When was the last time you felt really good, happy and content?
Many of us experience periods of low mood, anxiety, or irritability. How can we deal with these emotions and bring more peace and joy into our lives?
Here are six tools we can use to enhance our moods: Gratitude, acceptance, self-compassion, expressing ourselves, addressing nagging issues and addressing lifestyle factors. Many times, even just using one tool will help us feel better and increase our enjoyment of life. If you are experiencing severe emotional distress, seek help from a recommended professional.
According to research, being grateful increases our happiness. Begin your day expressing appreciation to God for at least one blessing in your life. To enhance your feelings of gratitude, pick an upbeat Jewish song and choose something for which to be grateful. (Even if your life is in shambles, you still have access to the deepest joy: That God, the Creator of the entire universe, wants to have a relationship with you.) Then dance and/or sing to God, expressing your joy and appreciation. This is one of the quickest ways to improve your mood. Try it at least once. If you find it beneficial, do it each morning.
(The music of Shlomo Carlebach is one great choice, among many. Even just listening to his music can uplift your mood. You can listen to full-length tracks at http://www.sojournrecords.com/artist/shlomo_carlebach. Some fast paced songs available on this webpage are: Oseh Shalom, Tov L'hodot, Harachaman Hu Y'zakeinu, Yamin Usmol, Hashem Melech, Tshuatam, Siman Tov and Am M'kadshai.)
Each day, make a conscious decision to focus on and be grateful for what goes right, the blessings inherent in every day. Savor the little and not so little pleasures, enjoying them mindfully. Express appreciation for the help others give you. Search for the good in you. Appreciate and be thankful for your positive qualities and talents; compliment yourself on your achievements. In addition, look for and praise the good you see in others.
When we are grateful for the blessings in our lives, we are more likely to not take things too seriously. Each day, find a reason to laugh or smile. (Although, avoid the opposite extreme, where everything becomes a joke, even serious topics). Throughout the day, remind yourself to smile, even if only a slight one; this will go a long way towards cultivating an inner sense of lightness and joy.
Part of gratitude is realizing that the gifts God gives us are not exclusively for our own use; He expects us to share a portion with others. Research shows that giving to others enhances our happiness much more than any fleeting pleasure we may feel when splurging on ourselves.
Helping others reminds us that there are those who are less fortunate and to be grateful for what we have. Look for ways to share your time, talents and resources; volunteer or adopt a cause or charity. Each day, see how you can be of service to others.
Gratitude works well when we focus on positive aspects of our lives. What about the painful ones? For those we need acceptance. Acceptance means trusting that God is guiding our lives and doing what is best for us, even though we do not understand how. We do not resign ourselves to a situation; rather, we make peace with the way things are, even as we work toward a better tomorrow.
God wants us to do what we can to improve our lives, while at the same time accepting each challenge as His will and for our eternal benefit. With acceptance, we are optimistic that once we have gained what we need, we will be able to move past a challenge.
Comparing our lives to others undermines acceptance. We may think, “Why can’t my life be like theirs? Why can’t I have a wonderful spouse, great kids, good health and earn a comfortable living?” To counter this, say to yourself, “God gives each person what they need to fulfill their unique purpose. If they have those blessings, then they need them. If I don’t have them, then right now, I don’t need them.” Afterward, turn your attention to what you do have; use your talents, gifts and blessings to find meaning and fulfill your life’s purpose.
Acceptance is not all or nothing. One benchmark for gauging our level of acceptance is noting the level of tension we feel when we think about a difficult issue. The more we are able to accept a situation, the more relaxed and calm we will be when thinking about it.
Another benchmark for how we are doing in accepting God’s will is whether we are able to accept ourselves. God created us with unique imperfections and by overcoming them we best fulfill our life’s purpose. When people harshly criticize themselves over their deficiencies, they have not yet accepted the will of their Creator. They have not yet internalized the belief that God is infinitely wise and created every aspect of their lives for their highest good.
Sometimes we think, “I like this part of myself but not that part.” We only think this way because of our limited understanding of what is beneficial to us. If we shared God’s perspective, we would love every aspect of ourselves, just as our Father in Heaven does. We would realize how each part coalesces to enable us to best fulfill our life’s mission.
Acceptance also plays a role in relationships with others. Much of our distress in interpersonal relationships comes from not accepting others. We get upset with the way people act and we often try to change them. People sense when they are being judged and they resent it. In addition to accepting our own flaws, we need to accept the imperfections of others. When people sense our nonjudgmental attitude, they will often be more open to improving their behavior. (At the same time, if people try to infringe upon our rights or take advantage of us, we need to be assertive and stand up for ourselves.)
When you feel distressing emotions, focus on unconditional acceptance: Accept others, your life circumstance and every part of yourself, even the way you feel. After all, what do you gain by resisting or rejecting aspects of your life? If that’s the way things are, that’s the way they’re supposed to be – at least for the time being. When possible, focus on improving a situation, but first accept it. Then, you will act from a place of peace and power.
When faced with a challenge, our instinctive response is an internal, “No!” and we resist the difficulty. By believing that God’s infinite wisdom is guiding our lives and that we will benefit from our challenges, we can move past the “No!” to “OK” and then to “Yes!”
The next time you are confronted with a difficulty, embrace it by thinking “Yes!” and exhale any feelings of distress. If no one around, you can repeat this word out loud with feeling, while pumping your fists triumphantly in the air. You can even imagine a whole arena of people cheering you on, as you head towards the challenge, confident that God will help you overcome.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of self-compassion, being kind to oneself, with books and websites devoted to the topic. Self-compassion flows naturally from self-acceptance; once we accept ourselves the way we are, we can be kind and loving to ourselves.
