What to do with a low mood?

For the posts on my website I like to consider themes I encounter in my work life.

A theme from this week was what to do with low moods. It popped up in a couple of trainings as an explicit question. I was asked directly what I do when I am in a low mood.

My initial response was sleep. Get through the remainder of the day, cause as little damage as possible and go to bed. Sleep is the single best reset switch I know of (exercise/movement a close second). By extension, any habits or practices that improve sleep (e.g. early light exposure, sleep hygiene practices) mean I have this tool at hand when I need it.

I then mentioned some mood enhancing activities, that is, doing the things I find fun or meaningful. For me that would be gardening or immersing myself in tech videos.

I finished by suggesting that patience is a great strategy. If you are gentle with yourself, get on with life as best you can, most emotions/feelings come and go. A lot of the suffering that comes with difficult thoughts and feelings comes from the worry or fear that they will set up home permanently and we’ll be stuck in that headspace for the rest of our lives. But, as any slightly annoying meditation teacher will tell you – thoughts and feelings come and go like clouds in the sky, leaves on a stream or buses at the exchange. They have a half-life.

The idea that emotions have a ‘half-life’ (i.e. degrade significantly in intensity over time) was one I got from Sam Harris. He’s spoken about mindfulness as a means of shortening the half life of difficult emotions. Something annoying happens, we get angry. We can ruminate on that anger and sustain it for hours if we want, but we can also simply note its presence and give it permission to leave when it needs. When we do that we discover that the natural half-life of anger is kinda short. Instead of pursue the story that the anger tells us to (e.g. seek retribution), we can instead ask ourselves ‘who would I really like to be in this moment?’ and decide our next action based on that, leaving the emotion/feeling to head off when ready. This concept of values-based action in the face of difficult experiences is a core of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Its existence means this capacity can be trained.

Creating the capacity to let difficult thoughts and feelings come and go, doesn’t stop them arising in the first place. And it isn’t clear to me that you’d want to stop them. I needed to get angry in response to an injustice this week, to remind me to stand my ground. I needed to feel sad during moments of loneliness to remind myself to nurture important relationships. Emotions and feelings carry messages, but having delivered them, they serve us best by leaving and not contaminating too much our response. They are part of a rich stream of experience (thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations) that we can tune into to guide actions and decisions, but we generally don’t need to stop that stream and cling onto any specific ones. In mindfulness practices, you train to get less caught up in the stream. Some of our best moments in life are actually when the stream quietens and we are immersed in a valued task (flow).

Accordingly, the title question question could be flipped to be “what should I not do with a low mood?”. It is when we get wrapped up in a particular mode of thinking or feeling, that our choices can lack wisdom. Feeling down? Pour an extra few glasses of wine. Feeling anxious? Withdraw a little further from friends and family. I’m not suggesting that a few glasses of wine or time alone are terrible choices, but we can often tell, in the moment or after the fact, whether the coping strategies we employed at the time of difficult emotion were effective, adaptive and sensible. Thus the goal during a low mood might be simply to resist rolling out coping strategies we know don’t help.

One way of doing this is to try to stay connected to the tasks, jobs and responsibilities you were doing before the negative mood emerged. I say that with the caveat that some self-kindness and self-acceptance is appropriate given that we might not perform at our usual level, if the mood is particularly low. ‘Get on with it’ is the empathy lacking version of this idea. ‘Keep going, one step at a time’ feels a little kinder. One really valuable lesson I learned in my work life is that I can do many of my work tasks at a decent 60-70% of normal, even when I am caught up in a big feeling: anger, sadness, fear. Big feelings don’t need to derail everything*

* This brings me to my final point. One of the signs that we might need assistance with difficult thoughts and feelings is that the patience idea isn’t really holding up. That despite our best efforts, these difficult experiences won’t budge. At that point, the wise choice is to seek out the advice and support of experts. These experts may take different forms: counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, allied health professionals, mentors, doctors, trainers. It is in these interactions that we learn new methods of coping and managing. It is in these interactions that we can find ways to reset our nervous systems. It is in these interactions that we can discover that it is in relationship that much of human healing occurs.

Have a great day…

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