Self-Care Strategies

Whether we're taking care of kids, aging parents, demanding partners, friends in crisis or taxing bosses, self-care is often tossed out the window. But many experts say that making room for our own needs is critical to enable us to care for others and keep going with calm and inner strength.

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—a mood so bad that it qualified for what we (un)affectionately refer to in our household as a foul mood. A bunch of 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:

Make an effort not to inflict your mood on others.

I try hard not to inflict a bad mood on those around me (usually my husband). And, when I slip up, I push myself to apologize even if I don’t feel like it. Not only is an apology a nice gesture toward another, but I’ve notice it can lessen the intensity of a bad mood. I think it’s because, when you apologize, you’re forced to reach out to another person and that takes you out of your self-focused mind set.

Cut yourself some slack.

I’ve yet to spend time with anyone who hasn’t been in a bad mood now and then. In a May, 2010 interview with Time Magazine, the Dalai Lama said that he still gets angry; I assume this means that he still can get in a bad mood. Many years ago, I had a Buddhist teacher who was wise and insightful…and subject to bad moods. I never knew what mood I’d encounter when I met with him.

The take away from these two examples is this: if these two people can be in a bad mood, feel free to 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 turn into a foul one. 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.

Investigate it.

In 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. The day before this past Christmas, I was in a bad mood. My husband seemed quite cheerful, so I resolved not to inflict it on him. Instead, I decided to investigate why I was in such a funk.

I know that I can be a bit sad at times during the holidays, but I don’t recall ever being in such a bad mood right before Christmas—so cranky and irritable. Using investigation to think about my life, I uncovered a negative association I have with Christmas. I realized that, for me, it’s associated with loss—one loss after another.

When I was ten years old, my father died just 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. They were both kind, gentle, and good-natured men. I even remember telling my husband that Huey had become my Santa Claus because they both embodied good will and the cheerful spirit of Christmas. Then Huey died when I was 37, and 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 reflective investigation led me to see that this mild sadness I tend to feel when the holidays roll around had turned into a bad mood this year simply because of the cumulative effect of all those losses. As soon as I realized that I associate Christmas with loss, my bad mood turned into a blue mood—a familiar sadness that softened my heart and made it possible for compassion to arise over how hard this time of year can be for me.

When I compassionately accepted those losses as part of my life story, the blue mood eventually lifted, and I was able to make the best of the Christmas that lay before me.

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

Yes, my mom was one of those parents who said: “Eat your food; there are children starving in China.” I consider it admirable that I never imposed this on my own children as they were trying to enjoy a meal. That said, thinking about how insignificant a bad mood is compared to the suffering in the world can put that mood into perspective. Imagine trying to raise your children in Syria right now, never knowing when explosives may hit your house. Imagine being a refugee, living in a tent city due to warfare or a natural disaster.

Putting a bad mood into perspective can not only make it less intense, but can inspire you to 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. I find these words from Buddhist teacher Kathleen McDonald to be inspiring: "Use your own problems to remember that others have problems too."

Let it be until it runs its course.

I used to worry that a bad mood was the sign of a “new me”—that it was here to stay. But no bad mood has ever taken up permanent residence in my mind. This is because a mood 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:

Make an effort not to inflict your mood on others;

Cut yourself some slack;

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

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Self-Care Strategies