Prescription for a Bad Mood

The Problem

As a hominid (if you are reading this, you probably are one), you – like the rest of us – are subject to bad moods. Our moods are in a constant state of flux, and can be affected by many factors, including:

– Whether or not we’ve eaten
– What, and how much, we’ve eaten
– How much sleep we have (or have not) gotten
– The quality (or lack thereof) of the sleep we did get
– Any physical pain or discomfort we may be suffering from
– The behavior of other hominids (!)
– A million or so other things, some of which we may have some degree of control over, but many, or most, of which we probably do not.

It’s easy to get down on ourselves – even if it’s unfair, unreasonable, or unhelpful to do so. It’s easy to be frustrated by our circumstances, the state of the world, or simply not getting what we (think we) want at any given moment. This is very much part of the bipedal experience (if not also the quadrupedal, or any-other-pedal [or lack-of-pedal] experience). As far as I can tell, no one is immune.

While it occasionally may come in handy to be in a bad mood (such as when we use it to elicit sympathy from others, or to excuse ourselves from some unappealing task, chore, or prior commitment), for the most part, none of us would consciously choose this state.

Yet, it shows up. And, by definition, we are none too happy about it.

So, if bad moods are inevitable, and we can agree that they suck, what – if anything – can we do about them?

I like this question. Tackling it puts me in a better mood. 🙂

The Solution

Here is the good news about bad moods:

1) Like everything else in the known world, they don’t last. They are temporary. They will pass. Thank goodness.

2) It is possible, at least sometimes, to disrupt or even dismantle a bad mood through taking some deliberate action to counter it.

3) It is also possible, at least sometimes, to use a bad mood as a catalyst for positive action.

My recommendations for tackling bad moods all boil down to this: be prepared for them.

Do this by creating your own personalized menu of mood-lifting activities. Like any chef/restaurateur, you can add or subtract items from your menu as you see fit. The idea, though, is to assemble a list of go-to positive things to do that you know, from experience, will help you feel better.

Then, keep this menu close at hand.

And make sure, as is the case with any good menu, that it contains enough variety. Sometimes not all of the ingredients for a particular item will be available, or in season. You might also get tired of always ordering the same thing, no matter how good it is.

One of the notorious aspects of a bad mood is that our decision-making skills are compromised when we are in one. This is the purpose of having a menu. You won’t have to dream up solutions on the spot. You’ll have already done so, from a much better frame of mind. Of course, as delectable as its offerings may be, no menu can deliver a satisfying meal on its own. A selection must be made, and action in that direction taken.

Getting started – overcoming inertia – is the hardest part. It can be challenging enough to motivate ourselves under the best of conditions, let alone when we are cranky, irritable, or downright depressed. But if you can get past that hurdle and initiate action, you can then ride the glorious wave of momentum and very likely transform your mood as a result. The more you build experiential knowledge of things you find genuinely helpful, the more you can draw (and act) upon this, even when you are feeling really lousy:

“I don’t feel like doing ANYTHING right now, but I KNOW (from experience) that I will feel better if I do this.” And, so, you do.

Taking action based on this deeper understanding of yourself, rather than succumbing to or even wallowing in misery, is the embodiment of wisdom and maturity. When you do this, you are utilizing your capacity to respond rather than simply react. It’s a skill that, like any other, is developed, and strengthened, through practice.

Important note: You don’t want to beat yourself up on those occasions when you find yourself unable to muster up the resolve or the wherewithal to do this. Welcome to humanity! (Self-compassion is what’s called for in these instances – another skill that may require a good bit of practice). But you do want to acknowledge yourself each time you are able to pull this (pretty incredible) feat off. After all, you are building fortitude, character…perhaps even destiny-shaping self-determination. You are reinforcing highly desirable neural pathways with each “rep”. Each success in this regard, however seemingly small, is a triumph of the will, a victory for the soul (however you care to define that). It is a proclamation of power over circumstance.

Guidelines for Your Menu

Here are some general recommendations for things to include on your menu:

1. Take Care of the Basics: Nutrition & Sleep. Sometimes something as simple as eating well, hydrating, or getting sufficient sleep is all that is required to subjugate irritability. Be sure to make regular self-care a top priority.

2. Exercise/Move Your Body: Just begin. Your mood will likely change for the better before you’re even aware of it. As for specifics, find what you like. Experiment. It could be yoga stretches, stair-climbing, dancing, weight-lifting, gymnastics, or just getting outside and going for a walk. In my opinion, exercise is the easiest/quickest/most sure-fire way to overcome a bad mood (assuming #1 above has been addressed). It is something you can do alone, with a partner, or in a group setting. Best to have a bunch of options on your menu from this category, to suit every conceivable occasion (such as access [or lack thereof] to workout equipment, other people or classes; varying weather conditions, etc.). In a mere twenty minutes, a miracle can sometimes transpire mood-wise.

