By Steph Eckelkamp
Life is all about that ebb and flow.
Sometimes you feel downright unstoppable. Every glass is half full, your co-workers are the best, and you’re meal prepping like a champ. Other times you’re barely hanging on. Mounting setbacks, responsibilities, deadlines, or uncontrollable life stressors can leave you feeling like a zombie — or just plain bummed.
It’s totally natural to fall into a periodic funk that lasts a few hours or days. But ideally, you want to find ways to snap out of it ASAP, since poor mood (think: those feelings of anger or sadness that keep bubbling to the surface) are associated with increased levels of inflammation, which can prime you for health problems.
The good news, and what people often don’t realize, is that it doesn’t take drastic changes in behavior to flip your mindset. Since your mental state can be influenced by so many things — sleeping habits, diet, proximity to nature, light exposure, etc — that also means there are so many little ways to enhance it.
Of course, conditions like depression or anxiety may require the help of a licensed healthcare practitioner — and when your poor mood makes it difficult to enjoy life or perform basic daily tasks, don’t be afraid to seek help.
In many cases, though, most of the power lies with you. So if you’re feeling kinda low and need a little nudge, try these tiny shifts to feel (almost) instantly uplifted.
1. To curb the morning crankies, get a dose of sunlight first thing.
Not only does getting a dose of natural light first thing help you feel more alert by halting production of melatonin (the “sleep hormone” that makes you feel drowsy), but a study found that people exposed to sunlight in the morning sleep better at night and feel less stressed and depressed than people who don’t. This is the perfect reason to lace up those sneakers and go on a morning walk or jog. But even if you can’t get outside, just standing in front of a window while sipping your morning coffee can help.
2. Feeling exhausted and grouchy midday? Take a 20 minute power nap.
If you’ve ever been on deadline after a night of insomnia, it should come as no surprise that poor sleep quality and duration has a negative impact on mood—along with a host of other things, like concentration. On the bright side: In a pinch, a short 20- to 30-minute power nap can improve mood and alertness. Pro tip: Take naps in the early afternoon, and try not to nap after 3p.m. or else you might set yourself up for another night of restless sleep.
3. Watch a quick dog or cat video for an instant pick-me-up.
Sure, it’s easy to go down a productivity-sapping rabbithole of cute animal videos, but when used strategically, these furry critters can be just the pick-me-up you need to bust out of a mental funk. According to a survey of over 7,000 individuals, people said they felt more positive and energetic, and less anxious, annoyed, and sad after watching cat videos online. The same can likely be said for any animal you find adorable, from dogs to horses to goats. Check out The Dodo or DrSmashLove on Instagram for instant smiles.
4. If your mood is always kinda meh, consider a vitamin D supplement.
There’s a good chance you need more vitamin D. About 50% of the population has vitamin D insufficiency, and low levels are often associated with complaints of fatigue, depression, and poor cognitive performance—not exactly a recipe for good mental health. Fortunately, some studies have found that increasing vitamin D helps ease symptoms of depression and improve energy. Not many foods contain high levels of vitamin D (but you can find it in fatty fish, egg yolks, and mushrooms), so supplementation of at least 600 IU per day, but often more, is often recommended. Your doc can check your levels and provide more guidance.
By the way! Some other common nutrient deficiencies that could mess with your mood include magnesium and other minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins—especially B12 if you’re a vegetarian or vegan). So eating a diet rich in a variety of whole foods, plus strategic supplementation, can make all the difference in mental wellbeing.
5. To take the edge off in seconds, make yourself smile.
Sure, it sounds ridiculous…but just try it. Time and again, research shows that the simple act of smiling can actually boost your mood and reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response. Yes, even if you force it. That’s because the physical act of smiling stimulates the part of your brain that allows you to feel emotions—the amygdala—which triggers the release of neurotransmitters (“happy” brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that promote a positive emotional state). It may not be enough to completely turn around a sour mood, but it can certainly help break that negative flow of energy.
6. Get outdoors and move your body—even for just 5 minutes.
Just five minutes of exercising in nature (a.k.a. “green exercise”) such as walking in a park, weeding your garden, taking a bike ride, or doing some outdoor yoga can boost both mood and self-esteem, according to research. The effect is even greater if you’re also near water. So if you’re in a funk and only have a few minutes to spare, let Mother Nature lift your spirits.
7. Diffuse a citrusy essential oil (or take a big whiff of an orange).
If you’ve ever taken a whiff off freshly ground coffee or a wildflower and instantly blissed out, you know the power of scent on emotion. In fact, aromatherapy has even been studied for its ability to alleviate depression. Interestingly, certain scents seem to be extra uplifting—various types of citrus essential oils (think: bergamot, sweet orange, lemon, yuzu, and grapefruit) may help reduce stress, cultivate positive feelings, ease anxiety, and more. So, add a few drops to your diffuser, or keep a bowl of citrus on your table and take a big sniff when sad or stressed.
8. Take a quick dance party break for a natural high.
Even if you’re a terrible dancer, it can still be a powerful mood-boosting therapy. So crank your favorite upbeat playlist and just move! Not only does any type of physical activity lower cortisol and thus curb stress, but research suggests dancing can boost your body’s circulating levels of endocannabinoids—the same mood-lifting compounds that contribute to that amazing “runner’s high” feeling. Bonus: Singing has the same effect, so YouTube karaoke is definitely on the table.
9. Donate a few bucks to a good cause.
Volunteering has long been established to boost mood and your sense of purpose. But the really good news (especially in the age of coronavirus): You can get similar mood-boosting benefits, right away, simply by donating money—research shows that people who made donations to organizations related to major societal causes had increased activity in the mesolimbic reward system of the brain. Not sure where to donate? CharityNavigator.org and CharityWatch.org are good places to start your research.
10. Make yourself a blood sugar-balancing snack.
Fluctuations in blood sugar can lead to pretty drastic and immediate mood shifts. In fact, studies show that unstable blood sugar levels among people with diabetes contribute to negative moods and lower quality of life—more specifically, research suggests high blood sugar often contributes to anger or sadness, and low blood sugar contributes to feelings of nervousness. On the upside, you can buffer this blood sugar effect by incorporating fiber, protein, and healthy fats into your meals and snacks. Think: an apple and a handful of walnuts, a square of dark chocolate dunked in peanut butter, or Greek yogurt with berries and honey.
Finally, remember to find meaning in the tough moments.
The tips above can help you feel better pretty quickly, but for lasting contentment, it’s important to look deeper, too. If a tough situation has you feeling down, remind yourself how it’s getting you closer and closer to a larger goal, or how it’s helped you evolve as a person. Research shows that having purpose in life helps you recover faster from stressful events. And if something that’s stressing you out is not getting you toward a larger goal, sketch out a few actionable steps that can help change your trajectory for the better.