Lifestyle And Practical Changes That Can Improve Mood
If you're experiencing feelings of depression or stress and anxiety there are some standard lifestyle or practical changes that can help improve how you're feeling. These changes seem to raise peoples' mood overall and diminish negative emotions, and their effects, at the source.
If your symptoms are mild enough, these changes may be all that's needed to make them go away. Even if they don't fully eliminate an anxious or depressed mood, they often do a lot to take the edge off. If the symptoms are more severe, more help will probably be needed.
I think the more of these approaches someone applies, the better. However most people tend to feel certain suggestions resonate with them more than others. Pick and choose the concepts that stand out the most to you.
Deal with the legitimate problems and stresses in your life
Sometimes people become depressed or anxious for no discernible reason. However there are often real issues that bring these feelings on and sustain them. Some common stressful events people struggle with are:
- Life transitions, e.g., moving to a new city, starting university, getting married, being promoted to a management position.
- Role transitions, e.g., having to change from a fairly care-free adult to a responsible parent.
- Losses, e.g., the death of a loved one, ending a relationship, being laid off, losing a limb in a car accident.
- Relationship conflicts, e.g., fighting a lot with your parents or girlfriend, tension between you and your boss, or you and your daughter.
- Financial stresses, e.g., barely being able to pay the bills every month, your car suddenly needing expensive repairs.
- School-related stress, e.g., not being able to handle the workload, not liking your major, but not knowing what else to do.
- Job-related stress, e.g., hating your job but feeling trapped in it, constantly being under pressure to meet deadlines.
- Health problems, e.g., finding out you have diabetes, recovering from knee surgery.
Obviously this article can't explain how to handle all these issues, though there are plenty of other resources you can turn to. If any of these apply to you, taking steps to resolve them directly should do a lot to make you feel better. Even if you can't solve them in an afternoon, just knowing you're taking steps to do something about them should provide some sense of relief. Of course, if your negative mood is due to some sort of social problem, or rusty interpersonal skills, then the other articles on this site can assist in handling that.
Talk to other people and get their support
Our problems and our negative moods seem so much harder to deal with if we feel like we have to go it alone. Telling someone else what's bothering you can take a huge weight off your shoulders. Sometimes just talking about our issues out loud takes away some of their power and provides a space for us to work things out on our own. Other people may offer practical help too, not just provide emotional support. Sometimes letting people know you're struggling can be the first step in starting to actively get things under control.
Friends and family are obvious places to start, though if those aren't available there are other services you can access. If you're in university you may be able to see a counselor for free through your school's Counseling Services. Many communities also have low cost agencies that provide counseling. There are anonymous support lines as well. There are internet resources such as supportive forums.
There are doubts people can have with the idea of reaching out for help. Some feel their friends and family won't want to hear what they have to say. At times this is a totally true, legitimate concern. Though sometimes you'd be surprised. Also, sometimes it's the depression or anxiety talking, and making you think, "Oh, there's no point." Some people also find their family and friends are supportive at first, but after a while they start to develop an attitude of, "Okay, stop whining and do something about it already." If this is the case you may want to talk to someone else, or try working with a professional. Their specific job is to understand and help, and not say unhelpful things like, "Ugh, just snap out of it already! You don't even have it that bad!"
Exercise is one of the most effective ways to regulate your mood. It just seems to reduce negative feelings, gets you thinking straighter, and makes you feel better. It's like taking some sort of powerful medication, except that the drugs are naturally created in your own body and they don't have any side effects.
Although this suggestion is often extremely helpful, it's so simple and well-known that sometimes people hear it and brush it off with, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, exercise more. Gotcha. What other ideas do you have?" It's almost like some people think any good solution has to be really obscure and complicated and take a long time to have explained to them.
It's beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about how to start an exercise routine. One thing to note is that anything is better than nothing. Even taking a half-hour walk once a day to get some air can help. On the other hand, something more intense is going to have a bigger effect. Cycling for an hour four times a week is on a different level than doing light housework. Sure, there are government guidelines that say someone only has to exercise for 20 minutes three times a week, but our bodies are capable of being much more active than that.
