Bill Watterson once said “I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood”. Sometimes it feels strangely good to wake up on the wrong side of the bed, scowl at the dog and frown all the way to work. I guess feeling sad, depressed, grouchy or otherwise out of sorts can remind us that we are alive. The less wonderful moments can also make the bright days look even brighter. But what happens when moods overtake your life and start running the show? Friends and family may start getting burned out, your work may suffer, not to mention it’s hard enough to hang around yourself sometimes.
In this article, I will be addressing several aspects of a person’s life that impact moods and then showing you how to create your own treatment plan. There is a good reason why you are feeling this way, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do something about it.
Though my job is to work with thoughts and beliefs that get in the way to you achieving your optimum level of mental health, I would be lying if I said that depression is merely a psychological disorder. Imagine your body/mind/spirit as somewhat of an ecosystem where every part is vital to the overall health of your being. Mood swings, depression, bipolar or other disorders are all a result of imbalances in your overall system. The imbalance may be physically generated, it may be generated by your thoughts or beliefs, the result of stress, or it may be the result of your environment.
I will first be addressing the physical aspect of your moods. I have done a lot of my own research in this topic, but do not claim to be an expert. I encourage you to consult a qualified doctor (I have found that naturopaths seek to find the cause of symptoms, while standard regular doctors simply manage symptoms). As your brain is part of your body, it needs optimum fuel and oxygen to work properly. If you can imagine your body as a car, imagine how your car would run if you put substandard fuel in it (eating poorly), smother the air supply to the engine (by not getting enough aerobic exercise), or driving it non-stop in stop-and-go traffic (not keeping your stress level in check). Would you expect your car to run well if one of it’s major parts was broken (health issues)? Unfortunately, much of the food that you see in the supermarket and advertised on television is simply not good fuel. Imagine going to the store and trying to find something without simple sugar in it (that includes corn syrup and fructose).
Excessive sugar intake (the typical U.S. diet) is associated with cancer, early aging, mood problems (as it destabilizes your blood sugar), to name a few. In addition, many people are actually allergic to very common foods such as corn, wheat and milk. For myself, I found that my mood improved considerably and my skin cleared up after cutting wheat and milk from my diet (3 years later, my doctor complimented my bone density. He told me that green vegetables are actually a better source of calcium than milk). Are you drowning your system with preservatives, hormones, stimulants, allergens, alcohol and sugar? No wonder you feel dragged down all the time! Try eating 75% fruits and vegetable and make sure you eat proteins and complex carbohydrates primarily with the rest of the 25% (check out the alkaline diet). Yes, you can splurge sometimes, but keep in mind that you are trying to keep the impact of low-grade foods to a minimum.
Anyone who struggles with moods (or ADHD for that matter) should be exercising at least 45 minutes at a time, 4 times per week if their physical condition permits it. Yes, it may feel like a hassle and there are probably at least 10 other things that you would rather do. Think of it this way, once you exercise, those 10 other things will be more fun, because you will have endorphins running through your body (your body’s way of thanking you for taking good care of it). Many people in the Pacific Northwest have serious Vitamin D3 deficiencies (associated with depression, low metabolism, fatigue, low immune functioning etc). This can easily be supplemented next time you stop by the grocery store.
You may have some kind of medical illness or chronic pain, which can significantly impact your moods. Where possible, get those things checked out by a thorough doctor (do not settle for doctors who write off your concerns unless of course you have issues with hypochondriasis). For people suffering with chronic pain, it is important to do everything possible to fix the problem, not just to manage the pain. If you have exhausted all of your resources, you may try hypnosis which has been known to be an effective, drug-free pain reliever for many people.
One thing that I’ve found with people who use substances to deal with their problems is that it can cause serious depression, mood swings, psychotic disorders and anxiety in the long run. Don’t get me wrong, the occasional night out on the town and the rare drowning your sorrows is probably not going to have a serious impact. However, if your way of coping is to numb yourself out or alter your awareness by chemical means, over time, all of those built up feelings that you never dealt with will get pretty big-not to mention you never grew through the experience or fixed the real problem. If you have a history of chronic drug dependence (I find that people who were addicted to methamphetamines or heroine (also oxycontin and other opiates) have the worst time getting their “happy” feelings back)) you have altered your brain’s ability to produce and/or assimilate endorphins. If this pertains to you, know that it will take time, healing and taking extra good care of your body to operate normally.
