We’ve all been there: Things are just fine, and then suddenly your mood hits the
skids and you think, Ugh! How did that happen? Your mood is a balance of your thoughts, environmental influences (such as where you are and who is around) and life events as well as your physiological state (are you cold or hangry, or do you have to pee?). A change to one or more of these factors could take you for an unscheduled — and unpleasant — emotional ride. Here are seven common sour-mood scenarios and how you can move through them to a better headspace.
THE SITUATION: Your friend vented to you, and now you feel bummed.
This is a case of emotional contagion, an incredibly basic (even primitive) phenomenon. During conversations, humans naturally tend to mimic their companions’ facial expressions, posture, body language and speech rhythms without being consciously aware of it, says Elaine Hatfield, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and coauthor of the book Emotional Contagion. The incremental muscle movements involved in this mimicry (say, furrowing your brow, or frowning after a friend does) trigger the actual feeling in your brain by causing the same neurons to fire that would if you were experiencing the emotion.
This contagion effect has a purpose: to make us feel empathy for those around
us, which bonds us as a group; some people, called empaths, seem to feel more of it than others. “But absorbing your friends’ emotions isn’t going to help them or you,” says
Judith Orloff, M.D., a psychiatrist at UCLA and author of The Empath’s Survival Guide.
MOOD BOOSTER: Take a break from the conversation to clear your head, even if it’s just to go to the restroom. Then consciously remind yourself whom the emotion rightfully belongs to — your friend, as much as you love her — and that the best thing you can do for her is listen without trying to fix things.
THE SITUATION: You keep going over and over a problem and you still feel Grrrr.
It may sound like a good idea to think through a knotty problem thoroughly, but sometimes when you do this you’re actually not problem-solving, but ruminating. Ruminating is mulling or obsessing about a situation until your thoughts replay like a broken record in your mind. “Rumination is hard to resist, as you think you’re gaining insight into yourself — but you’re not,” explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness. Because you’re just spinning your mental wheels without getting anywhere, this can worsen negative feelings and sap motivation. Two rumination red flags: feeling an unpleasant emotion (like anger or anxiety) while you’re thinking, and coming back to the same thought over and over again instead of moving from one idea to the next.
MOOD BOOSTER: Distract yourself by reading or watching something absorbing, listening to music or going for a brisk walk. Also, set aside 15 to 20 minutes later in the day (just not right before bed) to pour your thoughts and feelings into writing or chat with a trusted friend about the problem; then map out a plan of action to turn rumination into problem-solving. Beyond unburdening yourself, “you may find that your problems aren’t as overwhelming as you initially thought they were,” says Lyubomirsky.
THE SITUATION: You’re so stressed all the time.
Sometimes “feeling stressed” is a secondary emotion — a reaction to another emotion. For instance, frustration over a moved deadline and feeling hurt by a backstabbing friend can both cause you to feel stressed, but the primary emotion is frustration or feeling hurt. That’s important, because “at a granular level, emotions contain information about our lives and what we care about, so labeling an emotion accurately helps you discern what is really going on for you,” explains Susan David, Ph.D., a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Emotional Agility.
MOOD BOOSTER: Ask yourself, What does “stressed” feel like right now? Identify the underlying emotion, then question what is making you feel this emotion. For instance, we often feel strongly when our values are being challenged or corrupted in some way. Maybe you’re feeling frustrated at work because you’re underappreciated and that makes you feel bad about yourself, David suggests. Once you’ve figured out the root of your emotional turmoil, consider steps you can take, such as strengthening relationships at work, developing new skills or talking to a supervisor about taking on a new project. Even
if you can’t do anything about the situation, David adds, the intensity of your feelings will be somewhat lowered because you’ve named and framed them accurately.
THE SITUATION: You feel guilty about not feeling happier.
Give yourself a break. Meta-emotions — feelings about having particular emotions — are quite common. If you’ve ever felt sad about feeling anxious or embarrassed about feeling weepy, you’ve experienced a meta-emotion. We essentially judge our own feelings or “see them as saying something about us,” explains Kristin Neff, Ph.D., an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. We do this for different reasons, but it’s not uncommon to be told as a child that perfectly normal feelings such as being angry are somehow wrong and interpret that to mean you’re bad, she says. The truth is, emotions naturally come and go; they aren’t an indication of our personal worth or character.
