Togetherall: Mood Talking

Moods are the backdrop to how we lead our lives – they govern almost everything we do. If you’re troubled by your moods, take the first step towards dealing with it by understanding what’s happening.

‘In the mood’, ‘in a mood’, ‘mean and moody’– the way we refer to mood is a testament to its power. ‘Our lives and our successes are defined as much by our moods as they are by our personalities,’ Dr Liz Miller, ‘MoodMapping’. Mood colours our view of the world to the extent that we label moods ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If we’re in a good mood, we’re on top of our game. We may feel energetic, receptive to others, positive, resilient, clear thinking and creative. Conversely, being in a bad mood brings out the worst in us. It can make us feel negative, lethargic, unproductive, sad, irritable and generally ill-disposed towards ourselves and others. We all experience highs and lows – the problem is some of us are more affected by our moods than others. If you can manage your moods, you are captain of your ship and master of your destiny. But if you are at the mercy of extreme mood changes, it can wreck your life and your relationships. The truth is however ‘moody’ we are, in order to make the most of our lives and enjoy good relations with others, we need to find ways to balance and manage this state of being we call mood.

What is mood?

Mood is a subjective measure of how we are inside. It sums up our mental and emotional state at that particular moment – whether we are happy or sad, calm or agitated, elated or depressed, creative or uninspired, lively or exhausted. ‘Mood management involves finding ways to cope, so you will not be dragged down by the way you and the people around feel.’ Dr Liz Miller, ‘MoodMapping’. We often use the same words to describe mood and feelings, but they are different. Mood is usually less intense, harder to pin down and less likely to be triggered by a particular stimulus or event than feelings. But it also tends to be more persistent and longer lasting. Certain feelings may eclipse your mood, but the effect is often short lived. For example, your low mood may be lifted by your feelings of pleasure at seeing your best friend, only to resume after your friend has gone. Even the greatest feelings of joy or terror last minutes rather than hours, while a bad mood can last for hours or longer. Mood also predisposes us to or protects us from certain feelings. For example if we’re in a state of anxiety, we’re more likely to get irritable or fly off the handle than if our mood is relaxed and calm. Negative feelings like anger or impatience often stem from low mood. Psychologists sometimes categorise mood according to our energy levels and how tense or calm we feel. We are at our best in mood states that are calm and high energy, and at our worst when our mood is tired and tense. Calm is considered a key ingredient of most positive moods.

How does mood affect us?

Mood governs almost everything we do. It’s the backdrop against which our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are enacted. When we’re in a bad mood we are more prone to negative thoughts and feelings – more likely to behave badly and take things the wrong way. Worse, our negative response to our low mood can lower our mood even further. You’ve probably experienced it – you wake up feeling out of sorts, and from then on nothing goes right in your day. It’s a downward spiral. Usually our bad mood passes, but if it persists or deepens then it can mean we’re depressed. But it’s not only low mood that can spell trouble. If our mood becomes too euphoric, it can make us hyperactive, over-expansive, reckless and disregarding of other people. If it spirals too high it can steal away our reason and our sense of reality. We may become agitated and angry with people who are trying to bring us back down to earth, and who fail to see the ‘brilliance’ of our ideas and plans. We may even start ‘seeing things’ or ‘hearing voices’ as part of our delusional state. This state of mania, where our mood spirals upwards out of control, is one of the two key extremes of mood experienced by people with bipolar disorder (previously known as manic depression), the other being the extreme low of depression. Experiencing such alarming highs and miserable lows can be terrifying and overwhelming, both for the person’s who’s bipolar, and those around them.

The biology of mood

Mood isn’t only in the mind, it has a biological component too. Your mood reflects the level of certain ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain – which are the same chemicals used in mood-altering drugs. Natural mood regulators are dopamine, which affects your energy levels, and the serotonin-endorphin system, which influences how positive or well you feel. By learning to manage your moods, you help restore these levels of ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain.

Mood changes

Our moods are a backdrop that’s constantly changing in response to what’s happening around us and inside our heads. Whether you’re a morning person or an evening person, an extrovert or an introvert, going through good times or bad, nobody is immune to mood changes. It’s just that some of us are more prone to extreme variations of mood than others. Some people’s mood may remain fairly steady throughout the day, while another may experience a roller coaster journey because their mood is more easily affected by what’s going on. Others find their mood drops at certain times of the day, or at particular times of the month or year. Children tend to reflect the moods of those around them, unless they are feeling tired and cranky; while adolescence can be a time of bewildering mood swings, triggered by hormone rushes and a need for independence among other changes.

