How Do You Break Out of a Bad Mood?

April 24, 2014

by Margaret Cabaniss

How Do You Break Out of a Bad Mood?
I ran across an article in the New York Times (via A Cup of Jo) a couple of weeks ago that’s been knocking around my brain ever since. In it, Akhil Sharma describes the crippling anxiety he suffered while working on a novel, and the revelation he had that finally began to shake him out of it:

Sitting on the bench by the river that day, I remembered having read in Reader’s Digest — a periodical my family has undue reverence for — that when you are feeling bad, one way to make yourself feel better is to pray for others.

I began to pray for the people who were passing by. I prayed for the nanny pushing a stroller. I prayed for the young woman jogging by in spandex. I prayed for the little boy pedaling his bicycle. I prayed that each of them got the same things that I wanted for myself: that they have good health, peace of mind, financial security. By focusing on others and their needs, my own problems seemed less unique and, somehow, less pressing.

Sharma sounds almost apologetic at times when describing his “trick of life” – prayer isn’t necessarily a part of everyone’s daily habits, of course — but anyone who prays, volunteers, or simply performs acts of kindness for others will immediately recognize the truth behind it. It has a lot to do with breaking out of your own mental feedback loop: As Sharma describes it, when he was in the worst of his depression, “My mind had become uninhabitable.” It’s a perfect way to describe that feeling of being hopelessly mired in your own worries — however real or pressing they may be — and simultaneously hating the feeling while being entirely incapable of escaping it.

The solution? Shifting the focus off yourself entirely. That simple act of reaching out to another (mentally or otherwise) can break the cycle: Suddenly you notice the cares of the person next to you, and how they share many of the same fears, hopes, hurts, and loves… You feel less alone with your own worries — less consumed by them — and more grateful for even small blessings that can go overlooked when you’re too much in your own head. And, as Joanna put it, “It makes you really love strangers in a funny way.”

I’ve noticed that all my other tricks for beating a bad mood — getting outside, going for a run, focusing on the things I’m grateful for — all involve a similar perspective shift, even if just in a basic physical way. And on those days when even walking outside feels overwhelming, the smallest prayer of thanks or care for someone else can be that spark that helps set me on the right path again.

Obviously, for people who pray, the main goal isn’t usually just to beat a bad mood, but it often goes hand in hand anyway. Have you tried Sharma’s “trick” — or, if you’re the praying type, have you noticed the same result? What other techniques do you use to break out of a bad mood?

Image: via Dustjacket Attic (source unknown)

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1 Anna April 24, 2014 at 9:33 am

I love tips on this topic, and this is a nice reminder about how prayer changes us intrinsically. A while ago I ran across Gretchen Rubin’s list of mood-saving tips:

13 Tips for Dealing with a Really Lousy Day

A couple of hers are similarly aimed at getting outside the self-absorption of a bad mood: doing something nice for someone, reaching out to make contact with a friend. Another of her tips that I’ve found very practical is creating “outer order” by taking a bit of time to tidy or organize something around the house.

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Margaret Cabaniss 2 Margaret Cabaniss April 24, 2014 at 9:39 am

That’s a great list — thanks for sharing! I totally agree about the “outer order” thing: Even if I can only manage one small corner of the house, I can at least stare at that one ordered spot and feel a bit better about life. Heh.

She’s also right about things looking brighter in the morning, as cliched as it sounds. When I find myself spiraling in a bad mood at night, or obsessing about one thing or another, I remind myself that it’s probably not as bad as I’m making it out to be, and it’ll look better (or more manageable) in the morning — and it usually does.

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3 Zoe Saint-Paul April 24, 2014 at 9:37 am

I’ve heard wise and prayerful people say that it’s not that God needs us to pray, *we* need it. Makes total sense.

When I used to live in bigger cities and use mass transit every day, I found myself constantly praying for people I encountered… the old man who looked depressed sitting across from me on the subway, the tired-looking mom yelling at her kid at the bus stop, the self-conscious teen walking in front of me, etc. I became so aware that these strangers — even the ones who looked to have it all together — were carrying their own burdens and that whispering a prayer for them was a natural thing to do. It made me more aware of my connection to others, what we share in common, and I think it did lift my mood and change my perspective.

I remember, too, when I was a pastoral care volunteer at a city hospital for a couple of years. Sometimes it was hard, but even when I was in the most discouraged, sad, depressed mood — and I *was* a times — just 10 minutes walking through the halls of that hospital would totally lift my spirits. Which sounds funny since I think most people find hospitals to be such depressing places. I find they do the opposite for me and I think it’s because I suddenly become focused on the people there — both the patients and the caregivers — and it fills me with amazement, gratitude, and compassion.

I think anything that gets us out of ourselves can help us break out of a bad mood, but both prayer and service especially focus us on The Other, and that really kicks our naval-gazing tendencies to the curb.

Thanks for inspiring this reflection, Mags!

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Margaret Cabaniss 4 Margaret Cabaniss April 24, 2014 at 9:46 am

I still do the same thing when I’m out and about, Zoe — particularly if, like you, I notice someone who seems to be struggling in some way or another. If I’m in a particularly mindful mood, I’ll pray for the people who are currently driving me crazy: the guy who cuts me off on the highway, the mom yelling at her kids in the store, etc. It reminds me of that saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It definitely makes me more patient, and hopefully more compassionate.

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5 Therese April 24, 2014 at 10:04 am

Thanks for this post, Margaret, and Zoe, love your response. Even before I read it, I thought of your “naval-gazing” phrase and knew that it fit, so I chuckled to then see that you used it here.

I wrote once about this for a homeschooling group in response to a question about how parents handle the stress of homeschooling. Ultimately, through contemplative prayer or what I think of as prayers of action, my experience resonates with this reflection – that focusing on others is key to sustaining us through challenges.

I used a backpacking story as an analogy, remembering finding strength on impossibly difficult days if a friend was behind or having even more trouble with the trek. That’s true of life’s journey too, in far more poignant ways.

Thanks, again!

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Margaret Cabaniss 6 Margaret Cabaniss April 24, 2014 at 5:40 pm

That’s a great analogy, Therese — I’ve learned more about life while backpacking than almost anywhere else. ;)

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7 Jen April 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm

I’m convinced the most dysfunctional thing I contribute to my marriage is my propensity for lingering in — (read “gripping stubbornly with both hands”) — a bad mood that can last hours. I’m looking forward to reading that link, Anna!

For me, though, I’ve found that ANY purely mental activity, such as turning to prayer or making a list of my blessings, is just too liable to get sucked back into my nasty mental loop. I get distracted for a second, forget what I was supposed to be thinking about, and back I go to my well-worn little mental tape. Likewise anything purely physical that doesn’t need my focused attention, like exercise. (I’m quite capable of thinking vicious things while running on a treadmill!)

I have to break away from thoughts altogether and become absorbed in an activity that requires both action and attention, like organizing or cooking. Like everyone else, it seems, the key is to get my thoughts away from myself — I just need a little more structure for doing that, it seems!

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Margaret Cabaniss 8 Margaret Cabaniss April 24, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Ha! Yeah, I see the problem. Cooking and organizing are good suggestions, though; a little sustained distraction is sometimes just what I need.

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