MOOD BOOSTER: Recognizing your feelings and holding them gently without judging them is a skill that takes time to master, says Neff, but trying a mindfulness meditation app such as Headspace or Calm can help you just observe what you’re feeling. “Give up the illusion that you should be in total control of your feelings,” says Neff, and the feelings will pass. Then be kind to yourself. “Think of what you’d say to a friend who came to you with the primary emotion — you’d probably validate her feelings and show concern for her suffering in the moment, then comfort and reassure her,” says Neff. Reminding yourself that it’s OK to feel what you feel will help you stop feeling bad about feeling bad.
THE SITUATION: In challenging times, your mind goes straight to worst-case scenarios.
When we catastrophize — assume the worst possible outcome — our brains believe they’re preparing us for what’s coming. However, this way of looking at things can actually up your anxiety, so reframing your thinking is the way out. The idea isn’t to sugar coat your thoughts, but to give them a reality check and put things in proper perspective, says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., director of the Stress Management & Counseling Center in New York City and author of Stress Management for Dummies.
MOOD BOOSTER: When negative thoughts take over, ask yourself, What’s the evidence that this is true? How could I look at this in a more positive or neutral light? This process is known as cognitive restructuring, and it can redirect your mood, explains Elkin. Then try to brainstorm solutions or look at the bigger picture. If you’re in danger of being late with a work project, for example, you could explain to your manager what’s holding you up, apologize and ask for an extension. Or, you might give yourself a pep talk and focus on how capable you are under pressure or how you usually complete things on time.
THE SITUATION: You experience the blues at certain times of year.
Changing outdoor light or fluctuating temperatures can affect your emotional well-being, especially if they alter your sleep patterns, eating habits or exercise routine. That’s because our bodies are still tuned to our original alarm clock, the sun, and daylight (or lack thereof) plays a key role in hormones that affect mood, sleep and energy levels. Other cues, such as the anniversary of a loved one’s death or a divorce, can also trigger feelings of loss and sadness in which “emotions can bleed from the past to the present,” explains John Sharp, M.D., a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of The Emotional Calendar.
MOOD BOOSTER: Think about what smells, sounds, sensations or other environmental factors might be at play as well as instances in which you have felt similar in the past. “Becoming aware frees you up to figure out how you want to position yourself going forward,” explains Dr. Sharp. For example, it might help to remind yourself that the feelings you’re experiencing belong in the past and then engage in deep breathing to center yourself. Or, give yourself a little extra TLC by treating yourself to a spirit-boosting activity. If lack of daylight is at the crux of your mood shift, take a brisk walk in the afternoon sun, and consider a light therapy lamp for the winter.
THE SITUATION: You’ve started feeling irritable or angry seemingly out of nowhere.
It happens to the best of us: The day seems hunky-dory, the none small comment from a family member throws everything off. But if this is a regular occurrence for you, you owe it to yourself to suss out the true triggers. Anything that affects your hormones (including perimeno-pause, a new medication or a change in your sleep schedule) or your blood sugar (you forgot to eat, for instance, or to take your diabetes medicine) can cause sudden, unexpected mood changes. So can exposure to certain people or places.
MOOD BOOSTER: Ponder whether physiological issues or environmental factors (like beingat your ex’s house to get the kids) could be affecting your mood, David advises, as well as whether you’re taking care of your body. “Slow down and look at the patterns of your mood changes and see if you can identify difficulties you’ve been experiencing in an ongoing way,” says David. Note emotions, habits and interactions with people or places. Once you know what’s setting you off, you can correct your course — perhaps by improving sleep habits, moderating caffeine intake or establishing boundaries with difficult people. “Don’t discount or push aside your emotional experiences,” David says. Be curious about them so you can steady them and feel better.
Anxiety and anxious feelings can’t always be resolved on your own. It’s crucial that you seek out a professional treatment option if anxious feelings have made it impossible to carry out your day — a therapist or licensed mental healthcare provider can help you resolve any symptoms.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Good Housekeeping. Subscribe here.
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