Hello friends! It’s Elodie Under Glass here with a guest post on Low Moods.
I particularly want to thank Quisty, Kellis Amberlee and TheOtherAlice for their kindly help in reading and editing this piece. It would not have existed without their care, support, compassion, and wonderful editorial abilities. They are truly remarkable humans! (edited: And thanks to the radiant and patient NessieMonster, who let me come to her city and follow her around, burbling insensibly about this post, for far longer than most people would have.)
So recently, I went on a Stress and Mood Management course, and I thought that you all might enjoy sharing what I’ve learned.
This post is something of a correction/update to Adulthood is a Scary Horse, a post for the Captain which I was never quite satisfied with. It really crystallized for me on this course, in our discussion of the Low Mood Cycle. It’s a concept described in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I thought it would be useful to share.
I am not a mental health professional (more caveats on that at the end). But I felt that if these resources had been usefully presented for free on the Internet – especially during times where taking a train and a bus and a taxi to get to a day-long course seemed like organizing a picnic on Venus – it could have helped me that little bit sooner. Maybe it will help others.
What is this Low Mood?
Moods are curious things. We instinctively know what they are (“I’m in a bad mood! I’m in a good mood!”) and how they affect our behavior (“I should never respond to Internet comments unless I’m in a good mood.”) We recognize that we really don’t like to be in Bad Moods or Sad Moods, while much of our free time is spent in pursuing Good Moods. We know intuitively that odd things seem to affect our mood, sometimes apparently out of all proportion - “A bus driver was mean to me, and while I know that it’s not really significant, it’s ruined my whole day.”
We can spend weeks or months or years in a poor mood, which doesn’t seem quite bad enough for us to call it a mental health problem, or a reason to seek professional help. It’s a funny thing – we don’t really trust our moods as valid emotional states – and really, something as transient and odd as a “mood” doesn’t seem like something that can be treated or cured.
But remember how terrible you feel when you’re in a Low Mood? If we’re creative people, we may explain away the apparent drought in our creativity by saying “I’m just not in the mood to write/paint/draw,” while secretly panicking because what if we’ve lost our creativity? If we’re performative people – people who work in food service, retail, performance art, or another field where you need to project happiness and serenity to do your job – then expressing a Happy Mood when you’re in a Low Mood can feel like operating the most exhausting puppet show ever. It’s really hard to “just do you” when you just don’t feel like it.
Everyone feels like this – it is a natural thing, with underlying logic to it. Here is a diagram of a Mood Cycle, a self-perpetuating hamster wheel which literally every human deals with:
Thoughts influence behavior, which influences outcome, which in turn feeds back into your thoughts.
If you’re in a bad place, this is one way that the cycle of badness continues to percolate in your head. And we’ve all been there – we’ve all seen how Low Mood affects your health, productivity, relationships, creative output, and mental outlook. Which is to say: A good deal of your life.
or if you’re me, it’s a bit more like
If you’re in situations that encourage the Low Mood Cycle – certain types of relationships, jobs and living situations are basically designed to put you into this Cycle and keep you there – it becomes almost impossible to see beyond your current mood. It becomes hard to remember those times where you were really bright and motivated and funny, and you wanted to see your friends and go places and do new things, and you were completing all kinds of projects and doing good exercise and engaging with your life. And remembering those times can be kind of worse, because you’re like “I was that person? How?”
“I can’t believe I had a pink phase. It must have looked really stupid.”
Here’s how one facet of the creative process can look when it’s fed into the Low Mood Cycle:
Image: This cycle moves from “I never complete anything. I feel awful – I keep failing at completing stuff.” to “I won’t start any new stuff.” to “I never do anything and I never finish anything” and back again.
Which is pretty familiar to everyone. Thought feeds into Behavior which feeds into Outcome, creating a pattern that strangles your creative attempts in the womb.
Much Behavior! Such Motivate!
So how do we stop the Low Mood Cycle? We push on any part of it we can, but it’s quite effective to push on Behavior. Specifically, it’s called “behavioral activation” – go forth and complete a task.
If you are stuck in a small and transient Low Mood Cycle and your dirty environment is feeding into that, you break the cycle by getting up and washing the dishes. Of course you don’t want to. Of course this is the last thing you want to do when you’re in a Low Mood. But completing a specific task breaks the cycle.
