Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

5 Tips for Handling a Bad Mood

Five suggestions for how to skillfully handle a bad mood

Two weeks ago, I was in a bad mood. Several little irritations had added up: some yarn I wanted was two weeks overdue in the mail; I couldn’t find a book I was looking for; the pull cord on one of my bedroom shades was hopelessly tangled. (I’ll spare you the rest.)

I don’t get in bad moods very often, but it happens and, to be frank, it feels awful. (A bad mood is to be distinguished from a heavy or dark mood that goes unchanged for weeks at a time. The latter could be a sign of clinical depression in which case I hope you'll seriously consider seeking the advice of a counselor.) 

Here are five suggestions for skillfully handling a bad mood:

Cut yourself some slack.

I’ve yet to spend time with anyone who hasn’t been in a bad mood now and then, so cut yourself some slack when it happens to you. Adding a negative judgment to your mood, such as “I shouldn’t feel this way” does nothing but increase the likelihood that a bad mood will dig its heels in. So, instead of blaming yourself, let it be okay with you to be in a bad mood now and then. It’s just one of the full range of emotions that everyone experiences in life.

When it happens, treat yourself with understanding and kindness, and see if there’s a way to ease how bad you’re feeling. A temporary distraction can help, such as a favorite movie or a warm bath.

Don't make those around you feel bad too.

There's no reason to bring others along on your bad-mood-ride. If you realize you've done so, try apologizing even if you don't feel like it. It might make you feel better!

Investigate it.

In my book, How to Wake Up, I offer a four-step approach for working skillfully with an unpleasant mood or emotion. The third step is to investigate it. Sometimes this can yield surprisingly fruitful results. Here's an example.

The day before this past Christmas, I was in a bad mood. so I decided to investigate it. I've been a be a bit down during the holidays before, but I don’t recall ever being in such a bad mood right before Christmas Day. Using investigation to think about my life, I uncovered that I associate Christmas with loss because, when I was ten years old, my father died two weeks before Christmas. I felt his absence every Christmas after that until I met my husband and began to spend Christmas with his family. My father-in-law, Huey, took the place of my dad for a while. They were both kind, gentle, and good-natured men. But when Huey died, Christmas lost its luster again.

I took refuge in the traditions we’d developed with our own children, but when they grew up and started families of their own, they started their own traditions. We know we’re welcome to join them (my daughter at her house in Los Angeles and my son at his in-laws near San Diego), but I’m too sick to travel. Another loss associated with the holidays.

This conscious investigation led me to see that this mild sadness I feel during the holidays had turned into a bad mood this year simply because of the cumulative effect of all those losses. Realizing this softened my heart and made it possible for compassion to arise over how hard this time of year can be for me.

Reach out to someone in need.

Helping others is another skillful way to lessen the intensity of a bad mood. It works. I know, because I’ve tried it. The trick, of course, is remembering to try it. Practice helps; with practice, reaching out to others can become a habit. 

Let it be until it runs its course.

Like all moods, a bad one is a mental state that arises due to causes and conditions of the moment, and those causes and conditions will change (that yarn I was waiting for did, indeed, arrive). Realizing the fleeting nature of a bad mood can help you hold it more lightly until it runs its course and passes out of your mind.

In my book, I call this “letting it be,” and it’s the last step in that four-step approach to working skillfully with a painful mood or emotion. A bad mood is only a temporary visitor. It’s no big deal. When it happens, let it be without aversion, and try the suggestions in this piece:

Cut yourself some slack;

Don't make those around you feel bad too;

See whether investigation sheds light on its cause;

Put your mood in perspective and consider reaching out to someone in need;

Let it be until it runs its course, knowing that it’s not a permanent part of who you are.

© 2014 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

These pieces might also be helpful: “Constant Complaining: Does It Serve Us Well?” and “Six Strategies for Coping with the Blues.”

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Photo by FlexDreams/Shutterstock

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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