Like cats and dogs, psychiatrists and psychotherapists sometimes clash over whether certain kinds of low moods are due to an imbalance in brain chemistry or a conflicted relationship with the world. “Is it something inside me, or is it because I didn’t get my bonus this year that I’m feeling so unhappy?” you may ask yourself if a big disappointment is cutting you very deeply. Small consolation to know that even the experts can’t always agree.
As medical professionals, psychiatrists may prescribe anti-depressants for your low mood. Psychotherapists will encourage discussion about how not getting your salary bonus made you feel. Perhaps your salary bonus links to your sense of worth, as well as prompting a painful reminder of being overlooked when you were a child. Undoubtedly, such talk may help you see what is causing your mood to plummet like a dumbbell thrown in water.
Yet anything can set off the blues, from a change in the weather to someone giving us an odd look on the train. Something about them reminds us of that weird sports teacher in school who never picked us for the track team. We are sensitive creatures prone to unpredictable changes in mood.
Research shows that prescriptions and therapy benefit those of us feeling low in roughly equal measure. And a combination of both is more likely to lift our mood than just sticking to one option. However, before calling the doc or therapist, there are things you can do immediately that will either lift you out of a dark mood or prove that you maybe do need to go further for help.
1. Spend down time with friends and family even if it feels hard at first. Often associated with low mood is the feeling that seeing friends is just too much trouble. “I’ve got nothing interesting to say” we convince ourselves, “why would anyone be bothered to talk to me?” When we feel like this it helpful to do the very opposite: being with others, all with problems of their own or even offering some simple but affectionate chat may just provide the mood boost we need.
The benefit: The company of friends unconsciously reminds us that we’re lovable and worthwhile, as well as providing distraction from the grayness of our low mood thoughts. Research shows that people with strong friendships are healthier, live longer and can manage their emotions better than those who feel isolated.
2. Make EGS your night and day routine. The acronym EGS stands for: enjoyment, gratitude and satisfaction. Write down a word or two about simple pleasures at the end of each day: a great cup of coffee that came with a wink from the cute barrista; an old friend getting back in touch after a decade; hitting a deadline in your stride. Keep these notes by your bed and before making you morning coffee read through what you enjoyed, were grateful for and satisfied with from the day before.
The benefit: Low mood-generating thoughts tend to come flooding into our minds when we first wake up. If we can distract ourselves from these with positive memories from the day before we are likely to start our day in a more hopeful mindset. Things weren’t so bad yesterday we think, perhaps things will work out pretty well today, too. Keep up this routine for three weeks and you will be relieved to find your low mood ebbing away.
3. Don’t just sit there! Exercise, even just half an hour of brisk walking, swimming, cycling or running that raises the heart rate consistently (who doesn’t want more sex?) acts as a powerful mood enhancer.
The benefit: Hardly a week goes by without new research confirming the mental health benefits of regular exercise. It is particularly effective at erasing depressive and anxiety symptoms. Feel-good hormones, serotonin and dopamine are pumped into our bloodstream during exercise which powerfully lift our mood. And their effects can last for several hours after the exercise has finished.
4. Drink less booze Drowning our sorrows may have the short term benefit of distraction, but too much alcohol can reek havoc with our overall mood.
The benefit: Alcohol is a well-known depressant. Minimizing the blues-inducing after effects by drinking less or even not at all if you are sensitive to this nasty side effect is crucial to not bringing your mood down any further.
5. Become your own CBT therapist Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective because it exposes our negative thoughts with the brisk gaze of reality. “Of course I didn’t get that promotion, I’m just rubbish,” we tell ourselves, as if everyone we meet is secretly given a press release outlining our incompetence. This just isn’t true. We’ve been employed before. We’ve had jobs in the past. More likely, with this particular job our face didn’t fit. This is no basis from which to accuse ourselves of being “rubbish.”
The benefit: By writing down what our inner critic is saying and challenging ourselves with an honest and fair appraisal we expose this voice for the mean, untruthful character it really is. The potency of these self-critical thoughts can be lessened over time by regular challenges to their truthfulness. We should all keep this mantra in mind; just because our mind tells us something about ourselves, doesn’t mean it’s true.