A change of mood

Mood swings may not be as unpredictable as the weather - and much easier to forecast. By Jerome Burne
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Most of us regard our moods as being rather like the weather - it is something that colours the whole day, comes from somewhere else and over which we have little control. Not that there isn't a range of folk remedies for dealing with a bad one: "Just snap out of it. Have a good cry. Talk to a friend - a problem shared is a problem halved. Pamper yourself." And then there is what most of us actually do - reach for the bottle or the coffee pot, swallow platefuls of cakes and ice cream, light up a fag or sit in a darkened room and wail.

Trouble is, the latest American research reveals that all these favourite mood-changing ploys are very ineffective. Robert Thayer, professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach, is one of the world's leading researchers into moods and his latest book puts forward a new theory about what to do to change them and why. There are a few surprises. For instance, men, contrary to popular opinion, are actually better at dealing with their moods than women. Not only that, but the time-honoured female techniques of pouring it all out to a friend or having a good cry are often a waste of time.

"Moods are composed of two dimensions," says Thayer. "These are high or low energy and high or low tension. That gives you four broad types of mood - high energy/high tension, low energy/high tension and so on." The best one, when we feel good and can get things done, is high energy/low tension. It's how we feel after a bit of brisk exercise - positive, confident, on top of things. The opposite is low energy/high tension, when we feel depressed and are full of negative gloomy thoughts about how awful the world is, ourselves in particular.

His approach makes it possible to forecast moods and be much more precise about controlling them. For instance, we all have a daily energy rhythm - on average, we start low, build up to a peak around midday, dip down, pick up a bit in the later afternoon and then tail off towards the evening, larks and owls excepted. So, because of the link between energy levels and mood, we can predict that an increase in tension will produce a more gloomy outlook at those times of day when our energy regularly takes a dip. Knowing that, you can take it into account.

"We get students to discover their own daily energy rhythm by noting how they feel every hour for ten days," says Thayer, "We have found that they are statistically likely to take problems more seriously during the low points - usually early afternoon or evening - than at their energy peak." Our daily rhythms then interact with all sorts of external mood changers such as physical exercise, food, lack of sleep and stress.

Thayer's theory fits all those elements into a pattern and then allows you to think about changing your mood depending on whether you need more or less energy or tension. When going to sleep, for instance, low energy/low tension is good, while for a crucial meeting, high energy/high tension is probably useful.

As part of his research program, he drew up a list of the things people do when a bad mood strikes - such as chatting to a friend, shutting yourself in your room, going for a run - and then used questionnaires to find out which were the most successful.

Not surprisingly, what might be termed the professional methods of mood changing work best, such as exercise - one of the best all-round methods for affecting mood - and relaxation. It works by both boosting endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, and by showing depressed people that there is something they can do to change the way they feel. Relaxation techniques are similarly effective, as is giving yourself a pep-talk to overcome those habitual negative thoughts. Like exercise and pep-talks, they all involve being positive and active.

Energy boosters: active approach

drawing up lists to plan your time

listening to music

having sex

making jokes

taking a shower or a bath

There is good news for slobs, too, because the more self-indulgent, lazy options seem to work just as well. Thayer calls these "pleasant distracters" - doing chores, doing something you enjoy, watching TV, shopping, reading or writing - and claims they are almost as effective as the professional techniques.

Energy boosters: casual approach

doing something you enjoy

going for a drive or a walk

avoiding the person or thing that is troubling you

Energy destroyers

calling up a friend and talking about it

having a good yell or a cry

eating

getting drunk

smoking

being alone

watching TV

drinking coffee

resting or sleeping

having sex without anything else active.

The fact that sex is and isn't useful is a good example of how Dr Thayer's findings let you tailor your techniques. Turning to sex and drugs to handle a bad mood is a favourite male response and also a very inefficient one. On the other hand, it's wonderful as a way of releasing tension, but it is the wrong strategy if you want to relax.

For advanced mood changers keen to manipulate the energy or tension components of their moods separately, these are the do's and dont's. For energy, use some of the techniques for active mood change such as relaxation, exercise or giving yourself a pep talk. For dealing with tension, active techniques such as making lists, relaxing and exercising are all useful.

Tension busters

enjoying a hobby

shopping

doing chores

having sex

reading or writing

spiritual or religious activities

Tension creators

eating

getting drunk

crying it out

talking it through with a friend

smoking

Nervous behaviour such as fidgeting or pacing

"The Origin of Everyday Moods: Managing Energy, Tension and Stress" by Robert E Thayer (Oxford University Press).

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