Another important aspect of mental health is your environment. Do you live, play or work with someone who is toxic and/or draining to be around? They may put you down, dump all of their problems on you, manipulate you, emanate negativity, or otherwise drain your energy. If so, understand that being around unhealthy people can impact your health without you even realizing it. If you find that you are tired or low every time you are in a certain place or around a certain person, try limiting or eliminating contact with that person or place. Part of your environment also includes the shows that you watch on television and the types of books that you read. Do they paint a dark picture of the human race or celebrate cruelty or low behavior? Look at what you are exposing yourself to on a day-to-day basis. You may need to make some changes to reduce the negativity you are exposing yourself to.
How far do you commute to work? Is it stop-and-go traffic? Do you believe in the mission of your work? Do you have anything to look forward to or to work towards that you can feel excited about? Are you constantly given more work than you can handle? Again, it has become the standard in the United States to just accept a long, stressful commute, to work a soulless job and to trade material wealth for your own health and happiness. It may be the standard in this country, however I believe that the stress load on the average American citizen is the cause of much of our health/mental health and societal breakdown. Do some research on the causes and symptoms of burnout and see if it applies to you.
Another factor is trauma. Some people who have been exposed to events or chains of events that were overwhelming can burn out their adrenal system. If you have been through something catastrophic or otherwise extremely overwhelming and have found that since then you were never quite the same, try seeing a naturopath about possible adrenal exhaustion. Adrenal Exhaustion can cause chronic fatigue, mood swings, feelings of being overwhelmed, panic attacks, lethargy, depression and a host of other health problems. It would also be worthwhile to consult a healer of some kind to resolve the trauma. This topic will be discussed in more detail in future articles.
If you eat properly, exercise regularly and do not have any medical issues, it may be worth looking into whether your thoughts are contributing to your moods. From thinking negatively, beliefs we may have carried around for years, to worrying too much, thoughts are powerfully related to our emotions.
THOUGHTS AND BELIEFS
I see three messages that are common to the culture of the United States that I believe are contributing to mood disorders, namely perfectionism, addiction to comfort and the idea of “normal”. On television, we are constantly being given messages that in order to be a good parent, good spouse, worthwhile human being, or in order to belong, we must purchase this or that product. We are also given the message that in order to be like everyone else or to fit in, we must be able to afford a certain lifestyle. As a result, we are given subtle messages that until we reach these standards, we are not good enough.
Perfectionism and Shame-Based Manipulation: Of course,there will always be more products to buy. There will always be one more thing that you need to do in order to measure up to everyone else. Basically, standard marketing strategies establish a need by establishing a condition upon your self-worth, inclusion or happiness. Once the “If….(I have this, lose this much weight, have this degree), then…(I will be good enough, my parents will be proud, I’ll be part of the gang, I’ll be a good parent) is a part of your way of looking at the world, you can be manipulated easily to buy what they are selling you. Parents often manipulate their children into doing what they want in a similar way (“If you do everything that I say and don’t ask questions, then you are a good kid. If you ever say no or question my authority, then you are a bad kid”). This is called “Shame-based parenting”. Ask yourself if you have ever experienced shame-based advertising, shame-based parenting or even a shame-based work environment. You may be surprised how often you are exposed to it.
How does shame-based manipulation by parents, advertisers and other authority figures affect your psyche? Basically, it robs you of your sense of self-worth and replaces it with a pseudo (condition-based) worth. It tells you that just as soon as you jump through their hoops, you will be good enough, when in reality your worth as a human being had nothing to do with those things. If you are alive you have worth. What happens when people realize that they will never reach the so-called summit, or that the summit is as empty as the journey? Often they fall into hopelessness and despair, saying to themselves things like “What’s the point? I’ll never make anything of myself. I’m worthless, no good, a loser”. Putting conditions on your sense of self-worth is at the heart of perfectionism-a useless and endless journey.
Procrastination is often the result of the perfectionism. Some people have such impossibly high standards for themselves that they are terrified of making a move at all. When they fail to accomplish these goals as a result of their perfectionism, they generate depression-producing thoughts such as “I knew I’d never make anything of myself, I’m lazy, I’m a loser, I can’t…etc”.
In order to cope with this sense of worthlessness, some people create grand and unattainable goals in order to somehow make up for their lack of “measuring up”. They might feel high at the prospect of finally being worthy when they achieve that goal (as hopeful thoughts create happy feelings). Unfortunately, feelings based on fleeting or inaccurate thoughts are bound to fail. As the person watches themselves falling short of another unattainable goal, they often fall into despair. I believe that this type of belief can contribute to the development of Bipolar Disorder. If you are allowing yourself to accept someone else’s conditions for your own self-worth, you have allowed yourself to be controlled by them.
