How to deal with a bad mood


August 29, 2019
Filipe Bastos

Although bad moods are unpleasant, they are not necessarily unhealthy. Bad moods shine a light on the parts of our lives we are dissatisfied with. In many cases, the lessons learned from bad moods can help us to improve our lives.

Not convinced? Let’s explore this idea in more detail.

Why do we experience bad moods?

According to Dr Rosenburg, bad moods occur when our sense of self is somehow threatened. In other words, bad moods suggest we should work on our self-esteem.  

Most bad moods are triggered by an event. This event could be big or small. Let’s look at an example:

You’re in supermarket queue waiting to be served.  A few members of staff are chatting rather than serving customers and this is holding up the queue. You can feel your mood starting to change.

What’s going on here? You may feel anger, helplessness, frustration, and/or shame. The shop assistants’ apparent lack of respect for your time threatens your perception of your self-worth. The weaker your self-esteem, the more likely their behaviour is to bother you.

Everyone experiences peaks and troughs in their self-esteem. So, even people with a generally healthy sense of self-worth will experience bad moods from time to time.

The link between body and mind 

According to Antonio Damasio, an influential neuroscientist, emotions begin in the body, not in the mind.

Imagine you are standing in the queue and being ignored by the sales assistants. Your heart starts pumping faster, your palms get clammy, and your eyes widen. This registers certain emotional responses in your brain such as anger and frustration. Before you know it, you’ve become really riled up.  

The reason we dislike negative emotions is that they can make us feel out of control. We are somewhat “out of control” because our physiological responses occur automatically. And these physiological responses then dictate our emotions (and our moods).

However, Dr Rosenburg says we can learn to “ride the wave” of negative emotions. If we can learn how to do this, our bad moods won’t last for very long.

What are you feeling?

According to Dr Rosenburg, there are 8 unpleasant feelings that can lead to bad moods. These include:  Sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration.

Next time you are grappling with a bad mood, ask yourself these four questions:

  • What event has triggered me to feel this way?
  • What emotions and feelings am I experiencing?
  • From my point of view, what did this event suggest about my self-worth?
  • Have I experienced similar events before?

Once you’ve understood the emotions behind your bad mood, it’ll be a lot easier to work through your feelings.  

Common responses to bad moods

When we are feeling low, we often try to avoid our emotions. Whether we turn to food, sex, videogames, or drinking, the distraction helps to numb our pain. However, distraction usually makes things worse in the long run, because it stops us from facing up to our problems.

Let’s take the example of the frustrated shopper. In his annoyance, he storms out of the shop and lights up a cigarette. The nicotine gives him a temporary release, but it won’t help him reach his long-term goal of trying to quit smoking.

Indeed, research shows that when people are in a bad mood, they prioritise immediate relief over long-term self-regulation. It’s almost as if the short-term pain is too hard to bear.

Dr Rosenburg argues that uncomfortable emotions aren’t too hard to bear. Many people think they are because they’ve never been taught how to emotionally regulate. Part of emotional regulation is learning how to “ride the wave” of difficult emotions.

Ride the wave of emotion

Negative emotions tend to come in waves, and each wave lasts around 90 seconds. Rosenburg advises clients to sit through their emotions, safe in the knowledge that the wave will pass.

In practice, riding the wave is similar to mindfulness meditation or action and commitment therapy. You acknowledge the negative emotion and try to sit with it rather than deny it or distract yourself from it.

If you can learn to “ride the wave”, negative feelings are less likely to result in severely low moods or depressive symptoms. Over time, you will also feel more in-tune with your emotions.

Making changes

In some cases, a bad mood can prompt us to make positive changes in our life.

Let’s return to our example of the frustrated shopper. So, this time, the shopper calmly leaves, resists the cigarette, and acknowledges he is feeling angry and upset. When he delves deeper, he realises he is angry because other people don’t seem to value his time. He spends a lot of time looking after friends and family and often feels taken for granted. The incident in the shop amplified these feelings and further attacked his sense of self-worth.

A healthy response would be to sit down with his friends and family and calmly explain how he is feeling. In addition, he might set aside one afternoon a week for himself – where he can try out new hobbies and interests.

If we take the time to decode our bad moods, they can reveal areas of unfulfillment and unsatisfaction in our lives.  As mentioned, bad moods often suggest we should work on our self-esteem.

Should we try to avoid bad moods?

Bad moods affect everyone at one time or another.  Rather than try to avoid them, you should try to become more attuned with your emotions. The quicker you can register and interpret your emotional responses, the sooner your bad mood will pass.

There is good evidence to suggest bad moods are not bad for our health. Rather, the way we interpret bad moods determines whether they will affect our health. If we consider bad moods to be helpful and constructive, they are less likely to pose a risk to our health.

So, next time you’re feeling low, the question should not be “How can I escape”, but “What can I learn?”.

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