Probably the biggest objections people have to this suggestion is that they don't like to exercise, or they feel like starting up a program is too much of a hassle, or that they don't have time. I can't really make anyone do anything they don't want to. I'm just saying that not exercising means leaving one of the most effective treatments for depression and anxiety on the table.
I find exercising regularly is all about finding something that you like to do. There's more to working out than slogging away for half an hour on a boring treadmill. The other thing is that if you can just get it over with, the hassle of starting a program isn't that bad. In terms of the time commitment, I think it's a question of what you want to prioritize. Also, if they work out at home I think even the busiest person can carve half an hour out of their day if they really want to.
When they hear this suggestion some people will say, "I already exercise and I still feel bad." Exercise definitely helps, but it's not a cure-all. I'd say if nothing else, don't cut down what you're doing already. Maybe even try taking it up a notch and see what happens. Otherwise, try some other approaches from this article as well.
Here are a couple more snags people run into: Someone with depression may not have the motivation to exercise. They may need to try some other approaches to break down some of their apathy and lethargy first. That or they may need to start with something very small that they can handle.
Also, sometimes people with depression will find exercising to just be another source of things to get down about; "I'm so much more out of shape than everyone else at the gym.", "I can hardly lift any weight", "I got winded on the elliptical trainer after only five minutes." In this case they may need to work on handling their negative thoughts, perhaps by trying not to see exercise as all about numbers and performance and comparisons, and instead something to just do for its own sake regardless of how 'good' they are at it.
Sometimes a person with anxiety will avoid exercising because they don't like the physical sensations it causes, such as an increased heart rate. They may need help learning to handle their fear of certain physical feelings.
Purposely fit fun, rewarding things into your day
This one can seem a little weird at first, but makes a lot of sense soon enough. Doing fun things makes you happy. Being happy counteracts feelings of depression and anxiety. When people are in a funk they can sometimes get into a rut where they don't do many genuinely enjoyable activities. They may aimlessly browse the internet or turn on the TV and watch a few episodes of a so-so series. Stuff like that is kind of entertaining, but it's more killing time than anything, and it's not the same as doing something that's more purposefully fun. On a similar note, if someone is really busy and stressed out, they may not set aside time to recharge their batteries. Of course, when I say pick fun things to do, I'm referring to healthy activities. Meeting your friends for a few drinks at a pub would be fine. Getting hammered in order to blot out your feelings, not so much.
Sometimes it's not even about doing things that are extra fun, it's about just doing anything at all, when the alternative would be hanging around and doing nothing. The idea is to get out of the house and do what you need to do. This is a well-known Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment for depression. It's called Activity Scheduling or Behavioral Activation. When people get depressed they can fall into a vicious cycle where they don't have the energy or motivation to do much. This causes them to have fewer positive experiences, which makes them even more down, which makes them even more unmotivated to do anything. This cycle can be broken by purposely scheduling in activities that the person does regardless of how they feel. What often happens is they'll be glad they did them after the fact, even if they weren't keen about it beforehand. Over time all the positive experiences add up and help improve their mood.
Anxiety and depression often come as a package. Someone who's anxious may not want to do much because they feel their nerves will get in the way. They can end up deprived of positive experiences and become more down. Purposely doing fun things can alleviate the depressed/anxious package. Even when a person feels a little nervous about doing something, if it's fun enough, they'll often see they joy they get out of it as being more important, and worth it compared to any discomfort they felt.
There are more details to Activity Scheduling than what I covered, though for many people just the above overview is enough to give them an idea of what they need to do. If you want more details you can do a Google search on the topic, or find a book which covers it further.
If someone's negative moods are more severe they may not be able to even get started on this approach, and other strategies may be needed.
Take time to relax
Just as doing fun things counteracts negative moods, so do experiences that make you feel calm and relaxed and content. This includes things such as meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation, or deep breathing exercises. It doesn't need to be that formal though. It could also be something like a long bath, a slow walk through the woods near your house, doing yoga, or sitting in your garden on a nice summer evening. Whatever mellows you out.