Thoughts of a ‘manic-depressive’

Comic actor and writer Stephen Fry has done much to reduce the stigma of bipolar disorder by speaking eloquently and honestly about his own experience of having the illness – even to the extent of making a BBC documentary on the subject. In an interview, following the making of ‘My life as a Manic-Depressive’ in 2006, he said, ‘When you’re depressed you cannot conceive of such a thing as the future. Life is so black you cannot imagine a tomorrow… It’s bad, really bad.’ But the actor, who came close to taking his own life on more than one occasion, said the two mistakes were first to deny that there was anything wrong with you, and second to believe that: ‘The sun will never come out and that’s it.’ ‘… the fact is that it will come out and in the case of a bipolar person… it will be incredibly sunny. And rather than having no future, you plan for one hundred futures. ‘You are so excited by the possibility of what you can do in the world with your creative power, your entrepreneurial ideas – your grandiosity knows no bounds… It’s an extraordinary feeling – terrible for the people around you.’ He confessed that because he has a ‘more manageable version’ of the illness than some, he feels ‘the manic state is a thing to be treasured sometimes’, in terms of feeding his creativity. But he stressed the dangers of the illness: ‘It causes death and it causes deeply unhealthy lifestyles and deep unhappiness for the person inflicted, and really hugely for their families and those who love them.’ Source: Stephen Fry on Manic depression – Finnbuster films.

When is it a mood disorder?

You’re troubled by your moods, but when do your mood changes become a serious mental health problem? Longer-term disturbances of mood that spiral out of your control are known as mood disorders. The disturbances need to be consistent in pattern and persist for some time. They also need to cause a persistent pattern of change in how you think, feel and behave. A mood disorder often involves mood swings that are unpredictable, uncontrollable and an inappropriate reaction to events. They may also be extreme, frequent and involve marked changes in mood that last a long time. Mood disorders seriously disrupt your life and your relationships. They can even be life threatening if left unmanaged – sometimes leading to suicide in the case of depression or high-risk behavior in the case of mania. Depression and bipolar disorder are the two main types of mood disorder. But it’s important to understand that any mood disorder – however acutely painful and disturbing – is in fact an extreme version of the mood changes that everybody experiences.

From one extreme to the other – the ups and downs of bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder, previously known as manic depression, involves extreme mood swings, from depressive lows to manic highs. All of us experience highs and lows to some extent, but if you’re bipolar, these become out of control and disconnected from what’s happening around you. The highs: the way people express these moods can vary depending on their inner desires and beliefs, but in their manic state people often become massively overconfident, expansive and self-important. They also become hyperactive and incapable of listening and empathising with other people. If you’re manic you are more likely to throw yourself into high risk activities, such as sleep avoidance, excessive drinking and reckless behaviour (eg stealing, going on wild spending sprees, indulging in promiscuous sex, abusing drugs). If your mood spirals too high, you may suffer hallucinations, delusions and paranoia. The lows: but after the high comes the low – and if you’re bipolar you are in danger of hitting rock bottom. In your depressive state, you may lose energy, hope – even your reason for living. This can be worsened by people’s terrible feelings of guilt and shame about the way they behaved in the manic state, and the impact of their reckless actions on others (eg getting into debt, stealing from others, behaving aggressively or dangerously to others). If you are bipolar you also have to live with the strain of never really knowing whether what you are feeling and doing is a result of being too high or too low. Facts and figures: around 1-2% of people have bipolar disorder and the first episode usually starts aged 20-40 , the average age of onset being the early 20s (‘Overcoming Mood Swings’, Jan Scott). The pattern of mood swings can vary, with some people affected more by depression and others more by mania. Some may swing wildly from one mood to another, while others have long periods of stability between moods – or even just a couple of episodes in a lifetime. Treatment and management: drugs have traditionally been the mainstay in the treatment and management of mood disorders. But recently the use of psychological therapies has come along in leaps and bounds. The current view of doctors tends to be that a combined approach is likely to work best – not least because it helps people stick to a drugs regime. Self help using mood management techniques can be used to recognise and manage mood problems at the first warning signs, before they get out of hand – for milder forms of bipolar or when moderate or severe symptoms begin to improve with other treatments. The book, ‘Overcoming Mood Swings’, by Jan Scott, describes cognitive behaviour therapy techniques to manage mood aimed at tackling the thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with troublesome mood shifts. Or you could try ‘MoodMapping’, by Liz Miller. Designed as an easy-to-use ‘personal Sat Nav or navigation system’ for managing mood, MoodMapping is used by Dr Miller (who is a qualified psychologist) to manage her own bipolar disorder. But ultimately what works for you will depend on you as an individual and the severity of your condition.

