A stone elephant on a bench

How to get out of a low mood

Do you find that some days you wake up and everything feels wrong? Or that someone says something to you and you completely overreact, putting you in a low mood for the rest of the day? Those things that you were feeling excited and happy about yesterday suddenly seem risky or scary, you find holes and reasons to feel bad about them.

What can we do to get out of this low mood? Especially as once we’re there there’s often a little part of us that enjoys wallowing in it, that for some reason doesn’t want to get out, or we feel there’s a lesson we need to learn before we can allow ourselves to feel better.  

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a solution so that you never get into a low mood again, but there are some really useful things I’ve learned over the past year which have helped me (and others I’ve shared them with) move through the bad place faster, minimising the impact on our lives, making us feel more resilient and stable.

Give yourself a break

When we’re in a low mood or low state of mind, our self-confidence often dips, we feel like we’re doing things wrong, and then on top of that we feel guilty about the effect that we’re having on others. The place we’re in makes it difficult to connect with people, we might lash out and say the wrong thing, pushing the people closest to us away. Not only do we have our own personal pressures, but our mind heaps on top the pressure of making and keeping everyone else that matters to us happy (and often those people we don’t care about too). The weight of the world is on our shoulders.

One concept I find really useful in dealing with a low mood was introduced to me by Andrea Morrison with the idea of “Mavis” – the voice who is in our heads putting us down, criticising us, and telling us we’re useless. Creating a personification, that we can have an imaginary conversation with and be more aware of some of the things “they” are saying to us, makes it easier to step back and realise that some of what we’re telling ourselves may not be true.

Stern woman with finger raised to tell you off
Mavis – our Inner Critic

One of the easiest ways to spot Mavis is by the extreme language “she” uses (both in speaking to others and internally to ourselves). We find ourselves saying things like “I’m always bad at this”, “I’ll never change”, “Everyone thinks I’m a failure”. In NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) these are called generalisations, and when we step back and question them, we find they are very rarely true.  

I can hear you asking “Ok – so how do I get rid of Mavis?”. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that you don’t. “Mavis” represents an important part of our brain which protects us. The fight or flight response. When we’re in serious trouble and need help, Mavis is the one who steps in and rescues us. She takes over, focuses our brains and our energy on problem-solving and protects us with this extreme language so we don’t take an unnecessary risk. She believes it’s so important that we listen to her that she will use more and more extreme language to get our attention until we listen.

A good way to think of Mavis is a bit like an overprotective Auntie. She cares for us and wants to let us know when we might be in danger. However, she’s not always good at judging the level of risk. She might focus on something which is really pretty minimal risk to us and will keep on and on at us until we listen and respond. When we’re feeling strong we can recognise this and dismiss her. When we’re feeling weak (in a low mood), she takes over and suddenly everything seems impossible. The moment we start to listen she takes her opportunity to list all the other things she’s even vaguely concerned about, using extreme, generalised language. That’s why when we start feeling low about just one thing, it seems to spiral and suddenly our whole life can appear to be a mess.

So what can we practically do? Well to start with, just knowing Mavis is there and that her tendency is to keep on at us, shouting louder and louder until she gets our attention really helps. Understanding her motives (to protect us) and that she wants to be listened to gives us some control over how we respond. The important thing is that while we can listen, we don’t need to believe what she says or react the way she wants us to.

Seeing this internal voice as this overprotective Auntie figure, who’s a bit lonely and just wants to be listened to, means that we can question the truth of what’s there and we can choose whether we do anything in response. Sometimes just acknowledging her concerns can help.

If we find ourselves in a position where we get sucked into full-on Mavis mode (which often happens to me when the hormones kick in), then the answer is to go with it, knowing that it will pass. Don’t beat yourself up – everyone feels like this. Go and hide from the world for a bit, do what you need to do – and by giving yourself this kindness you’ll find you emerge quicker than if you try to just push on through.

Indulge yourself and do something only for you

How often do we do something completely for ourselves? Something that only we want to do for our joy and pleasure? I don’t mean eating that chocolate, or doughnuts, or drinking that glass of wine. I mean getting lost in a good book, going dancing or running (for the pleasure, not the exercise), painting and not caring what the result is, strumming the guitar, playing a favourite video game, making a jigsaw, baking or cooking, just getting out for a walk in the fresh air. How often do we do things which allow us to be ourselves and get lost in the moment?

We all know the safety briefing on the aeroplane which tells you that “in the event of low oxygen, put your gas mask before helping anyone else”. Well, when you’re in a low mood this is essentially a low oxygen situation. It is a signal that something is out of balance and that you’ve not spent enough time putting yourself first.

By doing something just for us we give ourselves a break from all the pressures of day to day life. Taking a break allows the mind to get out of conscious problem solving mode. While you focus on something else and get completely immersed in it, your unconscious mind is whirring away in the background. Very often an idea or solution emerges which we would never have come up with had we kept on pushing. So indulging in ourselves doesn’t just feel good – it often leads to new ideas and solutions too.  

The most important thing is that whatever you do, it is for the indulgence of doing something for you, of your choosing, following your agenda. My most recent thing is painting. I was terrible at art at school, but I’ve discovered if I start each painting with no expectation and allow myself to get lost in the creative process, then my mind becomes much less chattery, Mavis quietens down and the things on my mind seem to disappear much more easily.

