Photo by r.f.m II
Well, it happens sometimes.
I find myself in a lousy mood. Hard to say where it started, but it certainly has something to do with not getting much sleep Saturday night. I had big plans for Sunday, but the day was compromised by my zombie state. I think my IQ shrunk about thirty points from normal, for the whole day. I did everything wrong. I cooked badly, I conversed badly, I wrote badly.
My funk cruised on through today too. Work was a real slog, even though everything I needed to do was easy. I was working outside, which I normally enjoy. I wanted to go home. I wanted some Belgian chocolate. I wanted the Sun to f**k off.
Today I was going to write a more in-depth post on another topic, but when I sat down to do it, it was like pulling teeth. I know I could have churned out something, but it would have been a crusty, callous little post. I just couldn’t resonate with what I was had planned to write about, so I asked myself The Big Question: “Given my dreams and goals in life, what is honestly the smartest way to spend my next 30 minutes?” My answer came: Write about what you can resonate with right now. So I decided to put my crap mood to good use.
The Nature of the Beast
Low moods are a bizarre animal. They’re like a nasty drug that hijacks your thoughts and robs you of your intuition and perspective. They make bad things look bigger and good things look smaller. It’s as if they have their own demented gravity, drawing annoyances and inconveniences — not to mention the crappy moods of other people — out of the woodwork towards you. Foul moods don’t seem to emanate from any particular source, or line of thought, they just waft into your headspace when you’re disappointed and vulnerable. They cast a pervasive dullness on the people you meet and the places you visit, and the things you think about.
Mine is currently sucking the excitement out of certain upcoming events that normally thrill me to think about. My big travel plans, my growing new blog (which is, as I type, having its busiest traffic day ever) and my newly blossoming friendships are all lending me very little joy at this particular moment. Because my mood sucks. C’est la vie.
Thankfully I’ve learned to recognize what it means to be in a bad mood, and usually I can remember what to do about it. Above all else, a bad mood means I’ve lost perspective. I can’t see clearly, and I know it.
In a bad mood, the thinking mind sticks around (sometimes it even goes into overdrive) but wisdom seems to slink away when you’re not looking. The highest properties of the mind — intuition, compassion, patience and acceptance — slip quietly out the door like bored houseguests. Today, even when I looked for them in my head, even when I knew they were exactly what I needed to get back on track, I just couldn’t locate them.
Simply understanding this “wisdom-loss” phenomenon inherent to bad moods goes a long way. It explains why everything looks so bad. Perspective becomes impaired, but you can’t actually see that while it is happening. You just have to remember that bad moods bend things towards the negative end.
Part of the impairment is that your mind tells you your negative outlook is completely warranted. When you simply remind yourself that you are temporarily missing certain important mental qualities, you can consciously defer any bigger decisions and actions until you have your whole mind working for you again.
The most important thing I ever learned about moods is this:
Your mood does not represent the state of your life, but it pretends to.
Looking objectively at the state of my life right now, it’s spectacular. I’m young, in good health, I have friends coming out of my ears, I’ve finally got a long-needed creative outlet, I’m gearing up for an epic trip this fall, I’m generally unfettered by debt, and I even don’t mind my day job. But my bad mood doesn’t care. It doesn’t see any value in those things. I feel no swell of excitement when I think about them. I still want to lay down and put my head under a pillow.
Emotionally, it feels like my dreams have plowed into the guardrail. Bottomed out and spewing smoke. Wrecked. In the past I would have trusted this feeling, and made decisions based on it. I would have pictured an unrealistically bleak future, convinced myself it was well on its way towards me, and panicked accordingly. But now I know bad moods make for unreliable assessments. Tomorrow, all the same things will look different. This I know from experience.
The Role of Physical Interference
I have learned a lot about how to be calm and patient under normal circumstances, but I find physical interference erodes this very quickly. By physical interference I’m referring to any physical discomfort (such as an upset stomach, excessive heat or cold, or hunger pangs) or any mental impairment (such as lack of sleep or the effects of alcohol.) When your body is screaming for something, patience and acceptance are much more difficult to achieve.