Coping with mood changes

Just as we all have different mood patterns, mood affects us in different ways. Some of us can’t achieve anything unless we are in the ‘right mood’, while others seem to be able to plough on regardless. How we deal with our moods also varies. People who are in touch with their feelings may know instinctively how to moderate their mood before it takes over. Others may be very aware of their moods, but still feel unable to manage them. Many of us find our mood changes hard to fathom or put into words – let alone deal with. The hardest to cope with are mood disorders because they involve such extreme variations in mood – which is why some people go on medication to get back and keep on an even keel.

The higher you go, the harder you fall

The American actress and writer, Carrie Fisher, best known for her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, lives with severe bipolar disorder. Speaking on Stephen Fry’s 2006 documentary ‘My life as a Manic-depressive’, she spoke about the alarming highs and the miserable lows of her condition. ‘When you’re galloping along a great speed, it is better than any drug you can ever take,’ she said. ‘God, if you will, is saving you parking spots, songs are being played on the radio for you – you’re just so enthusiastic about everyone that everyone must be enthusiastic about you.’ But what at first feels good, can quickly turn into something more disturbing. ‘You start going way too fast… and that’s not fun. You’re on the phone far too long, you’re not getting sleep. Nothing is going fast enough for you – and it’s like, come on keep up with me you guys…’ In her case, her mood spiralled so far out of control that she lost her grip on reality. She found herself, ‘standing on rocks planning speeches to the world’ and hearing ‘messages from deep space’. ‘I stayed awake for six days and I did lose my mind,’ she says. It wasn’t until she found herself crying for four hours unable to stop that she knew there was ‘something wrong’. She’s now on medication to keep her illness in check.

How it affects our relationships

We’re not the only ones affected by our moods. Being at the mercy of our moods is no fun; it also makes us extremely hard to be with. So if you’re a ‘moody’ person it can really damage your relations with others – especially if you suffer extreme mood changes. But it’s important to remember that our moods aren’t who we are. Unlike personality or temperament, they don’t define us – even though certain personality traits, such as pessimism or neuroticism, can increase our susceptibility to low mood. By living in a way that helps stabilise your moods and learning how to recognise the warning signs, it’s possible to act early and manage your moods before they become overwhelming. And if you let people close to you know what you’re doing, they can more easily support you.

Trigger happy?

We can all think of obvious things that ‘send us into a mood’. For example, bad things that happen in our life; a row or an argument or someone saying the wrong thing; or feeling bad about ourselves or guilty about things we have or haven’t done. Having a physical illness or unhealthy lifestyle also affects our mood. The reason for low mood may be as simple as not having eaten properly, feeling hung over, or dog tired after a bad night’s sleep. But often the reasons for our mood swings are not obvious at all – or else so complicated it’s hard to unpick. A large part of mood management is learning to monitor your moods, so you can better understand your patterns and what triggers them.

Why are some of us moodier than others?

The truth is we don’t really know. Research into mood disorders suggests some people may have an underlying vulnerability to extreme mood changes, probably down to a mix of biological and psychological factors. There’s some evidence that this vulnerability can be inherited; or relate to your underlying beliefs and coping style, which affect how you respond to stress. Certain studies have proposed that abnormalities of the ‘body clock’ could increase a person’s underlying vulnerability to mood disorders. Research shows increased episodes of mood disorder following long haul flights; and increased mania in people with bipolar disorder during summer in the northern hemisphere, when exposure to daylight hours is longer. But not everyone who is vulnerable to extreme mood changes will go on to develop a mood disorder – it seems to depend on certain triggers or stress factors, which are different for each individual. These can include physical stressors, such as certain medical disorders or head injury, or excessive use of alcohol or stimulants; stressful life events, including events that badly disrupt your day-to-day routine and sleep cycle; and social factors, such as a lack of social support or problems in your relations with others. That’s why adopting a stable, healthy lifestyle, with good social support – and avoiding excessive use of alcohol and stimulants – can be a good first step to regulating mood and keeping on a more even keel. But mood management is also about learning practical ways to monitor your moods – and strategies to help manage them.

Read more

  • ‘MoodMapping’, Dr Liz Miller (Rodale)
  • ‘Overcoming Mood Swings: a self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques,’ Jan Scott (Constable & Robinson)

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