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Sustaining Wellbeing

How to Manage your Mood in Challenging Times

The last few years have been extremely challenging for many people. The pandemic, cost of living crisis, work pressures and worldwide events have put a strain on even the most positive person. The occasional negative mood is nothing to be concerned about and perfectly natural. However, a frequent negative mood soon starts to impact our overall mental wellbeing which in turn impacts our physical wellbeing. We find ourselves losing sleep, suffering from other stress related symptoms such as headaches and gut issues, as well as reductions in motivation, concentration, productivity and satisfaction. 

This article explains the importance of being alert to your energy levels and feelings and discusses how to take positive steps towards a more consistent and more stable, positive mood – even during challenging times.

Mood Map

The Mood Map

Dr Liz Miller, a psychologist, neurosurgeon and doctor, created The Mood Map to help people understand, track and manage their mood and general wellbeing.

The Mood Map separates your mood into 4 categories based on two scales: high or low energy related to the production of adrenaline, and positive or negative feelings related to the natural stimulation of a range of so-called happy hormones. These include endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.

High positive energy is when you feel able to conquer the world. This is when both adrenaline and endorphins are high: you feel literally pumped up and ready for action.

Low positive energy finds you in a peaceful, reflective mood where your mind is alert but calm. This is a good learning and decision-making space.

High negative energy is when you feel anxious, angry or frustrated and although these emotions might be useful at times to provoke action, in the longer term they lead to a build up of cortisol, the stress hormone, which is linked to diabetes and heart conditions. The combination of cortisol and adrenaline, released by the sympathetic nervous system when you feel under threat, means that it becomes hard to quieten the (often irrational) voices in your head and this over-stimulated state makes sleep difficult.

Low negative energy is when you feel down and it’s hard to motivate yourself to do anything. You feel tired and struggle to get out of bed and focus on an activity. It’s almost as if your mind has switched off and all it’s good for is comfort food and a box set. This is where your fixed mindset really takes control and can ‘lock’ you into this unproductive, negative space.

Whilst some people have naturally higher energy levels than others and some people are naturally predisposed to feeling more positive than others, we all visit each box at some time or other. When we are facing challenging or unsettling circumstances, it is likely our mood takes us more frequently or for more prolonged periods of time to the left hand side of the mood map. Productivity and peace live on the right hand side  – the question is, how to spend more time there when environmental factors keep pushing us to the left hand side?

Map your Mood

The ability to recognise, accept and regulate your mood is a key feature of emotional intelligence and often needs conscious thought and practice.

Start by considering the % of time you are currently spending in each box. Split this out if necessary to reflect any differences in how you feel at work or at home. Compare this to where you would like to be.

Recognise your natural preference for higher or lower emotional energy. Some people are naturally higher emotional energy and seek out the ‘buzz’ felt by being in the top right hand box. If this is you, be aware of instances when high emotions and a passion for a cause have slipped into anger or frustration and you have been driven more by negative rather than positive energy. You may still be highly productive and getting lots done but are you also projecting undue stress onto others?

For others, they value lower emotional energy and feeling calm and in control. If this sounds more like you, be alert to times when your preference for living a calm and relaxed life has shifted you unintentionally towards demotivation and lack of purpose or action.

Trigger your happy hormones

The body naturally produces happy hormones: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Some reduce anxiety and depressive feelings whereas other promote positive feelings such as joy, love and trust. Our environment, relationships, diet, exercise regime, general state of health, as well as our outlook on life, all influence the amount of each that is released into the body. So, whilst we cannot always control or influence our environment or the circumstances we find ourselves in, we have the ability through the choices we make in our daily lives to take positive steps to improve our mood and overall sense of wellbeing.

Many people derive much of their emotional wellbeing from their social interactions – connecting with people face to face and feeling valued and important in those relationships. This is easily (and often unconsciously) achieved at work with colleagues or socially with family and friends. Working from home has distinct advantages, however, many people get a real boost out of meeting up with their work colleagues and building rapport in person. It just doesn’t feel the same over a screen.

The feel-good feeling you get from relationships and doing things you enjoy is the product of your happy hormones. Regardless of the situation, there are lots of things you can choose to do that activate your natural reward system and keep yourself feeling good. Listening to music, singing, dancing, laughing, drinking (moderate levels of) alcohol and eating dark chocolate all stimulate the release of these hormones and, the more you tune into the pleasure derived from these activities, the greater the feeling of reward to your brain. 

Fresh air oxygenates your lungs and is also good for thought clarity, so consider blocking time in your diary to spend time outdoors. A walk can also add a degree of perspective, offering time for reflection and mindfulness. 