Have you ever had someone trap you in a long-winded conversation when you have to pee really bad? No matter how patient a listener you are normally, you probably aren’t going to be too receptive. Physical bodily distress overrides all of your other priorities. It’s just mother nature looking out for you. No time for the luxury of a good mood when you’ve neglected your body.
For this reason, I found it very difficult to be mindful and appreciative at work today because my head was sluggish and heavy and I desperately wanted to be horizontal. Physical interference will probably undermine pretty much anything you do to recover from your mood, until you can satisfy the body’s needs.
The other day I caught the end of a segment on CBC radio where they were discussing happiness. The guest was familiar to me: blogger Gretchen Rubin, from The Happiness Project. As a parting question, the interviewer asked for the one most important tip she would give people for achieving happiness. Her answer was to get adequate sleep. If I wasn’t convinced then, I am after today. The body’s fundamental needs have to be taken care of before one can hope to be stable emotionally.
Recovering from bad moods
The first step is simply to acknowledge you are in a bad mood. Here’s a litmus test: if you can’t get excited about something you are normally excited about, you’re in a bad mood. Remind yourself that your perspective is currently limited, and that your faculties of wisdom are currently impaired or dormant. Remember that any visions you have of the future are going to look unreasonably bleak, any assessments you make are going to be distorted towards the negative. As a bonus, other people are going to seem more annoying than they really are. So take all your judgments with a grain of salt.
Attending to your body’s needs is a sensible first step to responding to a bad mood. Understand, though, the difference between what your body needs and what your mind wants. Your weary body might want sleep, while your flustered mind wants Häagen-Dazs. There is a fine line between mental wants and bodily needs, but it can be hard to see.
To determine what your body is asking for, focus your attention on the physical sensations in your body: observe what your stomach feels like, what your breathing feels like, what your head feels like. Scan the body by closing your eyes and noticing the sensations. Any needs should become apparent, and while your attention is on your body, your mind will be quiet.
It is very tempting (and common) to treat bad moods by indulging one’s wants. The Häagen-Dazs approach is self-comfort, not self-love. Beware of this phenomenon: bad moods make you wanty. I say wanty instead of needy because often wants masquerade as genuine needs.
In my experience, bad moods usually spawn a very strong want for comfort. This can be a spectacularly intense desire — it is crucial to handle it sensibly. If we choose to respond with some sort of indulgence, addiction is a very real danger. Most of us have a favorite way of responding to this comfort-lust, and depending on how conditioned we are to it, it can be a killer.
Some people shop themselves into hopeless debt. Some drink themselves into ruined health and relationships. Some eat until they are ashamed and sick. Some throw tantrums and punch walls. Some stare into the television for four hours straight. All of us do something to respond to the desire for comfort, and most often it has some sort of cost.
Once a pattern emerges, it can become more and more insidious and even completely derail someone’s life. The shame of indulging in a comfort habit can reinforce a bad mood, and very often it becomes self-perpetuating. Lives can be taken over and destroyed by it. Watch an episode of Intervention if you don’t know what that looks like.
Think about how you normally respond to the desire for comfort. What does it cost you? What could you do instead that doesn’t have such a cost? Bad moods will come and go your whole life. Don’t let them rob you each time. There is no limit to the number of bad moods you can have, so there is no limit to the amount of money, physical health and self-respect you can lose.
Find another way to behave in those situations. Take a walk, visit a friend, pick up a book, work out, go learn something… anything but give up money or health to this bad mood. In any case, indulging the lust for comfort usually just prolongs the funk by making you feel like you need more of that indulgence to push it away again.
Ugly moods pass more quickly when you acknowledge them, let them visit you for a bit, and avoid chasing them away with indulgence. Remember some guidelines: Defer big decisions until you’re in a better headspace. Take all of your assessments — of people and of situations — with a grain of salt. Do not trust any visions you have of the future, or any assessments of your ability, worth or potential. There is just so much there you just can’t see. Beware of assigning blame. Similar to “Don’t drink and drive” is “Don’t fret and decide.” Wait until you sober up. Sleep it off.
The main rule of thumb is this: know it will be gone soon, and do as little harm as possible in the mean time.
And now I feel fine again. Look at that.