How Can I Manage My Mood Swings?

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Reader’s Question

I have been experiencing a lot of problems with my moods within the past five years. At times I can go from being happy and laughing to crying about me dropping my phone. Usually within 20 minutes my mood totally switches. The other day something was said that didn’t bother me at the time, but six hours later I became outraged in anger by the comment. The slightest things annoy me and can ruin my whole day.

I have been trying to control the mood swings for the longest time, but I can’t. This is making life miserable for me. I have no idea who to talk to about it or what may be the problem. Throughout these past few years I have experienced some hardship with life, like people close to me dying, family troubles and school. Everything seems to stress me out and I can’t focus on anything because my mind races. At times I feel like I can’t get out of bed, but at night it’s hard to sleep. All of this is taking a toll on my life (e.g., relationships, school). Can you please help me?

Psychologist’s Reply

Since you’ve tried to control it by yourself for so long, perhaps it is time to let someone else give it a try. A good psychologist could assist you in evaluating your situation and figuring out things you can do differently that would help alleviate some of your misery. It could be that you have a mood disorder or it could be that you just need some new ideas for how to live life in another way.

In the meantime, there are some things you could try. From your account, it sounds like you’ve had a lot of difficult things happen to you in a short amount of time and this takes a toll. I like to think of emotions like the liquid in a cup. Most of us operate our “emotional cups” at half-full. That way when unexpected events occur, we have room for more liquid. However, when a lot of difficult things happen quickly, our cup gets full very quickly. When this occurs, even a very small thing like a dropped phone, can be the drop that sends our emotions slopping over the edge and we explode.

Whenever our emotional cup is full, we need to empty it. This can be done in a variety of ways, and the methods depend on the person. Frequently used methods include exercise, meditation, talking with good friends, communing with nature, taking hot baths, reading good books, playing with animals, developing a relaxing hobby and finding spiritual relief. You can try any or all of these to determine what works best for you. The best way to decide this is to become more aware of your emotional state including your physiological responses and the internal messages you’re telling yourself. Once you become more attuned to how you’re feeling at various points in the day, you can discover patterns in your responses and maybe even triggers to mood swings. For example, you could realize that petting dogs makes you feel good while talking with a certain friend gets you tense.

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Another technique to try is thought substitution. From your description of your situation, it seems like you tend to dwell on things a lot, especially things that upset you. When you recognize that you’re doing this, replace that thought with one that is less stressful. Thinking about an upcoming work project or test is not going to work. The thought you substitute must be one that is engaging enough to keep it in your mind without it being stressful enough to make you tense. This is a difficult technique to master and is one that takes effort and practice, but it can be quite effective.

A final technique I recommend is meditation. You mentioned that you have racing thoughts and nothing is better for that than meditation and relaxation techniques. Both force you to focus fully on the present and your senses instead of what is going on in your head. Again, these strategies can be difficult to accomplish but they are well worth the time and effort. If you can do them, I think you will find that your thoughts will race less and your moods will be calmer.

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