Coping Better With Life's Ups and Downs

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Have you ever woken up in a bad mood for no particular reason? Then, after one of "those days," you reach the conclusion that your bad mood was actually the high point?

On days like that, we wish we’d never gotten out of bed.

In my line of work I meet many people who have turbulent or troubled thoughts and emotions. Yet, after we’ve unpacked the issues and discussed them, it’s often the case that things weren’t so bad after all. It’s the process of discussion and reflection that helps put things into perspective. I've observed this many times in those who suffer with depression and anxiety issues, i.e., the tendency to read the very worst into a situation. In part this is driven by an understandable fear that their mood may be slipping. Perfectly normal ups and downs are sometimes interpreted in ways that suggest signs of a relapse.

Most of us have good and bad days, but what makes a whole day bad can pivot around a single negative event or moment. That single issue can cancel out all the positives that occurred before and after it, and the aftermath can sometimes drag on for days or even weeks afterward.

Why are we so affected? Well, there are a number of possible reasons, but instead of going into these, I suggest it’s more important to focus on positive goals; that is, the things we can do to tip the balance in our favor.

Body and mind

Let’s go back to basics. Our mood state and our capacity for resilience are intrinsically linked to our physical state. If we start the day feeling tired, bored, grumpy and generally out of sorts, chances are we’re physically drained. If there’s nothing in the tank it stands to reason we won’t make much progress. So, we need to take stock of what’s happening in our life. My stock take would include:

  • Amount of sleep
  • Amount of exercise
  • Amount of alcohol
  • Amount of "me time"
  • Amount of fun
  • Amount of choices

You get the picture. These are all things we can improve on or fine-tune to our advantage.

Next, it’s time to move into our psychology. The human condition is far from perfect and we need to accept this. Our self-protection mechanisms have evolved over time so our vigilance towards potential threats tends to take priority. Of course, if we overthink the negatives we increase our chances of a mood slump. So the basic rule to neutralize negative thinking is, unless it’s a problem that can be solved, stop ruminating about it.

Easier said than done? It depends. There will always be really big issues that demand our time and attention. However, many mind-occupying issues are really quite trivial, and by ruminating on them they assume an undeserved status. We can do something about the more mundane downs by reframing our approach to the day.

Reframe your day

Dr. Rich Walker of Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina has found that people who try new things are more likely to retain positive emotions. How you choose to go about reframing your day may take a little trial and error. I’ve met people who tell me their day improves simply by switching off the news. Others look at their pattern of work and maybe slow things down or recruit other people to help. A teacher friend of mine cut the time spent with colleagues because they complained so much about work.

If, having sorted out the physical issues, you still start the day in a slump and (crucially) you don’t know why, try accepting it. Try promising yourself something to look forward to: a favorite meal, movie, hobby or interest.

Sometimes, looking for the source of our unhappiness or low mood isn’t useful. The danger with this is we start looking at other people in the mistaken belief that our happiness depends on them. The fact that we may think something doesn’t make it the truth. Cut yourself some slack and when the better moods return, take notice of what it is that makes you feel better. When you start to believe you aren’t a victim of your moods, that’s when positive things begin to happen. The more time and effort you put it to turning things around, the easier it becomes.

See More Helpful Articles:

10 Ways to Escape a Low Mood

7 Ways to Beat the Blues

The Science of Happiness