Have you been told to change your “bad mood”?

Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.

Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.

Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.

Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?

Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.

One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.

Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.

When you have no reason to feel the way you feel

People tell me all the time that they don’t deserve to feel the way they feel. When they start to feel sad/distressed/upset, they immediately think of all the positive things they have in their lives, convince themselves that they have no reason be upset, and spend a considerable amount of time in their heads trying to argue away the existence of their emotions. The problem with this kind of response is that it doesn’t make emotions disappear in the long run.

If you are one of these people who has “no reason” to feel the way you feel, here are a couple of things you can try:

1)   Make a list of all the stressors going on in your life. Brainstorm every little thing, even if it seems small. Little things (like an annoying smell) can actually create a lot more stress than actually realize. Doing this exercise can help you actually identify the extent of your stressors. Some people find it quite validating.

2)   Identify if there have been recent changes, losses, or shifts in relationships or life situations that have been hard on you. Sometimes these things seem subtle; such as no longer being able to have lunch with a friend who is suddenly preoccupied with something else in his/her life. This person may have a good reason to stop meeting with you, but the interactions and what they meant to you are suddenly no longer available. This naturally may elicit sadness.

3)   Consider if your environment tends to diminish, dismiss, or ignore your requests to be heard, get your point across, or communicate what you feel. Sometimes people end up in pretty harsh environments and then blame themselves when others ignore or dismiss them.

4)   Even if you can’t figure out why, try focusing instead on the what. What you feel is experienced in your body. A tightness in the chest, a pit at the bottom or your stomach, or a sense of restlessness and agitation are all feelings. When you focus on the what, try to make space for the experience of your feelings to simply exist, without you trying to change them. Your feelings are probably trying to tell you something! This is the opposite of what you do when you can’t figure out why (i.e., ruminate endlessly, suppress feelings, and try to talk yourself out of experiencing what is felt). Give yourself the opportunity to simply allow feelings to be-without a wordy, logistical, or rational explanation.

 

Three things you need to know about anger: Is it mentally “healthy”?

The problem with figuring out if anger is “good” or “bad”; “healthy” or “unhealthy” doesn’t allow any opportunity to figure out what anger does, how it works, and why it makes sense.

Think of your living room couch. Is it a “good” couch or a “bad” couch? Wouldn’t it sort of depend on a bunch of different things- such as comfort, style, how old the couch is, how many people can fit on the couch, or if the couch actually suits you? Usually if a couch has a use, serves a purpose, or does what it is supposed to it is considered valuable. While it is possible that you are sick of your living room couch- perhaps you think it is time to get a new one- your couch may be necessary to hang on to for now. On the flip side, you may be very happy with your living room couch. This could make it more likeable and increase your tendency to say, “It is a good couch.”

Emotions- like anger- are like couches. Instead of thinking about anger as being “good” or “bad”, it is more important to consider the following:

How is anger serving a purpose, fulfilling a function, or doing something useful? Anger can function to communicate, get someone to back off or change behavior, or change a situation for the better. Think of it like a red flag, a signal, or a message.

Is the way in which the expression of anger is effective? In other words, is the way you communicate your anger working for you?  What a person can make use of their anger by being aware of it (experiencing, tolerating, and understanding what it does for them) it increases the opportunity for effective expression (ie, another person heard, understood, and responded accordingly). On the other side, ranting or attacking often hurts relationships and doesn’t always send a clear message about expectations or desired change.

What are the relationship consequences for how the anger is being expressed? Relationships at some point might undergo rifts, misunderstandings, and irritation. The ability for people to tolerate these things in relationships sometimes help people grow, initiate important discussions, and bring about change or intimacy. On the other hand, anger that is overly intense can damage relationships, hurt other people, or add insult to injury.

Is someone you love in extreme emotional distress?

Did you miss the teleseminar in February on

How to Be Around People in Extreme Emotional Distress? 

If so, make sure you sign up for my mailing list so you can be alerted to upcoming classes for April, May, and June of 2014.

Online classes cost about the same as an insurance co-pay, are packed with information, and present opportunities to listen live and ask questions.

Discounts and announcements for all upcoming classes are available to persons on my mailing list.

10 Reasons why you need The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants book this holiday season

1. The Cartoon Elephant book, after being temporarily unavailable through Amazon, is now back on the market. The retail price is $26.95, but sometimes Amazon will let it go for a bit less.

2. Cartoon Elephants approach painful emotions with humor. If there is an elephant in the room in your family, this book is the starting point for approaching avoided conversations. You will recognize yourself and others in this book. There is no finger pointing or blaming.
 
3. Cartoon Elephants is something you can put on your coffee table. Because it is a graphic book with pictures and fun fonts, it is an easy read. The elephants will fit nicely next to big picture books about Africa and Asia.
 
4. The Cartoon Elephant book is being used to teach people in Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills groups about emotions. Loaded with psycho-educational material and teaching points, it cleverly accomplishes the task of making people think they are reading something fun yet giving them something valuable.
 