Image: Here the thought-behavior-outcome cycle is broken at Behavior. A new arrow comes off it, leading to a new event, marked “Behavioral Activation.”
For extra points, you can break down the Stuff You Do into three categories:
- routine stuff (getting up, grooming, eating, taking anti-baby pills)
- necessary stuff (paying bills, doing chores, completing work tasks)
- pleasurable stuff.
If you aren’t doing enough of one behavioral category, completing tasks in another category will prove refreshing and motivating. If you’re so bogged down in work, stress and lethargy that you’ve neglected your beauty routine, then set yourself the task of cleaning up your eyebrows.
because you’s worth it.
At this point in the course, the therapists who were teaching it looked at each other sadly and Mentioned The Housework. When you get home, and you’ve been drained and picked at and worked hard, and your mood is Low, and there is the Housework, the last fucking thing you want to do on this earth is the Housework, because obviously the thing you need to pick you up is Pudding. And it is not Housework Time: it is time to eat pudding. But – the therapists stressed this carefully, aware that they were blowing our minds – if you do the Housework first, then you can still eat the pudding. And it will be the Pudding of Getting Shit Done. And you’ll feel better! They promised this, while the entire room of people looked at them with deep suspicion.
“This sounds like a trap.”
“Motivation comes after action,” the course leaders said a few times, so that we really got it. The idea is to get yourself into a nice cycle of self-esteem and self-reinforcement, starting with small things:
Many people find that doing things for others cheers them up – giving a flower to a strange child, complimenting someone in the market, or making people laugh give them those good, accomplished, connected feelings.
Many people find that they already do too much stuff for others. These people may get more benefit from doing stuff for themselves – breaking a low mood induced by spending all their energy on others by practicing self-care.
Some activation tasks, which may or may not work for you:
- Unfuck a very small portion of your habitat
- Write the email to the loved one
- Make the to-do list and admire it
- SEND the email to the loved one
- pick out the new shoes you need online and buy them
- wash out the bowls that the pets eat from or live in
- wash out the bowls that you eat from or live in?!
- wash the thing you’ve been meaning to wash
- take everything out of your Sock Collection and give all the lonely socks some sock friends and fold them up together like “heck yeah, I’m shipping these two socks. NOW KISS”
- open the envelope that doesn’t look like a good envelope
- argh ARGH it’s a bill why is mail
- pAY THE BILL YES GOOD JOB
YOU’RE SO GOOD AT MAIL
Then a nice thing to do might be to head over to the Friends of Captain Awkward Forum, go to the forum marked “Success Stories,” and share your winningness with the community. If you don’t want to make a whole post, the generous Rose Fox started a thread called “How Were You Awesome Today?” that would greatly benefit from your contributions! Because you are great and the things you do are great.
Do Only Doable Things
For 100% best effects, it’s recommended that you pick small, realistic things to do, with a starting point and an ending point, that don’t cost much money or sustained physical effort. If you decide to break out of the Low Mood Cycle with some vague and worthy goal – like “Today I will no longer be sad! I will write a novel and run five miles!” then that’s probably not going to happen, and then you’ll be more sad. If you are a person whose resting energy levels are quite low, then don’t say “I will cheer myself up by CLEANING THE WHOLE HOUSE FOREVER.” It just trips a switch back into feeling bad:
Here is how the brilliant, lovely and eternally helpful Quisty put it:
A useful exercise to employ can be to ask yourself, “on a scale from 1-10 where 1 is impossible and 10 is ‘it’s more automatic than breathing’ how sure am I can do this thing? Once you hit on something that scores you 8 or higher, do that.
How useful this is depends on how amenable you are to scales. Also don’t be afraid to adjust your scale if it turns out that your Low Mood has yours all fucked up. They need calibrating sometimes.
Don’t write a novel. Write 500 words of crap in your journal. Don’t renovate the house. Do a nice thing for the fish.
“AND ON THIS DAY, I WILL GIVE THE FISH A WALK AND A BATH.”
The clever and compassionate Kellis also reminded me that many of us, particularly those socialized as ladyfolk, feel pressure to take on Huge Projects while pretending that it’s No Big Thing. Kellis reminds us:
when in doubt, pick a smaller thing.
