7 things to do to reverse a downward spiral

Wendy Castleman
Nov 27, 2017 · 5 min read

Why is it that bad things tend to beget more bad things? Have you ever caught yourself in a downward spiral? How do you stop the freefall and climb out from the inevitable depression and complaining that go along with it? I recently wrote an email to someone who’s life hasn’t been going well lately. She’d lost her job, her spouse, and has some family drama going on. Now, as a single mom, she’s panicking because she’s not getting the job interviews she’s expecting. After giving her some career advice, I wrote the following. I thought it might be useful for others, so I decided to make it into a post.

“I am concerned, however, that your desperation and misery might be scaring people off. As you may have noticed, you tend to distance yourself from people who take your energy down and bum you out, whereas you are attracted to people with lots of optimism and energy. We all do. It’s a human thing. SO, even though things have been tough, it’s time to focus on possibility and hope. I’m going to suggest some counter-intuitive things that have worked for me to turn my own downward spirals around in the past. Perhaps some of them will help you. They certainly won’t hurt.

1. Make a list of 100 things that are going well for you in your life. Nothing bad, nothing negative. Just the good stuff. Although it may feel like all hell is breaking out and everything is falling apart, in fact there is always some good. These can be big, amazing things (like a healthy child), or tiny little things (like that you tied your shoelaces, a stranger smiled at you in the street, a butterfly crossed your path). Write them down. Do this all in one sitting. It could take some time — so pour yourself a cup of tea, or whatever you find relaxing. Then, EVERY DAY add 10 more/new items to the list. I keep this all in a journal, but you can put it wherever you’d like. When you are feeling sad in the future, look back through the list and remind yourself of some of the good.

2. Create a “mood board” or collage of what you want your life to be in 10 years. How old is your child? Add 10 years. What will your lives be like, if everything turns out ideally? How do you want life to look, feel, sound? What things will you get to do? How will you spend your free time? What will your work be like? Put it up somewhere visible in your house where you will look at it every day. Visioning the future is the best way to take the steps towards attaining it.

3. Start a new exercise routine. No, really. Go hiking, running or dancing almost every day. Moving your body helps move your mind and reduce stress. 15 years ago, when my ex and I broke up and I lost my house and cat and job, I spent every day for 3 months hiking and thinking and healing. When I emerged from that sabbatical, I was clear and focused and optimistic about the future. The past year and a half, I started running 3 days a week. When I started, I could only go a few minutes at a time. Two weekends ago I ran 19.3 miles in a back-to-back 10K and Half Marathon. I listen to audiobooks when I run (VERY SLOWLY, most of the time), particularly ones that help me think more aspirationally. Try listening to one of these 3 books: “You are a Badass”, “Pivot: The only move that matters is your next one”, or “The subtle art of not giving a f*ck”. Seriously, they’ll at least make you laugh, and might help you gain some new mindsets and perspective.

4. Take an Inspiration Day every week. On this day, you’re task isn’t to look for work or run errands. It is to find and experience inspiration from elsewhere in the world. I do this about once a month, but I encourage you to do it every week until you are working. Here are a few places in the Bay Area that I’ve gone that helped me see things differently and be inspired: I spent 3 hours going VERY SLOWLY through everything at the Walt Disney Family Museum, I went to Japantown in San Francisco, checked out the goofy photo booths and other techy-weird stuff. I went to Filoli and wandered around…try sketching (I tried watercolor paints, which I did really poorly, but it got me to stop and observe) while you are there. I found free events that I could attend, especially about things that had nothing to do with what I work on. A key is to go into each inspiration day with your researcher mind, looking for patterns, things that spark ideas, understanding and connection.

5. Schedule walking dates. This gets you towards networking, but think of it as just reconnecting. Schedule a date each week (or more than one) for a lunch hour walk near where some of your friends and former colleagues work. Invite them to walk with you. Talk about what THEY are doing, what their challenges are, what is inspiring them. Make it about them, not you. This is a variant on meeting someone for coffee, but it’s free and unique and feels awesome when you are done.

6. Volunteer. Go work at an organization that helps people. Donate your time, be around others. It will help you feel like you are making a difference.

7. Brainstorm things you can do to supplement your income. NOT the big job you are hoping to land, but some small things that you can do that will give you a couple of extra bucks here and there. It’s insanely easy to start a business (think Etsy), write a blog and monetize it (add google Adwords — yeah, I haven’t done that, but I hear that it can trickle in some cash), sell stuff you don’t use on Ebay, find an unmet need and offer to solve it for a small amount of $$ (like helping someone clean and organize their closet), sign up to be a baby sitter (with the agreement that you can bring your kid along), get a part-time holiday job at Kohl’s, do some freelance design research work, drive Uber while your child is in school …. This is about empowering yourself to not feel entirely dependent on the hiring managers for your cashflow. Yes, you will probably drop it all when you get work (or maybe not! Lot’s of folks have a side-gig). Okay, I have to admit that I did a ton of this kind of stuff early in my career, but then I put a huge effort into saving as much as possible when I was working in industry — so now, my buffer is just my savings. That said, I do make buttons on the side just for fun.

I wish you all the best.”


I have been accused of excelling at this life thing. I don’t know about that, but I have faced and overcome many battles and barriers to live a life that I love. I recently started a coaching business, primarily focused on design research and innovation coaching — but a sprinkling of life coaching too. Every week I am adding tools and trying to write regularly. Check out my tools and subscribe to my newsletter to get a monthly summary of everything I’m creating, writing, offering and pondering.

Wendy Castleman

Written by

MasterCatalyst, Coach, Facilitator, Wife, Mother, Dreamer

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