Last month, we kicked off our epic journey about how to control PCOS-related mood swings by talking about how you can best prevent mood swings from occurring in the first place. This month, we’ll focus more on direct techniques you can use to both squelch mood swings when they occur, and make them less likely to re-occur as frequently. Are you ready for this?!
How do you know when you have a mood swing? How can someone close to you tell? The first step in reducing symptoms of moodiness is learning to identify the unique way it feels for you when you are in that state. Maybe you become irritable and snappy? Maybe you suddenly feel down or depressed for seemingly no reason? Maybe you burst into tears at the slightest problem? Sit down and do some journaling, or even better, do some journaling when you are already feeling moody, about just what it feels like to be inside your skin.
In addition, you may want to ask people you are close with for their input. How do you come off to them? Do they notice any patterns to your moods based on the time of day or part of the week? If a partner, family member, or friend has complained to you about your moods, ask them to help you identify specific examples and how those examples are different from the way you would normally act or respond.
Want a hot tip from a professional psychologist (first hit’s free)? People often start thinking and speaking, in absolutes when they are triggered or upset, such as thinking or saying that you or someone you love “always” or “never” does something. If you catch yourself thinking or talking in absolutes, try to work backwards to detect what event or issue initially triggered you.
Once you can paint a pretty good picture of what a mood swing or episode of moodiness both look like to others, and subjectively feels like to you, then you can work backwards, almost like a detective, to identify any triggers. For some women with PCOS, their feelings of moodiness seem to follow their monthly cycle. For others, it hits them when they are feeling hungry, or stressed, or run down. Some women might find that their mood swings are tied to certain types of interpersonal triggers, like not feeling listened to or heard. Journaling, talking with a trusted friend, and/or working with a qualified psychotherapist can be essential here to help you do this detective work. Once you’ve isolated common triggers for you, then you know how to mitigate them!
So now we know how to find the triggers (or antecedents, in fancy psychologist talk) for your mood swings, but what can you do about your actual mood swings right now? Fear not! Here are some evidence-based behavioral techniques to help you soothe your upset moods and reduce the frequency of future moodiness. Some of these suggestions come from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a type of therapy that specializes in helping people gain better control over their emotions.
Okay, okay, I know you all are probably tired of hearing me talk about mindfulness! But really, it’s just so important and so potentially helpful that I can’t help myself! Right now, I am specifically talking about mindfulness meditation. Other types of mindfulness practice, like yoga or tai chi, can also be effective if they include a meditation-like component that helps you focus the mind on your breathing.
What is mindfulness meditation? It is simply the act of attempting to keep your attention centered on one thing. We usually use our breathing as the focus of attention because it’s easy to pay attention to (i.e., how it feels to breathe through your nose) and, well, you’re always doing it so it’s always there to be focused on! Simply sit or lay in a comfortable and relaxed state, and pay attention to how your breathing feels in a certain part of your body, such as your nostrils or your chest. If you notice your mind wander or get lost in thoughts (and you will, oh yes you will), simply gently return your attention to your breathing, without any judgment or self-criticism. Just keep going. That’s it!
Mindfulness meditation helps you literally train your brain to concentrate better, and it builds up your capacity to smooth out your own emotional experience. It’s not just psychological either, studies have down that practicing mindfulness meditation literally re-shapes your brain structures! The best part? You don’t have to run away and join a Buddhist monastery (it’s a nice fantasy sometimes though, isn’t it?). As little as 5-20 minutes per day of mindful meditation can lead to noticeable improvements in your moods and feelings of equanimity. Start small, say 5 minutes per day, and work up from there. The University of California in Los Angeles has some fantastic (and brief!) introductory guided mindful meditation recordings available at http://marc.ucla.edu/mindful-meditations.
Our emotions, thoughts, and actions are all tightly intertwined with, and influence, each other. When we feel a certain way, that influences how we think, which influences how we act, and that in turn influences how we both think and feel! So anything we can do to break the emotions-thoughts-actions cycle can be helpful. Unfortunately, emotions are uncontrollable events of the mind. We don’t get to choose not to feel angry, or sad, the emotion just hits us. Practicing mindfulness, as I’ve discussed, will help smooth your emotional experience over time, however, which is good! That leaves us with thoughts and actions to work on. Let’s tackle actions next!
When you are experiencing a certain mood swing, such as feeling angry or sad or frustrated, what do you tend to actually do? For example, often people confront others or even yell when they are angry. Or if they are sad they might withdraw from other people and isolate themselves. The key is to figure out what actions you tend to take in response to certain feelings and then, when those feelings strike, doing the opposite. This might mean speaking in quiet, controlled tones when you are feeling angry, or seeking out supportive people when you are sad. It could look like withdrawing from conflict instead of “locking in” to it or distracting yourself instead of overly focusing on what is upsetting you.
Taking the opposite action will interrupt the emotions-thoughts-actions cycle and will make it easier to change your thought patterns and, eventually, the feelings themselves!
Now, what about those pesky thoughts? One of the main symptoms of feeling triggered or upset is that we tend to focus our thoughts on the negative: All the times our partner upset us, or everything that feels terrible about our life, or all the things we don’t like about ourselves. This might be normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Our brain trains itself to become better at whatever it does. If we unwittingly encourage our brain to focus on negative stuff, guess what? Our brains will start to become more attuned to negative things. If our thoughts are more preoccupied with the negative in our lives, that will influence our feelings, and so on.
A great way to combat this is to make a daily practice of focusing on the positive aspects of life. It doesn’t need to be a big deal, something as simple as making it a morning (or evening) habit to list five things you are grateful for in that moment or to set positive intentions for the day, or recap what the best part of your day was. Whatever feels right for you, incorporate some brief positivity ritual into your daily self-care routine. Perhaps while you are brushing your teeth you only focus on positive things? Or you make sure to take five-minute “brain breaks” several times throughout the day and focus on gratitude? Experiment and see what works for you!
By encouraging you to focus on the positive, I do not mean to imply that you should completely avoid the negative. Sometimes, things are difficult, and sometimes we do need to focus on the hard stuff. The point is to bring a more positive balance to our everyday experience of our world, and ourselves.
Putting these techniques into practice, and I mean actual daily practice, will lead to noticeable improvements in your overall mood levels and improve your ability to bounce back from challenging feelings or experiences. Want even more helpful tools? Stay tuned for next week when I’ll discuss over the counter supplements you can take to help further boost your moods and mental wellness!
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