Managing your Moods

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“I hate you!” Linda screamed one second before the plate of spaghetti Bolognaise flew from her hand towards her husband’s head. Paul ducked just in time, but the next missile, a wet dishtowel, hit it’s mark and blinded him temporarily.

In the ten years of their marriage Linda and Paul had survived numerous such incidents. Linda would fly into uncontrollable rages, sometimes, it seemed, as a result of Paul’s equally frequent depressive episodes.

Mood disorders come in many forms, some of them deeply disguised. Psychologists have labels for many of them: generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder (manic depression), unipolar disorder (serious depression), dysthemia (chronic but milder depression), post traumatic stress disorder (an extreme anxiety disorder), and so forth. A lot of recent research has suggested that they are all forms of depression. Other researchers have found that the incidence of depression in the US doubles every twenty years.

A mood disorder can cloak itself: depression, for example, can manifest itself as a “physical” illness. Studies have shown that 80% of people who visit physicians are suffering from depression. Unfortunately a bit less than half of all doctors are able to recognize these “somatized” mood disorders for what they are which leads to increased suffering on the part of their patients and large bills for unnecessary medications.

The why of this depression pandemic lies in a highly dysfunctional society that puts huge stressors on families and makes it nearly impossible for children to get their developmental and personal needs met.

Linda’s outbursts are a direct result of her early experiences of violent abuse by her father and Paul’s depression can be traced to an environment in which criticism was constantly being directed at him In both cases there may be a genetic problem which partially explains their moods, but most studies have shown that the genes that influence emotions have to be triggered by some outside stressor such as abuse or childhood trauma.

Whatever the cause the good news about all mood disorders is that they can be managed and for the most part they can be controlled without the need for drugs. (I am not against drug therapy altogether, there are people who do well on antidepressants or medications to control manic depression or anxiety. However these pharmaceuticals are grossly over prescribed, may have toxic side-effects, can be highly addictive and may only work for a limited number of people—antidepressants only work for about 30% of people at best.)

In the Uplift Program, which Alicia Fortinberry, PhD and I presented at the University of South Florida a few years ago, we outlined a series of steps that you can take towards mood management.

The first step is to realize that your moods are not your fault. You cannot help being depressed or anxious (or both since the one is merely the neurochemical flip-side of the other and sometime they rotate). You did not choose to be depressed and you can’t turn the mood off just because other people find it inconvenient to be around you when you’re down.

The next step is a bit more difficult, and you may need some help either from a professional therapist or from a friend that you really trust. This step involves discovering the root cause of the problem. The child within is angry, anxious or depressed about something.  On-going mood disorders almost all have their origins in childhood stresses. Some of the most common are parental divorce, fear of abandonment, parental alcoholism, criticism and, of course, verbal, physical and sexual abuse (the incidence of childhood abuse in the US has increased 70% over the last thirty years).

This is not a blame game. Parents mostly do their best under difficult circumstances. Nor is it an attempt to get at “hidden” memories that can be “recovered.” You can usually deduce what happened in your childhood from the pattern of your relationships in later life. If you find that you gravitate towards people who don’t praise you or who criticize you then you can be fairly sure that criticism or lack of praise was a feature of your childhood home as well, even if you’ve forgotten the actual incidents. There’s an old saying to the effect that we “only marry our mother, our father or both.” There’s a lot of truth to it—especially if you broaden it to include all the significant adults in your early life (bear in mind that to a four-year-old a five-year-old is an adult).

The third step is to discover the triggers in the present situation that are provoking the inner child to become anxious, depressed or angry. Again this is not about blaming anyone. Linda’s anger was provoked by Paul’s depression because when her father got down about anything he lashed out at her. Her rage was at the abuse. At these times, in her unconscious mind, Paul became her father. The trigger for Paul’s depression was his feeling that whatever he did for Linda it was never enough; there seemed no praise, no recognition for his efforts. Just like home.

With your friend, or therapist, you should ask the question “what is it that is reminding me of the past?” Sometimes the trigger can be very small: a tone of voice, the clothes someone wears, an implied criticism, a raised hand, an unexpected touch or a demand for sexual intimacy when you’re not ready for it.

The last step is to work out ways in which you can avoid these triggers. Of course you can’t ask somebody to change their mood, but you can work out a series of concrete, action-orientated needs of other people that will help them, and you, to avoid provoking situations. One of Paul’s needs of Linda was “I need you to praise me when you think I’ve done something right.” One of hers of Paul was “I need you to tell me what is bothering you. I need you to talk to me about it.”

Relationships are all about giving and receiving needs and relationships go astray when the people in them are forced to second-guess what is required of them. Mood disorders are the result of relationships gone wrong and can only be corrected by relationships that go right. (Alicia and I give a detailed how-to about the whole needs process in our recent book “Creating Optimism: A proven 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression.”)

Linda and Paul both agreed to do the work. By recognizing each other’s triggers, and devising concrete actions they could take to avoid them, they were able to help each other control their moods.

The important thing to remember is that you can’t change yourself. Despite what the thousands of pop-psychology and self-help books tell you there’s no mechanism in our brain for self-improvement. We’re social animals, we learn not by instinct but by observing and reacting to others. You learn the how-to relationships by the way your parents (or other significant adults) related. You learn your parenting skills in the same way.

But we can also change our moods and our behaviors by changing the basis of our relationships in all aspects of our lives. We can’t heal ourselves, but we can heal each other. We can’t always control our moods but we can teach others to help us to do so. That’s the human way.

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