The next time you are about to berate yourself over a perceived flaw or failure, instead, bring to mind your many struggles and feel tenderness and compassion for yourself. Talk to yourself, in the second person, soothing words of support and encouragement. Show yourself the same kindness, warmth and care you would show a close family member or friend who is going through a tough time. When you need to give yourself constructive criticism, do so lovingly and respectfully, after all, you are speaking to one of God’s children.
In addition to extending compassion to yourself, tap into the compassion God gives you. He is constantly supporting you (Song of Songs 2:6), “His left hand is under my head and His right arm embraces me.” God tells you (Isaiah 66:13), “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you…” Pray to Him to send you comfort and strength. Then imagine waves of these feelings washing over you.
When you feel emotional distress, breathe in and think, “God is with me in my pain.” As you breathe out think, “He is soothing and comforting me.”
After feeling Divine compassion, see if you can feel a sense of oneness with God. As Moshe Rabbeinu taught us (Deuteronomy 4:35), “…There is nothing beside Him.” In this state, there is no separate self receiving compassion from God. Instead, there is only compassion; there is only God.
(4) Expressing ourselves
When we keep things bottled up, and do not express ourselves, we begin to feel weighed down by our challenges. Talk to God about your difficulties and/or write in a journal. A book which uses writing to help us shift our mindset from overwhelmed to in-control is Mind-Body Workbook for Stress: Effective Tools for Lifelong Stress Reduction and Crisis Management by Stanley H. Block and Carolyn Bryant Block. To gain the most from this book, write out the written exercises.
Part of expressing ourselves is letting people know, calmly and respectfully, when they have hurt our feelings. It also means being assertive and setting healthy boundaries: Informing others the behaviors we would appreciate and which ones are unacceptable. We also explain to them what we can and cannot do for them; a key part of this is learning to say no, when appropriate.
Social connection and support is crucial for our emotional health. Make sure you have family members, mentors and/or friends whom you talk to on a regular basis, enjoying their company and with whom you share your struggles. Sometimes, you need to vent, other times, you want their advice; let them know which one you want. An underutilized resource for social support is senior citizens. Many of them are good listeners with wise input. If you are going through a difficult time and cannot find the support and guidance you need, see a recommended therapist.
(5) Addressing nagging issues
Emotional distress can be a message from our subconscious. Perhaps we are avoiding dealing with an issue – maybe at work or in our relationships – or that we feel unfulfilled in an area of our lives. Ask yourself, “What’s my biggest stressor? What issue have I been avoiding? Is there a past hurt I need to let go of? In which area of my life do I feel unfulfilled?” Make an action plan, preferably with outside input, to address what comes up.
An issue which many struggle with is a lack of fulfillment. We all need to feel that we are working towards something of value. Set a goal, something significant and worthwhile to strive for, and at least once a week engage in an activity which brings you closer to your goal. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, researcher and author on happiness, “Find a happy person and you will find a project.” What’s your project? What gives you meaning? How can you do those activities more often?
(6) Addressing lifestyle factors
Lifestyle factors play a key role in our moods. Get adequate sleep; gradually go to sleep earlier, in 15 minute increments, until you wake up refreshed. Try meditation which can have a calming effect. Exercise is also beneficial for mood enhancement; the Mayo Clinic recommends exercising three to five times a week for thirty minutes. Aerobic exercise and strength training both have mood boosting properties; if one does not help, try the other. Some need to do moderate/intense exercise or to alternate intensity to gain the full benefits. Exercising in a natural setting and/or in sunlight has added mood enhancing effects. If you exercise with someone else, you will also gain social benefits and increased motivation to stick to your routine.
Diet can have a direct effect on mood. Enhancing our diet can be broken down into two essential components. Eat whole foods– cut out or reduce refined, heavily processed and sweetened foods. Do an elimination trial to determine if you have food sensitivities; the most common ones are wheat, gluten or dairy. A book on this topic is The Antianxiety Food Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood, and End Cravings by Trudy Scott.
Everyone is different and may benefit from different approaches. Go through the tools and choose one on which to focus. After you have implemented that tool, add another one. Write down which tools work best for you and the next time you feel emotional distress, look at the list and do those tools.
When it is not enough
If these six tools are not sufficient, or, perhaps in tandem with implementing them, look for a self-help book which describes psychological techniques relevant to your problem; you can also learn those techniques from a recommended therapist. One book to consider is Mind and Emotions: A Universal Treatment for Emotional Disorders by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Patricia Zurita Ona. This book forms the basis for the treatment website http://cbt-self-help-therapy.com.
Some people may require medication. Many emotional issues have strong biological underpinnings, which for some, like any medical condition, are best addressed with medication. Frequently more than one attempt may be necessary before a person finds the right medication(s) and dosage.
Taking medication does not mean you will have to do so for the rest of your life. Once you are feeling better for 6-12 months, you can discuss with your doctor the possibility of gradually tapering off the medication or lowering the dosage.
When searching for healing, be patient and do not put your life on hold. Months or years may be required to resolve longstanding issues, or improvements may occur rapidly. God has a timetable for when and how you will find the healing you seek. All you need to do is make reasonable efforts and ask for His help.
For further discussion on gratitude, acceptance and self-compassion, please see my free e-book, Living with God: 30 Days to a Fulfilling Life.