I think what's important is that whatever you do is set aside and framed as a time for purposely unwinding and slowing down and relaxing. Sitting in a park and watching the birds won't help if you're checking your work email on your smartphone the entire time.
Regarding meditation, many people try to take it up and find they just can't get into it. I think that's totally okay, as there are other ways to unwind. Sometimes meditation can be extra useful though as the whole philosophy around it can also have benefits. For example, with some types of meditation - the mindfulness approach - the idea is to non-judgmentally observe any thought that passes into your mind. This approach can then be used in your day-to-day life: "Oh, I'm having the thought that no one likes me. That's nice. I'll just observe that thought, not act on it, and let it pass." I cover that a little more in this article.
Get enough sun or light
This one applies to anyone who lives in northern areas with long, dark winters. Some people develop full-on Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depressed mood, because they don't get enough sunlight during this time of the year. However, many others just get mildly down in the winter, simply because it's a crappy season in a lot of ways.
Making an extra effort to get enough light can help. Real sunlight is best, but even being somewhere that's brightly and artificially lit is better than being in a place that's dim. Standard suggestions include things like trying to get out for a walk during the afternoon when the sun is the brightest, using full spectrum light bulbs around the house (they cost about the same as regular bulbs), or buying a light therapy lamp. If you can afford it, taking a trip somewhere warmer can help a lot. Taking Vitamin D supplements can also be good.
There are two aspects to this. One is the general idea that eating junky food can indirectly make people feel more 'blah'. Sometimes people's diets more directly contribute to their problems. For example, if someone is anxious, and they also drink tons of coffee and pop every day, it's not hard to see the connection. Alcohol use can contribute to feelings of depression.
Depression and anxiety can both cause sleep problems. Depression can make someone sleep too much or too little. Anxiety can make someone too worried and revved up to fall asleep. This suggestion isn't about how to deal with those issues.
Sometimes someone will feel a little anxious or depressed, but it won't really disturb their sleep patterns. However, their sleep habits may be less-than-perfect for other reasons, and that may be feeding their negative mood. It's tricky to feel your best when you're dragging yourself around because you've been sleeping two hours a night less than you need.
Once again, this article can't outline every strategy for sleeping properly. Here are some quick standard suggestions though:
- Try to get up at roughly the same time during the weekends as during the week. This forces you to settle on a schedule that lets you get enough sleep every night, rather than depriving yourself during the week and trying to make it all up on Saturday and Sunday.
- Try to go to bed at a reasonable time. Some people unintentionally fall into a habit of staying up later and later.
- Wind down as the evening goes on. Don't try to do something like study for three hours, and then expect to fall asleep five minutes later.
- Cut down on the caffeine towards the end of the day.
- If you find yourself going to bed late, don't nap too much the next day. Tough it out so you'll be nice and tired the next night. Habitual napping just perpetuates the problem. However, the occasional nap is fine if you normally go to bed on time, but just had a rare late night.
- Make your room as dark and cozy as possible. Buy a better pillow or mattress if you need to. Get thick, light-blocking curtains. Maybe even get a sleep mask or ear plugs if the situation calls for it.
- Try little tricks like having a hot shower half an hour before bed. The change in body temperature helps nudge your brain into Sleep Mode.
- Use your bedroom only for sleeping, or if you have to hang out in your bedroom, at least do other stuff away from your bed and reserve that for resting.
- Staring at bright screens can trick your brain into staying awake, so before bed get away from the TV or computer and do something like reading instead.
- Keep any clocks out of view in your room. If you're having trouble falling asleep you don't want to add to the stress by knowing what time it is and exactly how many hours you've already lost for the night.
- If you can't sleep right away, don't sweat it too much. Don't beat yourself up for failing to fall asleep at the perfect time. Just lie there a little longer, or get up for a bit and do something else.
This article covered broad lifestyle changes. Another suggestion to help your overall mood is to do some exercises that steer your thinking in a more positive direction. I describe two straightforward, effective ones in the piece below: