood?” Feeling positive emotions also colors your memories of the past and your expectations of the future. Experiencing these emotions helps you enjoy the present, look back on the past fondly, and feel hopeful and optimistic about the future.
Feeling emotions such as happiness, joy, hope, affection, gratitude, surprise, confidence, admiration, anticipation and peace influence everything from the way you approach problems to the way you approach your partner.
These emotions create a positive upward spiral that helps strengthen relationships, energize you, and inspire you to be more creative, think more broadly, persevere, and make more changes. In turn, these things can breed more positive emotions. Win win!!
So go looking for things and experiences that create these emotions, but be smart about it.
The happiness you feel eating several pounds of chocolate, for example, is bound to be short-lived. The night after you farewell your love, you might want to stick to one small bar of chocolate, a hot bath, and a comedy DVD.
And when you’re in a long distance relationship, anticipating your next reunion can be a sweet pleasure. Spend too much time doing this, however, and you’re likely to find that anticipation morph into a less healthy obsession or simply sharpen the pain of your current separation. So tell each other what you’re looking forward to about your next reunion (we all love to hear that someone can’t want to see us) but don’t spend all your time thinking and talking about this. Make sure you find other things to talk about, too.