Child playing with lego
Remember the fun things you did as a kid?

Find things to do which you love, which relax you, and give yourself permission to take the time out to do them. You may not know exactly what does it for you yet, and it’s very possible that different things work for you at different times (sometimes I need to burn energy, so running works much better for me than painting). Be open to new ideas, try new things and do them purely for the fun of giving it a go.

If you’re not sure what your “thing” is, get yourself a notebook or create a note in an app in your phone which is there for you to capture ideas of things you love to do or would like to learn to do and start doing them. Remember what you enjoyed doing as a kid and bring them back into your adult life. Not everything will absorb you straight away, but the very act of choosing to invest some time in ourselves is the first step.

Whatever happens, whatever the outcome when you’re doing this thing, please remember not to beat yourself up. Mavis has no say in this activity.  You are doing this for you.

Do the opposite of what you’re pushing yourself to do

Do you find that when you’re feeling low the deadlines seem to tighter and more pressured than ever? Mavis kicks in and tells us that we just need to finish that report, send that email, pull out some figures, … and then we can give ourselves the break we’re desperate for. But, when we’ve done those things, there always seems to be a few more things we just have to do… until we reach breaking point or finally some external factor (like needing to be somewhere else) kicks in and makes us stop.

Stop sign
Sometimes the best thing to do is to stop!

I’m going to say something controversial now. When Mavis kicks into full on pressure mode like this, try doing the opposite. When you feel overwhelmed with all the things you have to do – stop! Don’t do them. Do something completely different. Listen to your body, listen to your gut. What is it that you actually want to do right now instead of these things – and do it.

I can hear the panic set in now. Let me be clear, I’m not saying to never do these things. What I’m suggesting is that doing them when you’re in a low mood probably isn’t in your best interest. Our brains work differently when we’re feeling pressured and low, so it’s quite likely that you’re not going to be at your most effective and efficient if you do them in this state. If you take a bit of time out to rejuvenate yourself then you’ll come at these tasks with a different approach and different perspective. You may even find that they no longer seem so important and choose not to do them.  

Try it.  When you feel under pressure, do the opposite. Take a nap, meditate, go for a walk, or do one of the treats you identified above. See how it affects your day.

Learn what helps you become more grounded

Wouldn’t you love it if everything just fell into place, even if just for one day? Things flowed, coincidences happened, opportunities that you didn’t expect came out of nowhere, and even if things went a little wrong, you could brush them off because they felt small in comparison to everything else in life. You feel strong, confident, connected to life. An inner knowing that whatever life throws at you, you can cope, you will cope and you’ll make the right choice. This is a feeling of being grounded.

When we’re grounded we are in tune with ourselves and with the world. Mavis quietens down and we’re able to hear our own deeper wisdom. When we’re in this place things are easy. Decisions are easy – we can “see” the right path. We find it easier to listen to people and connect with them better. Our minds are open so we discover opportunities we had never been conscious of before. Creative solutions to our problems emerge from nowhere. We are present and in the moment. We get into the mode of being instead of doing.

Man on the beach at sunset
Ground yourself in the moment

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it! So how do you get there? Well to start with, there is no “there” to reach and stay. The key thing about the feeling of being grounded is that you are present and living in the moment – so the harder you try to get somewhere else, then the further away from being grounded you become. Rather than trying to escape the low mood and be somewhere else, our best chance of getting through it and feeling better about ourselves is to get into the moment, feel the feelings that are going through us and allow them to pass. Our moods are transient – we can shift from one to another in the blink of an eye. When we try to escape from them though, they seem to chase us and grip onto us more.

I know from experience that this is nowhere near as easy to do as it is to read it (or write it). It’s an ongoing process of learning about yourself, listening to yourself and figuring out the things that work for you. The suggestions I’ve shared above are those which have helped me most in getting grounded:

  • Being kind to myself, recognising that Mavis has taken control for a while and that things probably aren’t as bad as she suggests
  • Treating myself to something just for me, that I can get immersed in for a while until the bad feelings pass (the lower my mood the simpler these treats become)
  • Giving myself time-out even if it’s the opposite of what I think I should be doing.

Doing these things consistently, over the last year or so means that I’m much more resilient to small fluctuations in mood, and when my moods do dip to a real low, then I’m way more accepting of myself, I put much less pressure on and the low feelings pass much quicker.

Have a go, start gently at first and just start by giving yourself a break. I’d love to hear your experiences and how these insights have helped you in the comments below. What does your “Mavis” tell you and how might you respond differently now you’ve read this article?

Stop photo by Jose Aragones on Unsplash
“Mavis” image Copyright Andrea Morrison

3 thoughts on “How to get out of a low mood

  1. Pete says:

    Resonates with me…

    When I feel low and just push on through, I tend to be easily distracted by activities such as phone games and YouTube – and feel even worse after that. Better to meditate, nap, strum the guitar or whatever.

    Two parts to my plan – keep a guitar at work – and have a diary entry of instructions as to things to try when in a low mood (edited when I am feeling good).

    Thanks!

  2. Heather Niven says:

    I find doing art also takes me to a different place in myself and allows me to experience my negativity in a totally non upsetting or stressful way
    When I can’t just stop and paint or draw then deep breaths and a moment of mindfulness, a walk around the block or a mini rant help dispel the anxiousness.
    Great blog Em x

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