Addiction to Comfort: Do you remember Pleasure Island, in the story “Pinocchio”? The boys all willingly went to an island where they were given everything for free. They were given beer to drink, cigars to smoke, and free reign to vandalize or please themselves the way they wished. As time went by, they all began to turn into common arses. At that point, they were placed into carts and sold as slaves. We are often given the message that life should be convenient and easy-that riches should come easily. How many quick fixes do you see around you every day? From losing 20lbs in 2 weeks, to taking miracle pills, to the winning the lottery, we are given a message that we shouldn’t have to feel pain or work hard for what we want. What kind of situation does this create (see my article “Pain is Good For You”). It creates a lot of unhappy slaves who have sold their true potential for a pseudo life (avoiding pain and expecting results without effort). If a person believes “I shouldn’t feel pain. I should be rich, thin, successful and shouldn’t have to work hard for it”, it would be pretty discouraging to live in the real world wouldn’t it? That person may fall into self-pity if life doesn’t effortlessly hand them what they are told to expect. Self-pitying thoughts can send someone into a depression or angry episode.
If this applies to you, I encourage you to embrace your pain instead of avoiding it. Shift your focus away from what you take from the world, and focus on what you can give. I believe that this “It’s all about me-anything goes” attitude is the true cause for our country’s current economic and social woes. I also believe that if we could focus our attention back on helping each other, we would have the best chance of getting out of this mess not to mention improve our level of true happiness.
The Illusion of Normal and Belonging: We are a tribal species, which means most of us want to belong to the pack and most of us want to fit in somewhere. In the old days, people were literally in tribes and had much stronger family ties. The need for belonging remains, but the social structure has broken to a point where people are not getting adequate connection with others. Advertisers and companies have used this need to further their agendas over the years. “Join our team!” they subtly say, and people in their lack of social connection can trade what they need (close connections) for pseudo-connections (associations with work, products etc). Unfortunately, you can’t trick your true self into being happy with a false tribe. You need connections to be happy. Pretty much everybody does.
CONNECTION BETWEEN THOUGHTS, BELIEFS AND ACTIONS
In order to demystify feelings, I will briefly go over the process your mind/body goes through when you are faced with a situation that impacts your emotions.
It starts with a situation, which includes what actually happened. As you encounter the situation, you interpret the situation to mean something. That interpretation causes your emotion, and from that emotion, you have an impulse to act a certain way.
For example, say I am driving down the street and someone cuts me off in the road (situation). I can interpret this situation in a number of ways, which will produce a number of different emotions. For example, if I interpret this situation to mean that person is a total jerk, I will likely feel angry and want to tailgate, swear and honk at him/her. If I think to myself maybe that person is having a bad day, I will likely feel more compassion and give them room. If I interpret the situation to mean that everyone cuts me off because I’m a loser, than I am probably going to reinforce my depression and want to do something self-destructive.
Emotions are primarily caused by our interpretations of events but as you can see, interpretations are highly subjective. Therefore, one of the best things you can do to help yourself keep your emotions in check is by keeping your interpretations in check. Remember, there is always another way to look at a situation. Gather the facts and look for alternatives. People all have “lenses” that they use to see the world, which are based on their upbringing, experiences and personality. True freedom lies in beginning to become aware of those lenses and see them clearly. This is where therapists often come in handy, but you can also get some good feedback from honest family and friends about where your hang-ups are.
After reading this article, you can likely identify some areas that you could change to get yourself back on track. Here is a step-by-step guide to create your own treatment plan.
1.) Grab a piece of paper and separate it into two columns, one saying “I can” and one saying “I have”
2.) Think about the things that you have identified could use work, and list only the things you CAN change in the “I can” column.
3.) Write a list of everything you have going for you right now and everything you are grateful for.
4.) Circle the most important areas of your life that you can actively work on changing right now.
5.) Make a plan and stick to it for one month, then note how you feel at the end of the month. Make a schedule and stick to it every day, remembering to reward yourself for doing a great job.
6.) For pesky negative thoughts, you may try this simple behavioral plan. Do wall sits or pushups every time you think negatively, self-critically or otherwise unhelpfully. Remember to affirm your new decision frequently (ie “I am already good enough”).
In summary, there is a lot of information to take into account when learning to be the boss of your moods. Don’t think you have to do it all. Each aspect that you identify and actively work on can really make a difference. Nobody follows all these guidelines all the time, but the more you do, the happier and healthier you will become. What do you have to lose?