We all have those times when the ground beneath us seems to shift. Something bubbles up from within, be it anger, annoyance, sadness, frustration, offense, or hurt, and our mood darkens like a storm cloud stretching over the sky. A bad mood can feel like a head cold, overcoming us and forcing us to sludge through its symptoms. While we can’t choose the emotions that come up in us, what we can control is how we react to them. So, how can we take control and manage the storms that stir inside us? How can we become more resilient and adaptive when it comes to our moods?
- Explore the Deeper Issues
First and foremost, we have to dig deeper. Anytime we’re in a bad mood, it’s important to not just consider the surface elements of what’s going on but to reflect on what’s really driving this shift in our outlook or emotions. The little things that set us off aren’t always at the root of our suffering. Often, they’re more like triggers for something deeper – the final drip in a well that now overflows.
We all have certain events or dynamics that shake us up that are (sometimes surprisingly) connected to our past. For some, a stressful day at work can remind them of the chaos of their childhood household. The tone of a co-worker can trigger panic or rage. The sound of their child complaining can send them into a new level of irritability they’d only ever seen in their own parents. Getting to know our triggers and why we have them is one of the best ways to help prevent these events from hijacking our mood.
- Silence Your Inner Critic
No matter what the circumstances, more often than not, it’s our own thoughts setting our mood into freefall. Frequently, it’s not just what’s happening but what we’re telling ourselves about what’s happening that makes us feel bad. We all have an internal enemy or what psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone describes as a “critical inner voice” that comments negatively on ourselves and others.
This destructive internal enemy feeds us an ongoing stream of thoughts that tell us things like: “You’re nothing. Just give up. People don’t like you. No one respects you. You should just avoid them. Don’t even try. No one could understand you. You can’t handle this. You’re a mess.” Most of the time, if we think back to the moment when our mood changed, we can identify a slew of critical inner voices that filled our heads just beforehand.
It’s vital to catch on to this “voice” when it seeps in and separate what it’s telling us about ourselves and others from how we actually are and how we want to be. Once we’re in a bad mood, this voice may berate us with mean attacks like, “You’ll never get out of this slump.” If we don’t challenge this inner critic, it can start to influence our mood and behavior. We may snap at a loved one or become really quiet and withdrawn. We may start to complain or feel victimized and depleted, none of which is helpful for getting out of a bad mood.
- Try Mindfulness
Our critical inner voice can lead us to ruminate. Because bad moods can often be the result of ruminating on a problem, issue, thought, or emotion, it’s helpful to find adaptive ways to avoid rumination. “The practice of mindfulness teaches us a different way to relate to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they arise,” said Dr. Elisha Goldstein, author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. Mindfulness practice helps us to acknowledge and accept whatever we’re experiencing without judging it or letting it drag us into a panicky process of cyclical thinking.
Many mindfulness exercises involve learning to focus on our breath. This process can help us feel calmer and more centered in the present moment. As we sit still and bring our attention to our breath, we can notice our thoughts as they pop up, then let them float by, like bubbles, without being carried away along with them. As Dr. Goldstein points out, our minds will likely wander, especially at first, but we can simply notice this wandering without judgment and gently bring our attention back to our breathing. Dr. Goldstein describes mindfulness practice as a skill that improves with time, but he encourages us to stick with it and remember that “practicing is an act of self-care and helps stop the cycle of rumination and cultivates more patience, compassion, and peace.”
- Have Some Self-Compassion
Science has recently revealed seemingly countless benefits of self-compassion. The results from one study by Australian National University suggested that practicing self-compassion can lead to significant improvements and mood and less rumination. Dr. Kristin Neff, a leader in this field, has defined self-compassion as practicing self-kindness over self-evaluation, mindfulness as opposed to over-identifying with thoughts (again, think rumination), and common humanity rather than isolation. Self-compassion involves seeing ourselves through kind, yet honest, eyes.
Instead of focusing on evaluation or singling ourselves out, it allows us to see ourselves as worthy and our suffering as part of the common human condition. We are not alone in our struggle, and we can face challenges. Contrary to some misconceptions, self-compassion does not mean feeling sorry for ourselves or being victimized. On the contrary, it involves seeing ourselves as human. Just as we are capable of mistakes, we are capable of facing these mistakes and making efforts to change without hating ourselves. No matter what’s causing our bad mood, it’s healthy and helpful to remember these three principles and to actively embrace more self-compassion.
