Continuing the discussion of strategies to enhance our moods during the fall and winter, let’s continue with cognitive and emotional strategies.
How we think about and interpret our experience has a powerful effect on our mood and outlook. Here are a couple of strategies to foster a more adaptive mindset as a way to manage our moods.
One deception inherent in depression is the feeling or belief that you will always feel this way; that the depression will never lift. What is true about emotions is that they change. Indeed, they are designed to change. Emotions are like tides, they come and recede, sometimes feeling stronger than at other times. But just like the tide recedes, emotions too will ebb in their intensity. Further, emotions are complex. You can feel more than one emotion at a time. A cognitive strategy to manage negative emotions is to use mindfulness techniques.
- Observe your emotions, non-judgmentally, without becoming over-identified with them. That is, you can identify that you are feeling a certain way, but don’t translate that into the belif that you are a certain way. A simple way to observe without identifying with our emotions, is to say, “I’m having the feeling of…” followed by the identified feeling. This is different than saying, “I’m depressed,” which is a statement of over-identification with emotions. Adding, “I’m having the feeling of” at the front end of an emotion acknowledges that you are having an experience but you are not your experience.
- Notice when your emotions shift. When do you feel those feelings more intensely and less intensely? Are there even times during a day that you find yourself feeling happy? Or laughing? Noticing how emotions shift in intensity as well as shift into other emotions, like positive ones, is important to build awareness and hope that difficult emotions are not permanent experiences.
When we feel down, we don’t want to do much, if anything. Getting out of bed can feel hard enough. When we anticipate activities, we think they may be more painful than pleasurable and so withdraw and avoiding engaging in our life in important ways. One way to combat this is to schedule fun, pleasurable activities into our life. This may sound like a behavioral strategy and it is, in part. In fact, this strategy is technically a “cognitive behavioral strategy” so it’s both! The cognitive part comes in challenging the thoughts that we can’t have fun or enjoy ourselves when we feel sad or depressed.
- Write down some activities that you usually enjoy when you feel more like yourself. Then rank, or predict how pleasurable the event would be to you now, on a scale of 1-10.
- Then, make yourself engage in the activity.
- After the activity, reflect on how pleasurable it was and rank it again from 1-10. Compare the two ratings. Most often we find that we enjoy an activity more than we predicted we would! This helps build recognition that we can facilitate and engender positive emotions, and helps us continue to engage in our lives, regardless of difficult emotions.
Pleasure scheduling Take II:
Make a list of activities or events that you can look forward to. Have this list include things in the near future (within the month) as well as more distant future, like next summer. After you make this list, you may enjoy thinking about what you can do in anticipation of these events. For example, you will find me planning my summer Canadian hiking trip in the next couple months. Researching, planning, and preparing for events as well as anticipating them, helps to boost our mood.
It is not uncommon when people feel depressed that criticize and judge themselves for their experience. They feel deep shame that they can’t just “snap out of it” and this shame serves to further darken their moods. Instead of judging and criticizing ourselves for our struggles, self-compassion entails extending ourselves the same kindness, caring and understanding we would to a dear friend who was in the same position.
Self-compassion also involves recognizing and honoring our humanness; our chronic imperfections.Recognizing our human condition allows us to not feel alone, as we are connected fundamentally to other flawed humans all around the world. I can promise you that while someone may not share your exact experience, there are others (likely thousands, perhaps millions) who understand how you feel and are feeling the same way too.
Meaning in struggle:
Our experiences are made easier when we find meaning in them. To quote Nietzsche or Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” is really true. There are so many metaphors about how struggle refines us, shapes us, and offers us the chance to become better, more resilient, more compassionate, more insightful versions of ourselves. I will spare you by refraining from sharing metaphors here but they are helpful reminders about this truth: struggle is not inherently bad. Indeed, struggle is powerful, meaningful, empowering and ultimately life changing.
We get choice in the meaning we find in our struggles. What do you want your struggle to mean to you, or for you, or about you? Do you want it to help you realize you Do Hard Things? Do you want to use this experience to build compassion and skills to in turn help others through their struggles? Do you want it to help challenge and refine how you connect to your higher power? The options are really endless and the more personal the meaning is for you, the more helpful it will be as you move through this journey.
Look for beauty:
Even on the coldest, darkest, most polluted fall or winter day, we can find something beautiful. (Pollution often makes for the best sunsets, ironically). Beauty can be found outside, or in a song, or in the taste of your favorite warm soup, or in the giggle of a child. Whenever we recognize something as beautiful, take a moment and be completely present with that experience. Yesterday, I was at the park and saw a baby hawk perched on the top of a tree, watching me. A BABY HAWK! It was such a cool moment! Absorb the beauty of the moment for all it’s worth. And even if the moment is fleeting, that moment will feel, well for lack of a better word, beautiful.
Finally, remember, during the dark and cold months of the year, that spring does and will return!