For lots of us, mood swings have become a common occurrence in lockdown. But how to deal? Lauren Martin, author of a new book on mood management, explains how she has worked towards overcoming the feelings that always stifled her.
I’m a woman who feels things deeply— the sting of a remark, the bite of a bad day, the pain of an unflattering photo. I am passionate and sensitive and, at times, fragile. For years, I have been ruled by my moods.
When I was my best self, I was on track. I was doing things that were good for me and good for those around me. I was able to go to the gym, eat healthy, listen intently, be kind. But when I was in a bad mood, all of my worst sides came out. I was sullen, disconnected, withdrawn or overly heightened. I brought the opposite of light, shrouding the space around me in misery. I overreacted, acted out of impulse, misread everything and alienated those I loved.
Try as I might, I didn’t understand what the bad moods were. They weren’t just emotions. They were wider and denser and more complicated than feelings like sadness or anger. They felt like something in between, like the after effects of emotions. The charge that stayed in the air after a bomb.
Neuroscientists have confirmed that emotional responses last for only sixty to ninety seconds, so a mood, technically, is anything you feel after those ninety seconds. Over the past five years, I have spent a lot of time researching and boiling down the tangle of cutting edge science and self-care theories into something I can use. The difference now is that I am no longer controlled by urges, feelings or thoughts. I am no longer a woman ruled by her moods.
Skeptical that this change all sounds a little too neat and tidy when your own moods are a messy maelstrom of emotions that can hijack your day? Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to making complex emotional changes. It took me years to work on my moods, daily baby steps towards longer term results. But in making and practicing these small mood switches, it is possible to begin to rebalance, and start the subtle process of moving from one emotion towards another, more positive feeling. Here’s what I have learnt that had helped me along the way.
MOOD SWINGS: From anxious to anchored
Research shows that women worry twice as much as men, making us twice as likely to suffer from anxiety. Women are also more likely to make connections between bad events in the past and possible negative events in the future.
Anxiety caused by attachment to the past forces the future to push against us, removing us from not just reality, but our own clarity. We can’t function in this state. When we’re anxious, we’re not really living. We’re surviving. We’re holding on, waiting for the anxiety to pass, losing out on our lives.
What helped me? Learning to be present. It’s such a cliché but it’s true: all we have is now. Stay with what’s in front of you. We have to start reminding ourselves that our deep uncomfortable memories, our shame and regret, aren’t bad, but are non-threatening parts of us that make up our colourful history.
Equally, don’t get ahead of yourself. The past has gone, we have no control over the future, so we must concentrate on the present in order to come through.
When I began to focus fully on the moment, two things happened: I didn’t have the time or mental space to worry about the future, and as a result it took care of itself. That’s when I began trusting myself, in a way I never had before. My suggestion is to notice when your mind has wandered – but don’t berate yourself. Only then will that anxious wave begin to dissipate.
MOOD SWINGS: From stressed to determined
If you’re habitually a negative thinker, you typically react to a stressful situation with a threat stress response. For example, if your boss calls you into her office, you might immediately think it’s because you’re getting fired. Your blood vessels constrict and your level of the stress hormone cortisol creeps up and stays up— even when it turns out your boss just wanted to check in.
What helped me? Viewing stress as a challenge. If you typically see something stressful as a project to be tackled – and then you complete it - the blood flows to your heart and your brain and you experience a brief but energising spike of cortisol. It’s not easy to begin with, but this small shift in perspective, like a new language, will become ingrained over time. Try replacing the phrase ‘I have to’ with ‘I plan to’, it’s a small difference but it will begin to shift your perception of your to-do list. This will help you to find motivation, even excitement, for the task ahead, focusing on new adventures and experiences rather than overwhelm and fear.
MOOD SWINGS: FROM DEPLETED TO DECISIVE
We lead busy lives – and there is always something to do. No wonder, then, the mind becomes full, wandering during 47 percent of our waking hours, with brain activity in the frontal lobe sparking up every time we try to rest. Our memory, cognition, and learning are all housed in the part of the brain that jumps into gear when we try to turn off. Known as the default mode network, it’s why when you walk to the station, your brain automatically starts to recall the past, or why when you’re taking a shower, you remember what you forgot at the supermarket.
However, our minds are not superhuman, and willpower is a finite resource. Like energy or strength, the more willpower we use throughout the day, the less we have later. It’s why we find it harder to go to the gym after work. It’s why we’re cranky when we’re tired. It’s why we struggle to curb bad habits, and why we tend to make our biggest mistakes when we’re too drained or burnt out to take time to evaluate situations. This mood is depletion, the result of continuous action and forced suppression – and it makes life feel harder.
What helped me? Treating myself. Psychologists have conducted numerous studies on how we can replenish self-control when we don’t have the time to let it refill through rest and relaxation. The quickest and easiest way to recharge my battery was something I thought I knew how to do but was actually terrible at: treating myself.
Positive mood or emotion can counteract ego depletion. It sounds simple, but think about how hard it is to get yourself into a good mood when you’re in a bad one. We’re so used to the state of stress and depletion that we’re actually uncomfortable out of it. Yet if we had more moments of pleasure throughout the day, we’d have more strength to deal with the annoying, painful ones.
So, what drains you and what refills you? What are those things that make you happy? What puts you in a good mood when the day seems to be headed toward meltdown? Think about establishing new rituals - small, mundane things you allow in your routine that give you moments of peace and renewal. Things like taking a walk during your lunch break. Treating yourself to a manicure. Buying a new book. Running a bath on Sunday night. Taking the time to indulge in moments of pleasure is not selfish; it’s restorative.
MOOD SWINGS: From self-critical to self-acceptance
There is no agony like feeling ugly. No pain like that of an unflattering photo. In an instant, the world becomes a cruel, inhospitable place. No woman escapes experiencing this darkness. I know because in 2016, Dove launched a study to find out if female anxiety and body image were linked.
Surveying more than 10,500 women from thirteen countries, it became the largest comprehensive study on self-esteem to date, and its findings were unsettling. In Japan, it found that 92 percent of women dislike their bodies, followed by 80 percent in the UK. Additionally, 85 percent of the women surveyed stated that they chose not to do important life activities—such as trying out for a team or spending time with loved ones—when they didn’t feel good about how they looked. I understood that too well. So much of my life was dictated by how confident I felt, and all my confidence stemmed from how good I thought I looked.
What helped me? Practicing appreciation. Find a photo of yourself from two, four, five years ago. Look at it and tell me you don’t admire yourself there. Tell me you don’t feel that pang of regret for having wasted that part of your life feeling ugly. By being overly aware of ourselves, of what we look like, what we have, or what we don’t have, we stifle and block ourselves.
If you want to remove yourself from your ego, you may also need to eventually remove yourself from Instagram. I know, it’s like saying you need to eat kale or go to the gym more. We’ve heard it, we know it, we don’t want to do it. As a starting point, you can edit your feed and take out the people who don't make you feel good about yourself; only following those who make you feel happy and accepted.
Personally, instead of deleting Instagram completely, I started an account, Words Of Women, that would make me feel better. Anything I found that made me think about something differently, anything beyond looks that made me feel excited to be a woman, was posted.
It wasn’t just about making women feel something good while scrolling on Instagram, it was about making women change the way they thought about everything. It was about introducing a new way of being. And with enough time, we can rewire our brains to see not just ourselves but our lives in a more positive light.
Edited extract from The Book of Moods (John Murray) by Lauren Martin, out now
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