- Be Hardy
After conducting a 12-year longitudinal study, researcher Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi and his colleagues at the University of Chicago described a quality known as “hardiness” as “the key to the resiliency for not only surviving, but also thriving, under stress.” Dr. Maddi found three essential traits that make up hardiness: challenge, control, and commitment.
- Challenge describes a person’s ability to view problems or stressors as challenges and opportunities. A hardy person accepts that change and obstacles are a part of life, and therefore, is more adaptive to the hardships that arise.
- Control involves not seeing oneself as a victim who’s helpless or at the mercy of problems. It involves someone having a sense of their own power and a belief that they can influence the course of their life. Hardy people feel they can take actions that will help them achieve goals. This makes them more optimistic, empowered, and hopeful.
- Commitment describes having a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life. Individuals with “commitment” have direction and thrive, rather than just plugging along and “surviving.”
As the American Association of Psychology put it, people who are hardy “turn adversity into an advantage.” They’re able to be resilient in the face of obstacles. They find adaptive ways to move through undesirable circumstances and emerge on the other side. Finding ways to cultivate more hardiness within ourselves offers a much more adaptive way to handle, improve, and react to our moods.
Exercise is a natural way to release endorphins, which can be described as our brain’s hormonal antidote to pain and stress. The release of endorphins in our brain can feel like releasing an army to combat our bad mood. Some people have an easy time using physical exercise to release stress and boost their mood. They may take a daily run or seamlessly tag a yoga class onto a particularly stressful day. Then again, there are a whole lot of us who find it hard to get going, especially when we’re feeling low. Taking that literal first step to be active is usually the hardest step we’ll take. If we can push ourselves, just to get outside, take a walk, get on the bike, or show up to a class, our bodies can fall into a groove that can quickly have positive effects on how we feel mentally.
- Be Generous
A bad mood can direct our focus inward. Once we become stuck in certain thoughts or feelings, be it frustration, worry, or sadness, it can feel increasingly difficult to escape the cycle of negativity that perpetuates our bad mood. To emerge from this self-focused spiral, it’s incredibly helpful to engage in acts of generosity. Whether it’s volunteering for a cause we believe in or simply helping a friend with a favor, the act of looking outward, offering our time, energy, or attention can all be acts that ultimately benefit us and make us feel good.
- Be Around People
We all have moments when we want a little space to collect our thoughts or find a little time to ourselves to relax. However, it’s important to distinguish the alone time we spend engaging in actions that positively lift our mood (think exercise, meditation, a good book, or a rejuvenating nap) from the time we spend taking actions that drag us down (like excessive eating or drinking, rumination, aimless Internet browsing, or a restless afternoon in bed). While, naturally, this list is specific to each individual, it’s often advised for those experiencing a bad mood to avoid social withdrawal. This is especially true for those experiencing symptoms of depression. “In depression, social isolation typically serves to worsen the illness and how we feel,” said Dr. Stephen Ilardi, author of The Depression Cure, in an interview with WebMD. “Social withdrawal amplifies the brain’s stress response. Social contact helps put the brakes on it.” While, of course, depression is a serious mental health condition and should never be confused with just a bad mood, the advice to be social applies to anyone who is feeling down. Meet a friend, call someone who makes you laugh, or simply take a walk in a social space. Again, this can help interrupt negative cycles of thinking.
- Watch Something Funny
It may sound simple, but this is actually something psychologists like Dr. Lisa Firestone advise people to try when they’re experiencing symptoms of depression. The very act of smiling or laughing can improve our mood. One study even showed that forcing a smile can genuinely reduce stress and increase positive feelings. “Play your favorite sitcom, watch a funny movie or read a comical writer,” said Dr. Firestone. “Don’t think of this exercise as merely a distraction, but as an effective tool in reminding your brain that you can feel good again.”
- Seek Help
Sometimes a bad mood is more than just a bad mood. If we find ourselves feeling down on a regular basis or unable to emerge from these feelings, it’s important to seek help. It is always a strong, brave, and unselfish act to take our mental health seriously and find help when we need it. Most individuals can benefit from therapy, and taking the steps to find someone to talk to is, in many ways, easier than ever. There are many resources for finding the right fit when it comes to therapy. Here is just one article on “How to Find a Good Therapist.” Here are some websites that can help you find a therapist in your area:
- American Psychological Association:
- American Psychiatric Association:
- American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy:
- Good Therapy:
GET HELP: IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS IN CRISIS OR IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE HELP, CALL 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
This is a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.
TEXT for help: Text START to 741-741 or visit http://www.crisistextline.org/ to get help via text message.
International readers can click here for a list of helplines and crisis centers around the world.