Wednesday, October 23, 2013

6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood

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 festering issues and making lifestyle enhancements. 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.

(1) Gratitude

According to research, being grateful increases our happiness. Begin your day expressing appreciation to God for at least one blessing in your life, preferably out loud and in your native language; elaborate on how you have benefited from this blessing.

Try this powerful practice to supercharge your mood: First, focus on life’s deepest joy: That God – the Creator of the entire universe – wants to have a personal relationship with you (no matter what you’ve done in the past). Then, pick an upbeat Jewish song and dance and/or sing to God, expressing your desire to come closer to Him and your appreciation for all that your Father in Heaven does for you.

This is one of the quickest ways to improve your mood. Try it at least once, even if you don’t feel like it and even if you think it’s silly. If you find this practice beneficial, do it each morning.

(The music of Shlomo Carlebach is one great choice to dance and/or sing to. 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 and delight in life’s 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; praise yourself for your achievements. In addition, look for and praise the good in others.

A fundamental belief in Judaism is that whatever happens to us is from God, out of His love for us and for our benefit (Tractate Berachot 60b). While the main benefit of a difficulty is likely obscured from your view, try to find some benefit – a bright side to a challenge – for which you can be grateful.

When we are grateful for the blessings in our lives, we are more likely to not take things too seriously. Look for the humor in life. Throughout the day, remind yourself to smile, even if only a slight one; this will help you cultivate 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 of them with others. Research shows that giving to others enhances our health and happiness; it even increases our longevity.

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.

(2) Acceptance

Gratitude works well when we focus on the positive aspects of our lives. What about the painful ones? For those we need acceptance. There are three dimensions of acceptance: Accepting our present circumstances, accepting ourselves and accepting other people. For a discussion on this topic, see, “3-Dimensional Acceptance: A Pathway to Peace and Power.”

Our self-talk plays a pivotal role in enhancing acceptance and our mood. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin discusses self-talk in his very helpful book, Conversations with Yourself: A Practical Guide to Greater Happiness, Self-Development and Self-Empowerment.

(3) Self-Compassion

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.

Ever notice that people may hate themselves for their weaknesses, yet when they are dealing with others who have the same weaknesses, especially children, they feel no hatred, only tenderness and compassion? Why is that?

Because when dealing with others, we are better able to see the overall picture and not just focus on the weakness. When we look at the child, we are able to see the innocence, the struggle to overcome difficulties, and the inherent goodness the child possesses.

Although our bodies age, the child inside of us remains. Never shame or insult that child. 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 child 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. Do not dwell on the past mistake, instead, focus on encouraging yourself to do better in the future.

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, think while slowly breathing in, “God is with me,” and while slowly breathing out, “God is soothing and comforting me.”

After feeling Divine compassion, see if you can feel a sense of oneness with God. As Moses 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 emotions bottled up, and do not express ourselves, we begin to feel weighed down by our challenges. Talk to God about your difficulties and try writing in a journal, or utilize other methods of healthy emotional expression.

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. We are assertive when we stand up for ourselves, letting others know which behaviors we would appreciate and which ones are unacceptable. We set healthy boundaries when we explain to people 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 sharing with them 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 festering 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 meaning. We all need to feel that we are working toward something of value. Set a goal, something significant and worthwhile to strive for. Break your goal down into mini goals and choose mini rewards you will give yourself as you achieve each mini goal. At least once a week, engage in an activity which brings you closer to your goal. Have at least one goal which transcends yourself and is for the greater good. According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of 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?

(Click on the title of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s book for a listing of, “Happiness-Enhancing Strategies.”)

(6) Making lifestyle enhancements

Our lifestyle habits have a big influence on our moods. There are three main areas on which to focus:

Sleep: Get adequate sleep; go to sleep 15-20 minutes earlier each week until you feel refreshed in the morning.

Exercise: The Mayo Clinic recommends exercising three to five times a week for thirty minutes or more, for mood enhancing effects. Aerobic exercise and strength training both have mood boosting properties; if one doesn’t 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: The foods we eat affect our moods. According to one study, eating a whole foods diet (vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and whole grains) resulted in a 30% risk reduction for depression and anxiety compared to a typical western diet (processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products, and beer).

Some people are sensitive to specific foods which negatively affect their mood and health. Consider doing an elimination trial to determine if you have food sensitivities; the most common ones are to wheat, gluten or dairy. There are articles and books which explain how to do an elimination trial.

Some benefit from taking dietary supplements. On this topic, David Edelberg, MD, writes on his website, “If you’re not on an antidepressant, consider St. John’s wort (450 mg twice daily) combined with 5-HTP (100 mg at bedtime) to raise serotonin, which is what an antidepressant does.”

Everyone is different and may benefit from different approaches. Go through the above six tools and choose one on which to focus; begin with the one you sense will be most helpful for you. Frequently, strengthening the area you are currently most weak in will yield the greatest gains. 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.

The first three tools, gratitude, acceptance and self-compassion, are especially useful in the moment, as emotional first aid. So the next time you feel down or anxious, find something for which to be grateful, whether a blessing in another area of your life, or a bright side of the painful situation. Then, talk to yourself words of faith, and see if you can be more accepting of the challenge. Lastly, remind yourself that you are going through a difficult time; give yourself compassion and feel God’s compassion for you.

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 issue; 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.


Addendum: Personal Growth: How to Upgrade Your Skillset

In the past, people lived with their extended families, spending time speaking with and observing their elder relatives, and did not need a formal education on life skills. But in today’s society, where we do not spend as much time with our extended family, we often enter adulthood not having learned basic skills, which leads to underachievement and interpersonal problems.

Four books on this topic to consider: What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith, How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey and Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. (There are many other books on life skills, including those written from a Jewish perspective. These four though, are likely to be in your local library.)

In Marshall Goldsmith’s book, he discusses how to overcome 21 harmful habits, which hold people back in their relationships and from progressing in their careers. Start by improving the habit which is your biggest issue. To discover which one that is, you can email the list of the habits to your family members, close friends and/or colleagues. Ask them which habits – in the list or not included – do they think you will gain the most by addressing. Then focus on the one which is most commonly mentioned. Email them back which one you will be starting with.

Ask them monthly for feedback on how you are doing; see if they have any suggestions, in this area, how you can improve even more. Do not argue with them, just thank them for their feedback and give their comments serious consideration. Once you have sufficiently improved in that area, move on to another one.

Once you have addressed your most destructive habits (or if you are among the select few who do not have any of those habits), consider the other three books, which focus on healthy habits and mindsets. A summary of Dale Carnegie’s book is available here. Before reading The 7 Habits, consider taking the free assessment quiz to determine your “Personal Effectiveness Quotient” and which habits to focus on. Before reading Crucial Conversations, consider taking the free assessment to determine which areas to focus on.

Another book to consider, if you feel stuck and unfulfilled in your career and/or personal life, is Marshall Goldsmith’s Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back If You Lose It.

Part of personal growth is letting go of bad habits and forming healthy ones. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, discusses how to do this. On his website, he has a number of free resources and guides.

When you read a technique in any of these books which resonates with you, try it out before reading the next chapter.

In addition to or instead of the above works, read recommended books/articles targeting the specific area with which you struggle, e.g., career, dating, marriage, parenting or relating to your parents.

Upgrading your skillset is a lifelong process which will help you achieve your goals and enhance the quality of your life.

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