Say No to People Who Contribute Fruit Flies
What if you’re pretty confident in your own self, but you find that there are certain people in your life who slap down or minimize your achievements?
If you’re in a situation where people deliberately foster and perpetuate the Low Mood Cycle on you, the solution is:
- get the hell out
- get the hell out
- get the hell out of there
And if you can’t do that because of REASONS (and of course there are REASONS, I recognize that):
- think of some solutions
- there are definitely some solutions
- get the hell out of there
Because that is a thing that abusive people do for REASONS of their own: shutting off the part of your brain that deals in motivations, solutions, action plans and goals is a great way to keep you dependent on them. The Low Mood Cycle basically flicks that reward-switch off, making you a smaller person. It’s hard to program yourself out of it. But it’s even harder if you’re trying to round up and trap and defeat and kill all of those little fruit-fly voices in your head, while your partner or your mother or your boss is moving placidly around the kitchen of your brain, planting rotten bananas.
I’m Basically Okay, It’s Just That There’s So Many Assholes
THIS IS A COMMON PROBLEM.
What about when small things – like the mean bus driver, or the microaggressions, or even a friend on the street who appears to not acknowledge you – affect your mood? Obviously there are Reasons for you to be affected by this; nobody is denying the Reasons. But how are we going to feel about that? Note, of course, that you can feel whatever feelings you like, however you want to feel them.
A good way to regain your place at the center of your personal universe is to acknowledge why this is affecting your mood, and to reason with yourself about it.
In the case of the friend apparently cutting you dead – it is a very reasonable thing in my book to assume that this is because they have always secretly hated you. This could bring you down a lot, making you irritable and occupying your thoughts for the rest of the day. It could even affect your relationship with that friend, as you begin to resent them for not noticing you. But stop. Think about it. What are some more practical reasons why your friend might not see you on the street?
- They didn’t see you.
- They had headphones/sunglasses on and didn’t notice you.
- They didn’t recognize you.
- Their thoughts were occupied with something else.
- You know them from a specific circumstance that they don’t want acknowledged in public.
- They are trying to avoid someone you were with.
- They had a migraine and were trying to avoid everything.
- It wasn’t your friend at all, just someone who resembled them.
These are much better thoughts to work with than immediately jumping to the conclusion that you are no longer friends. What are some things you could do to feel even better about it?
- Stop and call out the name of the friend, seeing if they respond.
- Call or text the friend – ask them if they’re all right.
- Decide to move on.
Re-aligning your Thoughts is an important part of fixing your Mood. It’s smaller than Behavior, but sometimes harder. Your negative, self-hating, gloomily triumphant thoughts are really invested in being in your head – like weeds or viruses. To fulfill their evolutionary prerogative, they want to breed and infect most of your mental landscape. But they generally aren’t correct, and don’t come from a complete picture of reality.
The key thing to remember here is that you, yourself, are indeed Basically Okay. It’s just these uncontrollable other assholes that are the problem.
If you find yourself particularly affected by anxiety about other people’s perceptions of you, one thing that may help is keeping a Folder of Excellence. Keep nice things that other people have said about you there. Keep photos of yourself that you like. Keep your love letters, and records of texts you’ve gotten from cuties, and nice things people have said about your work, and silly birthday cards from your best-beloved ones. I am frequently totally convinced that I am unlikeable, untalented, useless, and hated by all who know me; nothing silences my panic spirals like Evidence Against Them.
And if you’d like a few more nice things said about you to add to your Folder, we can arrange that too.
But I Can’t Because of Thing
At this point in the course, the other attendees were getting restless and needed to Explain. They had some problems with all of this and wanted to be excused. As we were quite a diverse group, there was a great diversity of Reasons, as predictable as if they had been reading from a script. Women in real jewelry shrilled and men with dirty shirts snarled, and the woman who’d said she led a Christian choir rang out like a great bell. “I can’t do this because I’m in a wheelchair.” “I can’t do this because I have no time.” “I can’t do this because I’m too tired.” “I can’t because I’m too poor.” “And my father won’t let me leave the house.”
“Okay,” the ladies teaching the course said peaceably.