Small acts of kindness have been proven to make a real psychological difference, both to people on the giving and receiving end. Consider how meaningful versus transactional your interactions with others are and how you can help boost their happy hormones as well as your own: for example, saying thank you, appreciating a thoughtful act by a colleague or loved one; making it your mission to make someone laugh every day; having a friendly chat in the supermarket queue with a stranger, or going out of your way to give someone positive feedback. 

Beware the comfort blanket of self-indulgence

Wellbeing articles talk rightly about the importance of self-care and being kind to yourself as well as those around you. It is understandable to want to crawl under a warm blanket at some points in life. However, self-care does not mean self-indulgence. Comfort food can indeed be comforting. Moaning can be cathartic. Reading the news or scrolling social media fills time. Alcohol can give you some release. However, excessive indulgence in these things is no longer being kind to yourself, as these are all things that will quickly deplete your positive energy and push you further into the bottom left box of low negative energy. From here it is all too easy for a victim mentality to creep in, where you feel helpless, abdicating responsibility and sink deeper into inaction. This is a sign that you have succumbed to a fixed mindset, with your brain filtering your internal thoughts to confirm ‘there is no point’, ‘there’s nothing you can do’. 

In contrast, effective self-care means doing something that relaxes you but leaves you ready for action rather than inertia, both mentally and physically. This state represents the low positive energy box, where your energy is low (i.e. your mind is calm) and your sense of wellbeing is high. A calm mind means that you are more open to options, more capable of thinking with a growth mindset. For some, this is achieved through meditation or reading a good book. For others, a practical project such as DIY, cooking, gardening or car maintenance, is more effective at shifting your thoughts from negative to positive. To stimulate the happy hormones it is important to tune into and enjoy the process as well as the result. When digging in the garden, stop to admire the array or colours and listen to the birds. When cooking, try something new, perhaps try new types and flavours of food that will fuel your brain as well as your body. If you’ve taken up a new hobby, focus on what you are learning rather than your desire to be better at it than you currently are.

The adrenaline-endorphins buzz

Feeling calm and content is a great place to be, however, when the pressure is on, slipping back to the low negative energy side of the chart is all too easy. Although the activities described above can be effective ways of raising the levels of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin in your body, it is hard to maintain long term positive feelings, and the brain clarity that comes with it, without an occasional high impact boost. To shake off any brain fog and achieve that real emotional buzz of exhilaration that puts you into the high positive energy box, adrenaline also needs to be involved. Adrenaline is triggered by an increased heart rate, either through exercise or when faced with a frightening situation. Stimulating the release of adrenaline requires you to step outside your comfort zone and embrace a challenge. The great feeling you get when you’ve delivered a brilliant presentation to a big audience, or when you’ve sweated over a HIIT session or got your personal best on a run, is the joint product of adrenaline and endorphins and will give you that euphoric buzz which is likely to help your mood not just in the moment but probably into the next day too. High levels of endorphins, as well as making you feel good, also serve to reduce anxiety, decrease pain and stabilise the immune system. 

Use stress, anger and frustration constructively

There are times when a challenging situation releases adrenaline along with the stress hormone cortisol and pushes us into the high negative energy box. This is fight or flight mode, and if this energy can be channelled towards a constructive purpose amazing things can be achieved, and great challenges overcome. However, this is also the state associated with less productive and sometimes self-destructive behaviours such as aggression. Ranting (in person or on social media) about the injustice of a situation or in disbelief about how others are behaving is an example. It might be a way to vent frustration but rarely serves to do anything other than fan the fire of your own anger (with potentially career-limiting results). 

When you find yourself in this box it is important to create a purpose around short-term goals with a positive outcome in mind. This helps you to think about what can be accomplished rather than dwell on what’s already occurred in the past; using your energy in a practical way to achieve something that makes you feel good, paying attention to the process along the way to help quieten the voice in your head. This will help decrease your cortisol levels and help your mind to return to some level of calm where you are able to think rationally and make some good decisions about how to move forward.

Short term goals, long term outlook

When facing challenges, use the tips above to set some short-term goals that are focused on your wellbeing and that give you a purpose. Remind yourself of the importance of the choices you are making every day. Balance this focus on your emotional wellbeing in the here and now with a longer-term outlook that recognises that stressful situations will pass in time. The most testing circumstances we find ourselves in are the times when we can gain a better knowledge of ourselves. By being in tune with our emotions and choosing our behaviours we can help to manage our moods; and have the confidence that we can get through even the most difficult situations in our lives.


DRIVE Wellbeing

DRIVE recognise how stress and anxiety affect wellbeing and performance and can lead to extended periods of employee absence. We show individuals and teams how to manage their own wellbeing and resilience through practical, bespoke strategies. This provides benefit in both the immediate and longer term for the individual and consequently the organisation.