5. This book is not hard to read. There is no “plugging away” at chapters. If you want to bring something to someone’s attention in a way that is universally applicable, this book will do the trick. You don’t need to have painful emotions to appreciate elephants- you just need to have emotions.
 
6. If you are going to buy someone a self-help book for Christmas, this is safe bet.
Whether they believe it or not, everyone has cartoon elephants. The research proving this to be true is cited in the back of the book.
 
7. This book can be used and re-used, read and re-read. You can share it with family members, friends, or long lost relatives. It won’t go out of style. Emotions, as a rule, will be with you as long as you live.
 
8. You will get some food for thought about how and where you see yourself in relationship to your elephants. This is great for discussion groups, weekend retreats, and writing workshops.
 
9. This book is great for people of all ages. If you’re trying to get your kid to read something important, heavy, and deep, you can give them this book. It won’t take long to read and it is much more fun with illustrations.
 
10. The book will be the perfect introduction for my live series on emotions starting January 20, 2014. Of course you don’t need the book to sign up, but if you have the book you will have a better appreciation for cartoon elephants in general.

 

 

When two different concepts can both be true: A tip for handling and understanding your emotions

Two different concepts that often come up for handling emotions might at first appear contradictory:

1)   In order to handle emotions effectively, a person has to be able to step back and notice what they feel (observe).

2)   In order to survive strong emotions, a person needs to fully experience the nuances and physiological discomfort that arises when emotion is present (enter into the experience).

Can you see how both of these concepts make sense?

Being able to step back and observe emotions is effective because it increases options and awareness for how to respond to emotional material. Without the ability to “stand by”, a person might immediately act on their emotion. When a person always acts on their emotions, he/ she might regret it later. For instance, if you become really angry at someone you care about, you might lash out. The ability to “step back” and observe what you are feeling can help you organize a thoughtful response in which you maintain integrity, speak clearly, and feel better about yourself later. Sometimes refraining from taking immediate action is very effective.

On the other had, a willingness to experience strong emotions when they arise is a critical element to being human and being alive. Emotions give us very important information that we can’t always ignore. When we experience emotions fully, we are in touch with what matters. When we suppress, hide, ignore, or push away strong feelings they may become worse or “blow up” on us down the road.

In some ways, a person can both experience and observe emotion. A willingness to get in touch with what hurts and to hold off on any immediate reactions can increases options for the best response.

Get your cartoon elephants (emotions) some air!

Air1 copy

Here are some tips for breathing:

  • Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. When you breath deeply – into your diaphragm- the hand on your stomach will go up and down. This is one way to develop a feedback loop that will help you breathe in such a way that gets oxygen where it needs to be. Shallow breathing, hiccupy breathing, or shortness of breath can often induce panic like sensations, and can be reflected in the rise and fall of the upper chest.
  • When you breathe, think of ways in which are simply creating space for what you feel. Counteract urges to restrict, suppress, ignore, judge, or inhibit what you feel. Breathe in, around, and through emotions. Practice gently curiosity- soften your stance and allow what’s there to be there. Try softening your facial expression to encourage and invite the process.
  • Find a time during the day to check in with your breath. It’s often when we’re NOT paying attention to our breath that we can make the best use of this simple and accessible skill.

Like cartoon elephants? Sign up for my mailing list to receive notifications on when the book is ready: The emotional extremist’s guide to handling cartoon elephants: How to solve elephantine emotional problems without getting run over, chased, flattened, squished, or abandoned by your true cartoons.

 

 

How snow banks can help you regulate your emotional temperature

One way to reduce emotional arousal is to get your parasympathetic nervous system to help. When people are under emotional duress, their body kicks into fight or flight mode. Emotions serve to protect us by revving up our body and preparing for disaster, threat, humiliation, or the onslaught of a problem. They wake us up to danger signals.

In some cases, people experience danger even when no danger is imminent. Have you ever logically known that a situation wasn’t threatening? For instance, there was no evidence to support your fear, but the emotional part of your brain didn’t seem to care? Or perhaps the threat was removed or resolved, but you remain on pins and needles anyway?

One way to get your emotional temperature down is to use hot and cold temperatures to change your physiological experience. Taking a hot bath or shower or using ice is one way in which people can get their parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and speed the process of lowering emotional arousal.

Here are some more specific suggestions for how to use ice:

1) Buy an ice pack (ie, for sports injuries) to keep in your freezer. When you need to decrease your emotional temperature, take it out, wrap it in a light towel, and apply it around the base of your neck or over your face/ eyes.

2) Stick your face in a basin filled with water and ice cubes.

3) Stick your foot or hand in a bucket filled with water and ice cubes.

4) Stick your hand in a snow bank, hold cold snow in your hand, or put cold snow around your neck.

For best results, don’t fight the ice. In other words, stop doing any activity that re-actives emotional arousal (ranting, arguing, obsessing, analyzing, etc.). Let the ice do the work.