3. Connect: We hominids are social creatures. We crave connection. So, connect. Call a friend. Visit a friend. Exercise with a friend. Talk to someone new and make a friend. There are few gifts in life like friendship. A friendship need not be lifelong, either. A daylong (or even shorter) kinship, created solely through shared circumstance, can be immensely valuable. Also, connections need not be limited to other hominids. Connect with a pet (yours or someone else’s). Visit an animal shelter. Befriend a member of another species, if only for an hour. Let your mood be transformed through beneficent interaction.

4. Lift Someone Else: One of the most effective things on my personal menu for overcoming a bad mood is to volunteer. Specifically: I play music for hospital patients (and their families and friends, hospital staff, etc.). It’s an awesome gig and privilege. I don’t even have to adhere to a schedule. I can pretty much just show up with my guitar and do my thing, wandering from room to room as I please (and, of course, as people are receptive). The hardest part, hands down, is getting my ass into the car and getting myself there. But each and every time I do this, I end up having a fantastic time. By brightening someone else’s day (not to mention playing and singing, which in and of themselves are mood-bolstering),*I* feel better. It’s a win/win scenario. There are countless ways to lift other people, limited only by your imagination. If you’re at a loss for ideas, Google “random acts of kindness”.

5. Spend Some Time in Nature. (Self-explanatory.)

6. Lighten Up/Laugh: Laughter alters your body chemistry. It feels good. Norman Cousins claimed to have actually healed himself from illness through, in large part, laughter therapy. Watch Groundhog Day or The Big Lebowski, or go to YouTube and find videos suited to your particular funny bone. 🙂

7. Listen to Music, While Doing Nothing Else: I have a distinct memory from my teenage years of being utterly miserable over who-knows-what (okay, I have many such distinct memories, but I’m thinking of one in particular). I was in my room, and I sat up on my bed wearing a pair of headphones, and put on The Beatles’ White Album (probably at a pretty high volume). By the time the first side (of the vinyl record) was over, I was cured. It felt like I had taken some kind of miracle drug. I’m not sure why this particular listening experience was so powerful, but it probably had something to do with the quality of my attention (and the fact that it was the White Album couldn’t have hurt). The music wasn’t simply on in the background, though; I was immersed in it. I remember feeling invigorated by the sheer creativity, exuberance, inventiveness, and spirit of these ridiculously talented lads from Liverpool. I had gone from a “1” to a “10” mood-wise in almost no time. Great music has, over the years, moved me so deeply on so many occasions. It is perhaps the ultimate means of human expression and communication. Without question, it has healing properties. It’s powerful, powerful stuff.

8. Write Something. It could be a journal entry, a poem, a song, a letter, or a blog post. Sort out your your thoughts. Redirect your attention toward solving some kind of problem or tackling some creative challenge. (Alternatively: bake something, draw something, paint something, repair something, organize something.)

9. Get Some Perspective. To paraphrase something a friend said to me recently: We’re on a rock circling a ball of fire that doesn’t even register as visible if you get far enough away from it (not far, really, by the scale of outer space), and which itself is only here for a short while in the bigger scheme of things. In other words: Relax. And enjoy the ride!

***

I am by no means infallible at putting all of this into practice, but I find that the more experiences I accumulate doing the above kinds of things – and feeling better as a result – the more likely I am able to use them as self-prescribed interventions when I am grumpy or ornery.

And, of course, a bad mood is not a prerequisite for doing any of these things. Make your own menu items staples of your life and you might drastically reduce the frequency of bad moods to begin with. As Ben Franklin famously put it: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Conclusion

Nothing I’ve mentioned above is all that revolutionary. You probably already know all of this stuff. But sometimes a reminder is helpful. That is the whole point of having a readily accessible menu. The mere power of suggestion is often our tipping point into action. Advertisers count on this fact, so why not use the same psychology on yourself (but in your own best interest)?

In short, by attending to your body and refocusing your attention you can improve your mood, sometimes rapidly and sometimes profoundly.

I’m always interested in hearing what works for other people, and adding items to my own menu if I find that they work for me. So, feel free to share what you find to be effective in combating your own bad moods in the Comments section below.

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3 Responses to Prescription for a Bad Mood

  1. Ilana Weiss says:

    Wow, very pragmatic! I like it.

  2. Joanne Baker says:

    Very nicely written! I’ll add a few — baking cookies, sitting down with a nice glass of wine and look at the sunset, or taking a bubble bath. How about a bubble bath with a glass of wine. And nibbling a few cookies at the same time. Tho’ with the drought in LA, I don’t know about the bubble bath. Think I’ll just have the cookies!

  3. Samatha says:

    Thanks Eric, a good reminder. You are definitely better at this that I am. Staring at the wonky geometric shapes of succulent plants in my potted plant garden, noticing how they grow, and what kind of wierd-ass flowers suddenly sprout out of them, and how I can re-pot and rearrange them. Listening to the sound of water in my water fountains in the garden, while looking at my plants and the little pugnacious hummingbirds that fight over the feeder, they crack me up. Sewing, painting, hiking, dancing, designing, rearranging to make something visually pleasing. Generally initiating something active, it helps if the action is fun. However, this weekend I broke my bad mood by cleaning and organizing, fancy that. It was the feeling good about accomplishment rather than enjoying the task, but hey what ever works right!

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