Everyone waited expectantly for the Magic Solution, for the acknowledgement of the justifications, for the big Doctor’s Note excusing them from this assignment. The ladies looked serene and wrote all the Reasons on their big flip pad.
“I mean,” said the beautiful brown lady in the sharp suit who was writing the Reasons down. “It’s not like we’re assigning you homework.”
“It’s not like you’re supposed to impress us,” said the beautiful fat white lady in the vintage tea dress, who was flipping the pages. “Or anybody else.”
“You said that we could break the Low Mood Cycle by getting a haircut!” said the lady with no hair in a tone of great betrayal. “I have no hair!“
“Okay,” said the lady in the suit, as if she had stepped down from a stained glass window.
“Don’t get a haircut,” said the lady in the tea dress kindly.
The lady with no hair said “But what should I do?” She dropped her question like a stone, like a trump card, like a heavy weight, a challenge: who dared to pick her burden up again? Her need was alarming. Everyone thought Oh goodness, what am I doing here, when this lady is here who has no hair? Is it because she is dying? If she is dying, what good will any of this do? How can I come here wanting help, with my little anxieties and crying jags, and sit next to the Lady Who Has No Hair? Her pure, raw need sucked all of the noise from the little room, and people stilled and stared at one another, until the young woman whose hot-pink nails matched her hot-pink hijab and hot-pink Converse rolled her eyes and called across the room “Do your nails.”
“Oh!” said the lady with no hair, and looked at her nails with some surprise. Then she looked at the young woman’s hot pink nails, which appeared to glow, with the gleam of growing greed.
“You could play games on your computer,” said the woman with a voice like a bell.
“Oh?” said the lady with no hair doubtfully.
“They’re not like they used to be, with all that shootin, tellin boys to steal cars,” said the woman with a voice like a bell. “There are nice games now – gardenin games.”
The ladies who ran the course wrote this down too. They wrote everything down, and then stared at it lovingly, so that we stared at it too, as if it had suddenly been transmuted into truth because it was written down.
Because breaking the Low Mood Cycle? Here’s what it’s NOT about:
- making money
- being a good role model
- impressing others
- “improving” yourself (where the benchmarks for “improvement” are placed by society to make 99% of people feel bad)
- acquiring skills or moods to function better in a capitalist environment
- doing stuff to appeal to others
- making yourself easier to be around for others
Here’s what it’s supposed to be about:
- doing you
- getting good at doing you
- remembering what it feels like to be good at doing you
- reclaiming yourself and the things that you love
- feeling proud of yourself, not disappointed by yourself
- recovering your mood
- getting rid of a hollow feeling
- recovering that lost-feeling Thing that you need and love about yourself
I’m not an expert. Captain Awkwarddotcom generally recommends professional therapy. This is not a cure for deep depression, or indeed for anything at all – this is just some diagrams and metaphors that explain the Low Mood Cycle, how it can sap your creativity and motivation, and how to go about ending it.
Think Yourself Happy/Cook Yourself Happy/Unfuck Your Habitat for Emotional Fulfillment suggestions are just not going to fucking cut it in a lot of situations, and that’s okay too! We’re just talking about that state that we all get into of wanting to be the Life of the Party but having only enough energy to be the Housepet of the Party.
“I’m going to stalk dramatically through the center of the conversation and then disappear. Don’t touch me.”
And Then The Lights Like Stars
So long story short: none of this helped with my current habit of ragefainting during driving lessons, which was what I had originally gone to the doctor for. Knowing about the Low Mood Cycle and battling your fruit-fly thoughts can only take you so far. But here’s where it took me.
The lights shone in my face and the invisible audience behind the glare were clapping and laughing and sending back these golden sparks of we like you, we think you are a funny lady. And there was the high, that high of being imperfect, but doing okay stuff, putting it out there, seeing it well-received.
Sometimes when you do you, people like it. And you’re like yes, wait a minute, that’s true – that’s who I am. I’m not a particularly sad person. I just have sad parts.
That’s worth breaking out of any Low Mood Cycle for.
We are all grey sometimes, but under the lights, we are really bright and great – and we are inherently, wonderfully worthy.
“I have perfect eyebrows, and many people like me because of my beautiful soul!”
Go forth, Awkward Army, and know that you have inherently beautiful souls that other people like an awful lot.