Emotions play a central role in our experience of being human. In fact, our emotions are often important messengers about how we need to respond to the world around us. Fear warns us we might be in danger, joy tells us what to move toward, and guilt motivates us to make amends if we have made a mistake. Our emotions are ultimately trying to keep us safe. They do this by influencing our behavior. We tend to blame our emotions for our suffering at times, but if we can learn to understand and work with them skillfully, they can become invaluable tools.
For those struggling with chronic stress and burn-out, low mood or depression might actually be the body’s way of protecting them, by slowing them down to conserve energy. While we may need rest and recovery from stress, sadness and depression can begin to interfere with our goals and quality of life if we don’t respond resourcefully to them. We may get caught in negative thought spirals, start isolating, or feel hopeless, making us less likely to find opportunities that would naturally improve our mood.
Many of us are tempted to “wait until we feel better” to help ourselves, but the longer we passively wait, the more stuck we can become and the harder it can be to “crawl out of the hole.” We might experience a “downward spiral,” and can feel increasingly out of control. This is where proactively creating an “upward spiral” through small behavioral and mindset changes can be beneficial. It is true that how we feel influences what we do. But the reverse is also true. What we do directly impacts how we feel, and we have much more control over what we do than how we feel. It can be challenging and unfamiliar to shift gears when you have been functioning with a low mood, so these approaches may be helpful in getting started:
- Accept where you are and be compassionate and gentle with yourself. It is common to feel judgmental with oneself while struggling with mood and motivation. We cannot judge ourselves into a better situation, however. When we are kind and gentle with ourselves, like we would be toward a good friend, we lower our stress response and have more resources available to us for achieving our goals. Be your own biggest cheerleader, instead of your biggest critic.
- Focus on the smallest, most reasonable first step you can take. You don’t need to plan a trip to Disney World to elevate your mood, even if it is the “happiest place on Earth.” It may feel too overwhelming to think about going outside for a walk around the block. Instead, identify what does feel available to you in this moment. Maybe the first step is just standing up from your couch. The idea here is to simply create momentum in the direction of your goals.
- Get off your ‘buts.’ One simple tool when it comes to behavior change is replacing the word “but” with “and.” You may be thinking, “I’d love to exercise, but I just can’t get off my couch.” As soon as you say “but,” the option to exercise is off the table. If instead you could tell yourself, “I’d really love to exercise, and I just can’t get off my couch,” that may feel a bit different, and your options might open up. Now there is a problem to solve: Getting off the couch. Our emotions, moods, and urges do not have to dictate our behaviors. Instead, what are our goals, values, and desires telling us to do?
- Do the opposite. If we know that our emotional urge is telling us to do something unhelpful (like staying on the couch all day), we can practice doing the opposite behavior to create a new emotional experience. When sadness wants you to isolate, sleep, and avoid the things that usually bring pleasure, you can choose to do the opposites: Connect, move your body, and cultivate joy.
Below are some suggestions for changing your behaviors to influence your mood:
- Find connection. Depression and low mood thrive on isolation. Isolating ensures we remain disconnected, lonely, and stuck in our own thoughts and perspectives. Find ways to connect or engage with someone or something outside of yourself. This can include calling a friend, conversing with the cashier in the grocery store, taking a nature walk and being mindful of wildlife, snuggling your pet (if they let you), or even practicing a meditation where you focus on connection to others or a higher power/energy/consciousness.
- Move your body to help improve your mood and energy. Depression often leads to a decrease in physical activity. This makes sense from a survival standpoint. If we were truly under threat, we would need to conserve our energy. Our brains are hardwired to prioritize running from a tiger over running on a treadmill. That being said, most of us do not have to worry about tigers in our daily life, and movement improves mental and physical health. You do not need to spend 3 hours at the gym to achieve these benefits, either. Movement can be standing up from your couch and stretching, dancing to your favorite song, an easeful yoga flow, or 10 jumping jacks.
- Cultivate joy and pleasant feelings intentionally through the activities you choose. Engaging in activities you enjoy can be one of the quickest ways to regulate your mood. We may even think this is too simple to actually work. When we’re mired in uncomfortable feelings or a negative mindset, we may not be able to access a list of joyful activities. Again, we can apply these skills on a small scale. Sometimes joy is found in a warm cup of tea, a hug, cooking your favorite meal, or looking through old pictures. Accessing play and creativity can relieve stress, and research even shows that “fake laughing” can improve mood and trigger relaxation. You may not feel joy immediately, but know that you are on the way!