By Laine Bergeson
You’re in a bad mood and who can blame you? We are living through unprecedented times that have upended much of life as we know it. The things we worried about in the Before Times — like our finances and our work and our health — have only intensified during the global pandemic. The future of many cultural and social institutions is uncertain, small businesses are closing by the hundreds, and things like doom-scrolling and Zoom fatigue have become part of our everyday lexicon. It’s enough to make even the most steady person a little surly.
And that’s okay. It’s normal — and healthy — to feel frustrated and worried about a turbulent present and an uncertain future. We’re human, after all. That is how our brains are wired. But when our bad moods persist, they stop feeling cathartic and start feeling like quicksand. We get mired in sadness, and we feel stuck. We’re no longer able to use our anxiety as a necessary source of energy and motivation.
If you feel like your low mood has gone beyond “appropriate response” and moved into “yuck, I feel stuck” territory, it can help to take proactive steps to improve your mood. Lifestyle strategies won’t be enough to address serious depression or anxiety or other clinical conditions, of course, and you should always work with a licensed healthcare practitioner when facing more serious psychological conditions or an intractable low mood. But if you just need a nudge out from under a temporary emotional thundercloud, there things you can do to help yourself look on the bright side again.
When you’re feeling gloomy, try these tips to help improve your state of mind:
1. Step away from your screen(s).
A surplus of screen time can drag your mood down. Too much time spent in front of work spreadsheets, video games, social media feeds, and/or trash TV is associated with a variety of health harms, including low mood, in young people and it is associated with depression in adults. Take regular breaks from your screens and consider designating one day each a week a no-screens day. (Screen-free Sundays, perhaps?)
2. Use your screens for good.
On the other hand, screens can be a source of joy if used responsibly. See: cat memes, goats singing Justin Bieber songs, and this alt-folk cover of Jolee Dunn’s classic hit “I Wonder What’s Inside Your Butthole?” After all, a good laugh is good for the soul.
3. Go outside.
Nature is a powerful force for good when it comes to improving health, including mood and mental wellbeing. Heck, studies show that simply looking at pictures of nature can boost executive function. As for actually getting outside? A substantial body of research shows that time spent in nature can reduce stress and anxiety and improve symptoms of depression. In fact, the connection between time spent in nature and improved mood is so strong that a whole field of research, dubbed eco-therapy, has sprung up to investigate the connection. And you don’t have to spend two weeks camping to reap the rewards. A walk in the neighborhood or even a few minutes on your patio can help.
4. Try putting a new spin on a stressful or upsetting situation.
A technique called cognitive restructuring, which is a mainstay of cognitive behavioral therapy (which is effective in reducing anxiety and improving depression), can help you transform a dark mood. Simply put, cognitive restructuring is putting a different spin on a situation. For example, this thought: “I put my foot in my mouth at the dinner party, so I am a bad friend!” becomes: “I put my foot in my mouth at the dinner party, which is something that happens because I’m human. It doesn’t make me a bad friend.”
5. Practice mindfulness.
According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness training helps improve mood by literally changing key areas of the brain. Mindfulness helps build new neural pathways and restructure our brains in ways that are better able to focus on the upside. Meditation is one way to practice mindfulness, but not the only one. You can try different mindfulness exercises and find what works for you.
6. Just breathe.
Slow breathing techniques are a well-known way to reduce stress and improve mood. You can focus on taking slow deep breaths, try 4-7-8 breathing, or engage in a movement practice like yoga to engage your breath in the quest to transform a rotten mood.
7. Move your body.
Moving your body is a powerful way to shake off a low mood. Just 15 minutes of aerobic activity each day can help stave off low mood, according to research, and yoga might be especially helpful in keeping depression at bay. When you’re feeling crummy, get moving!
8. Phone a friend.
Connection to others helps fortify us against low mood. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, talking to a trusted friend or family member can really make a difference. Solidarity with others is a powerful healer.
9. Try journaling.
If you consider journaling the province of teenage girls, think again! Writing down your feelings can benefit your mood and improve your outlook on life. Treat yourself to a pretty journal to help yourself get started.
10. Help someone else.
There’s nothing like lending a hand to someone in need to lift you out of a funk. Helping others has been shown to buffer against stress, reduce mortality, and help us perceive our surroundings in a more positive light. Give yourself the gift of feeling better — by giving to others!