- written by Dr. GARRETT WONG DPsych (Melb), M.Sc. (Melb)
The Science Behind a Bad Mood and What You Can Do About It
Bad moods knock us all out of alignment now and again. But why do they happen? And is there anything we can do about it? Let's look at the science behind a bad mood, what it does in your system, and what you can do to keep it at bay.
A bad mood can appear due to all kinds of different events. Maybe you eat lunch an hour late, you get some bad customer service, or your morning commute stuffs you into road rage mode. The triggers of a bad mood are often dependent on the person and the stresses in their lives. But what's going on inside your body and your brain when you're in a temporary bad mood? Let's take a look.
The Physical and Mental Reaction of a Bad Mood
Some psychologists believe a bad mood originates due to ego depletion. This idea,founded by researcher Roy Baumeister, suggests when people use up their willpower to avoid temptation they drain cognitive resources. In effect, if you're withholding something, say, food because you're on a diet, or yelling at someone because they gave you poor customer service, it drains your brain and makes you irritated. Essentially, the harder you push your mind to avoid something, the more likely you are to get irritated.
You can think of it as a sort of stress-threshold. When you pass the line you get in a bad mood and that might manifest itself as anger, irritability, or cynicism. All of these cause your blood pressure to fluctuate. They can also increase your level of the stress hormone cortisol. This causes you to get even more flustered. In some cases it's also a reflection of an acute stress reaction. We've talked about how this works before, but it's often a cause of a bad mood because it raises blood pressure, stops digestion, and elevates your heart rate. If nothing else, it makes you feel drained and a bit cranky after a long day.
We also have evidence that a bad mood changes the way you view the world. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that being in a bad mood gives you a sense of tunnel vision and narrows your field of vision. In contrast, if you're in a good mood, you see a wider view of your surroundings.
What You Can Do About a Bad Mood
Thankfully, getting over a bad mood isn't hard if you're willing to do a few things. We're assuming this is a temporary issue, not a long lasting case of depression, but even still, a number of these tricks can perk up even the most down-and-out.
Eat: Theoretically, doing anything you like can increase your mood, but food works in a number of ways. First, it regenerates nutrients you've lost over the course of the day. If you're in a bad mood because you haven't eaten and your blood sugar level is low, you should already feel better after a few bites. As it turns out, there's also a chance fatty acids can have a positive effect on emotion. If fatty foods aren't your thing, eating spicy foods are known to release endorphins, the same boost you get from exercising. Basically, eating can often reverse a bad mood, but be careful not to overdo it.
Exercise: Exercise increases endorphins and can naturally switch a mood from bad to good in a matter of a few minutes. You can get an endorphin boost from exercise by exerting a moderate or high level of exercise. When your breathing starts to get a bit difficult, the body releases endorphins which can be associated with feelings of happiness. The euphoria isn't long lasting, but it should be enough to make you forget about the guy who cut you off in traffic.
Listen to Music: Music can trigger a release of dopamine into your brain. This is associated with a pleasurable feeling and subsequently can turn a frown upside down in the span of a three-minute pop song. Basically, as you're following a tune, you are anticipating what's going to happen next and the reward for doing so is a little shot of pleasure.
Embrace It: A bad mood can trigger more attentive, careful thinking and allows you to zero in on specific tasks. As we mentioned above, it gives you a sort of tunnel vision, which also means your focus is dedicated to one project. Since you can pay more attention to specific details it's a good time to get started on complex projects, rework old hair-brained ideas, or tackle a task that requires your total attention. It can even give you a slight competitive advantage because your focus is driven directly toward a task. It can also make you more persuasive because it promotes concrete ideas and communications styles. It might not be the most pleasurable way to deal with a case of the Monday's, but at least you'll get a bunch of work done because of it.
Everyone has different things that put them in bad moods. It can be as complex as a stress caused by work or as simple as getting cut off in traffic. Knowing what your brain and body are doing when this happens is helpful in figuring out what to do about.
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