According to the World Health Organization (WHO) by the year 2020, depression will be the number two cause of "lost years of healthy life" worldwide. However, the cost in human suffering cannot be estimated.
What is the difference between feelings and moods? Both words describe our emotions; the difference lies in how long they last. Feelings are transient; they are caused by the situation that you’re in and can change from one moment to the next. On the other hand, moods can last for hours or days at a time. An uncomfortable feeling often goes away by itself, but a “bad mood” may need some effort to change. In this article, therefore, we will focus on moods, their causes, and how to change them.
What causes our moods?
Moods are caused by both our physical and psychological states. When you say, “I’m feeling good,” you may be describing good health and/or contentment. Likewise, “feeling bad” may describe a head cold or sadness. Teasing out the state of mind from the state of body is a complicated matter because one heavily influences the other.
Nevertheless, there are distinct physical causes to our moods. For example, hunger, low blood sugar levels, and sleep deprivation all cause changes in moods. The body’s energy level also causes changes in mood. Many people feel most energetic and consequently, most upbeat, in the late morning and early afternoon and least energetic in the late afternoon and evening.
On a neurological level, the amount and type of chemicals in the brain (called “neurotransmitters”) underlie many moods. Additionally, activity in different parts of the brain causes different mood states. Finally, hormonal changes are linked to our moods. These changes are most evident at specific stages in life such as adolescence, and for women, menarche and menopause.
It gets even more complicated. Seasonal changes affect moods. The amount of ultraviolet light present has been found to affect people’s moods. During winter, when there are fewer hours of daylight, some people suffer from SAD, or Seasonal Affective Depression. Also, certain illnesses can cause physiological changes that will affect mood states.
Psychological disorders also affect people’s moods. Depression causes a person to feel worthless and to lose interest or pleasure in everyday activities. Bipolar disorder includes the above symptoms alternating or mixed with feelings of inflated self-esteem, distractibility, and restlessness. Anxiety disorder causes generalized feelings of irritability and worry. These are just a few of the many examples of psychological problems that affect people’s moods nearly every day.
How to Improve Our Moods
Our moods often take charge of our thoughts and actions. This can happen anytime and anyplace. For example:
In the car: “Look at that guy! Who does he think he is? Cutting in front of me as if he owns the road! I’ll show him who’s boss. He’ll be sorry he started up with me.” Needless to say, the dominant mood here is intense rage and anger.
At the office: “What’s the matter with me? I can’t seem to make any decisions. Here I am, papers spread out in front of me, and I can’t figure out how to begin. My supervisor warned me that I’d better start handing in my reports on time.” Anxiety seems to have overtaken this worker.
At home: “I’ve been looking at the Help Wanted ads for weeks. I’ve sent out resumes and made phone calls. Not one response. I give up. I’ll never find a job.” This person is feeling desperate, frustrated and hopeless.
What can we do about these negative moods? They can be so overpowering that we cannot think clearly while being held in their grip. As a result, many people turn to alcohol or sugar-laden foods, both of which give a temporary high. These types of “solutions,” however, only lead to worse problems.
Above all, don’t give in to your moods and don’t give up trying to change them. Instead, try some of the strategies listed below. Use your judgment as to which ones work best, alone or in combination, in different situations. Enjoy a new sense of confidence from knowing that you control your moods. Read, practice and strive to become an effective mood-changer.
1. Find an engrossing, enjoyable task. A passive activity such as reading may suffice; if not, choose something that requires an output of physical energy. For example, when was the last time you organized that cabinet in the corner or cleaned out the garage? Your actions will not only distract you from your negative thoughts and feelings, but will also result in a feeling of accomplishment.
2. Exercise. Although organization and cleaning involve some exertion, sustained exercise is better both in terms of physical and mental health. Take a brisk, ten-minute walk. If there is still daylight, you will also benefit from the salutatory effects of the sun.
3. Write. Expressing your thoughts and feelings on paper is a helpful means of connecting with yourself. By sitting alone in a quiet room and writing in a private journal or notepad you will leave your problems behind when you rejoin your family. It is generally not a good idea to burden your spouse or friends with your bad mood. Not only will you be unpleasant company but, when you don’t get the response you want, your mood might very well worsen.
4. Relax. Specific relaxation techniques include yoga, meditation, visualization, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Any one of these exercises serves to reduce tension, slow the heartbeat and improve one’s mood. They are easy to learn, either by reading about them or, more effectively, by joining a class. The key to success is to practice them regularly and consistently.
5. Think in new ways. Cognitive strategies teach you to examine your self-talk, i.e., the constant stream of thoughts that runs through your head. Does your self-talk help you cope with an upsetting event or does it lead to greater emotional distress? If your self-talk is destructive, change it. Ask yourself, “Is this really so horrible?” By doing so, you put the event in perspective and are more rational about it. The end result is a feeling of calm and greater self-control.
6. Develop good sleeping and eating habits. A pattern of seven to eight hours of sleep nightly and regular daily meals will pick up your energy level and enhance your mood. If you find yourself in a bad mood, ask yourself when you last ate, how much sleep you had last night and if you are at a low point in your energy cycle. Take care of your physical health. It’s essential to your mental wellbeing.
Clark, Lynn. SOS Help for Emotions: Managing Anxiety, Anger and Depression. Bowling Green, KY: Parents Press, 1998.
Johnson, Lynn. “Effective Stress Management.” Utah State Bar Journal, August/September 2003. 6 pp. Online. Internet. 30 Aug. 2004. Available: utahbarjournal.com/html/august_september_2003_4.html.
Radcliffe, Sara Chana. “Manage Your Moods Before They Manage You.” The Jewish Homemaker, Purim 57. 4 pp. Online. Internet. 30 Aug. 2004. Available: ok.org/homemaker/purim_57/psychology.html.
About Dr. Mona
Mona entered Barnard College with the intention of becoming a writer. She found, however, that she was more interested in helping people live their lives than writing about them. She continued at Columbia University, where she earned two Masters degrees and a Doctorate in Psychology.
Mona settled and still lives in Rockland County, NY. She worked for many years as a diagnostician and therapist, originally in schools and then in full-time private practice. As Mona’s children grew up and left home she once again returned to her original goal; namely, to help people not only resolve their problems but also reach their highest potential. She thus founded My Family Coach to provide professional coaching to women who want assistance and guidance but do not need therapy.
Mona publishes MyFamilyCoach, a free E-newsletter. She speaks to women’s groups all over the country, introducing them to the benefits of coaching. Mona is a member of the International Coach Federation and the American Psychological Association. Visit her at http://www.myfamilycoach.com .