Friday, October 30, 2009

Not in the Mood

Never underestimate the power of mood on your thinking and behaviour. Many of us know the experience of being in a good mood or getting carried away by a pleasant shopping environment and being lulled into buying something that we later regret. We’ve probably all had the experience of looking at ourselves in the mirror and not liking what we see or being unable to find that “right” thing to wear. We find ourselves being critical of how we look and being unable to find something to wear that looks good. Yet at other times, we look in the mirror and are happy (or happy enough) with the image that is reflected there. Our physical appearance hasn’t changed. What has changed is our mood. Our mood can be a powerful filter of reality.

When we are in a low mood, we are much more likely to selectively scan our environments and notice things that we might not notice otherwise. Some of us may have been accused of being “picky”, “critical”, or “negative “during these times. Not only are we likely to selectively pick out “irritants” in our environment, we are likely to interpret them more negatively when we are in a low mood. Conversely, when our mood is a bit brighter, we may not notice the potential “irritants” in our environment or we may interpret situations in a different way. In a low mood, a friend being late for a dinner date, may be evidence of their insensitivity or selfishness, whereas when we are in a lighter mood we might be more likely to feel worried or puzzled by their lateness and investigate the situation further.

Our moods can even trigger memories specific to that mood state. So when we are in a low mood, we are likely to remember other times that we had a low mood and all of the details of that time. In that low mood, we may find it more difficult to remember happier times. It’s like all of our happier memories are stored in one area and our sad or angry memories are stored somewhere else. What this means is that memories are unreliable. Our memories can be filtered through our moods. By paying attention to only some memories because of our mood at the time, we are unable to access other memories that might bring more balance to our thinking about a situation.

The failure of so many self-improvement or self-change strategies such as dieting and fitness may be attributable to moods as well. When we are feeling confident and happy, we can easily make goals that may fall apart when we hit a low mood. It almost seems like we can be an entirely different person depending on our mood; with goals, memories and thoughts specific to those different mood states. I think that in setting successful goals for ourselves we need to be “realistic” and not just think from the experience of being in a more elated mood. We may also want to predict and plan for how we are going to stick with these goals when the inevitable low mood hits us.

We likely have little control over our moods just like we have little control over the weather. Trying to fix our moods can be beset with other problems. Becoming aware and even “mindful” that we are vulnerable to experiencing our lives very differently depending on our moods is of critical importance. Learning more about the connection between our thinking and our moods is also an important skill in navigating some of the potholes along the highway of life.



T J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale , Zindel V. Segal , Jon Kabat-Zinn. The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness . The Guilford Press, 2007.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stress and the Mind/Body

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) has often been quoted as saying: "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." I have noticed that talking about stress might be a similar phenomenon. We talk about or busy lives, our work, relationship and family stresses. Stress is sometimes almost seen as a virtue – the more stressed you are, the more important or virtuous you must be. A lot of people talk about stress but few people do anything about it. While talking about stress undoubtedly helps to relieve some stress and support , validation and acknowledgement can go a long way, it doesn’t really get at root causes. Like a passing storm, other people simply cling to the hope that the stress will soon pass and blue skies will be on the horizon again soon, however temporarily. More worrisome however, are those people that don’t even notice their stress, or have become addicted or habituated to it. They are neither talking about the weather (stress) nor doing anything about it, but are likely being the most impacted by it.

Even a cursory glance at the research on the impact of stress on the body is enough to generate a stress response! With a stressful situation, our flight and fight systems gets activated so that we can effectively deal with real or imagined threats. However, if we don’t calm ourselves down relatively quickly, our health can be impacted significantly. Many of us have heard the rather cruel anecdote about a frog’s natural response to being put in a pot of boiling water (stress) is to jump to safety. However, if the frog is put in a pot of water that is gradually heated up, the frog will fail to jump out of the hot water, and die. This points to a more insidious type of stress –not those real but dramatic life events such as a relationship breakup, job loss, or the death of a significant person in our lives—but the everyday stresses that we sometimes get more or less accustomed to.

So do you want to know about these effects on your health? I think that this information can be helpful if people use it to think about making changes in the way they live. Otherwise, it may just become another stress in an already stressed-out life. Stress impacts our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to illness. Stress ages us by the wear and tear it takes on our bodies. Stress Impairs cognitive performance, suppresses thyroid function, creates blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia , decreases bone density, decreases muscle tissue, raises blood pressure, lowers inflammatory responses in the body, and increases abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, as well as the development of, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol.

The significant factor in stress is not the stressor itself but the way that people respond to stress. The same stress may be experienced by one person as a small cloud in the sky and by another as a typhoon. Counselling can of course help us not only with strategies to reduce stress in our lives but also with changing our reactions to stress. Talking (or writing) about stress and not repressing our emotional experiences is an important first step. In fact, not talking about feelings and stress, as well as a lack of social support, have been shown to be characteristic of many people diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the onset of all chronic illnesses.

The analogy between stress and talking about the weather has one important difference. Mark Twain seems to imply that merely talking about the weather is somehow not constructive. With stress however, even talking, writing or expressing yourself about what stresses you is effective in reducing the health impacts of that stress. While we can have little impact on the weather by talking about it, talking about stress can open the door to solutions.

Stayed tuned for further ideas and solutions for dealing with stress .

Warm regards,



Gabor Mate. When the Body Says No- The Cost of Hidden Stress. Knopf, 2003.