Four Hacks for Balancing Mood

I have finally figured out my mood! After 16 months and 300,000 words of mood tracking data, which I shared with a friend, I have a painstakingly compiled list of hacks that balance my extreme mood swings and make life much smoother for me.

So, like a good QS’er, I’m sharing what I learned. Maybe it will help someone else out there. I’ve broken down the insights into four categories.

1. Accept, accept, accept

The practice of acceptance has been incredibly transformative. If you can accept yourself as you are, accept other people as they are, and accept situations around you, you will be free from secondary layers of emotion that prevent you from just dealing with whatever you need to deal with.

For example, say that someone you love promises to do something for you, and then doesn’t do it. You have a choice here – layer frustration and anger on top of the situation, or accept it and check in with the person to see what happened. Maybe they forgot because they were feeling sick, or are stressed out at work. It probably doesn’t mean they don’t care.

As Zen master Suzuki Roshi said, “It’s like putting a horse on top of a horse and then climbing on and trying to ride. Riding a horse is hard enough. Why add another horse?” Acceptance helps you just ride one horse at a time.

Expectations come into play here as well. What I’ve learned is, the fewer expectations you have, especially about other people doing anything in particular, the easier life becomes. Keep moving strongly towards your inspiring intentions, just don’t expect anything to work out in the exact way you imagine. And if you do have a particular expectation, make sure to communicate it to the people who you’re expecting to meet it!

2. Create social algorithms

I used to have massive social anxiety coupled with an intense fear of abandonment, which often led me to isolation and depression. I was even afraid to go to QS meetups for a long while! Here are three tips I learned to make socializing smoother for me:

- Always have a buddy. Before I go to a meetup or a conference, I always ask someone to be my buddy. It has to be someone I feel safe with and who is also going to the same event (or willing to be invited.) Being a buddy means I can sit next to them, and check in with them for a hug or a quick update on how I’m feeling. At first it was hard to ask, but I soon realized that other people were also often relieved to have a buddy!

- Figure out how you engage best. For me, conference calls and group meetings are death. Coffee shops and most restaurants are too loud. So I suggest one-on-one walks with people, usually in a beautiful park or outside nature space. Again, most folks are happy to have this option of getting fresh air and exercise as well as connection. And I’m more comfortable, so I’m able to listen, give, and connect better.

- Spread out social events. Everyone will have their own balance for this one. I noticed that I get depressed if I’ve been at home for more than two days in a row, and I get a tad too manic if I’m out having meetings for more than two days in a row. This is a simple heuristic that makes it easy to decide when to put things in my calendar.

3. Pay attention to sensory experiences

I became aware of the importance of sensory experience after reading up on sensory processing differences and a sensory theory of autism. Once I tuned in and started noticing my environment, I discovered I could:

- Comfort my skin. Wearing uncomfortable clothes makes me irritable. So I gave away all my jeans, high heels, bras, anything that felt constricting or tight. I’m so much happier wearing comfy clothes all the time.

- Protect my ears. Loud machines are very draining. I noticed that riding on a train or airplane, walking down a busy street, or working at a coffee shop with that grinder going off periodically was tiring me out quite a lot. So I bought myself a pair of Bose QC15 noise canceling headphones, and I wear them every day. It also helps to put me in the zone for productive work, with playlists full of beats (for coding), love songs (for community building), or mellow ambient music (for chats.)

- Improve my sleep. I started tracking sensory experiences that interfered with my sleep, and discovered sound and light to be the main challenges. I now wear blue blockers for the last two hours before bed, have a white noise machine in my room, wear these earplugs, and try to make sure everyone in my house has used the bathroom before I go to bed so they won’t have to come in and turn on the light too often. My sleep is so much better, and my mood is too!

- Have awesome hugs! After hearing about Temple Grandin’s experience of being calmed by a squeeze machine, I started noticing that hugs (especially good, solid, squeezy hugs) really calmed me down too. People who I feel safe enough to hug deeply will notice it after ten or twenty seconds – my body just starts to melt and relax. So I started offering to hug people more, and even proudly broadcast on my social media descriptions and chat status that I love hugs. Now people send me random hugs by chat, which always make me smile. I also get more hugs in person, which further helps me to be comfortable in social situations!

4. Do the opposite from what you feel

This is the final piece that made me feel like I’d finally solved mood. Credit goes to Marcin Kowrygo from QS Poland and Simon Frid from the first QS discussion group for giving me the pieces of this last puzzle.

Basically, if you’re depressed, act as you would if you were excited, and if you’re manic, act as you would if you were depressed.

So now when I’m feeling down, I go for a fast walk in the bright sunshine with loud music, I eat less, try to chat with people more or invite someone out, and try to wake up extra early. When I’m feeling too hyper, I slow down, lie in a dark room with quiet or sad music, eat a bit extra, try to be alone, and try to get lots of sleep.

This is going against what my body feels like doing in the moment, but it definitely works to curb the extreme ups and downs that I otherwise feed and amplify. I like to think of it as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) without the C.

So these are my distilled insights from 16 months of intense mood tracking, at least an hour of writing a day. If you have any insights or hacks of your own on how you balance mood, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!!

As for my next experiment, I think it might have to do with measuring and modifying time perception. Stay tuned for that…

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10 Responses to Four Hacks for Balancing Mood

  1. it takes a village to manage my mood… learned this a long time ago. Most of your insights are commonly held wisdom to the 12 step communities.

    On the ‘expectations’ thingy, they’re generally called pre-meditated resentments. And having/holding a resentment is the equivalent of drinking poison while expecting the object of your displeasure ‘to die’….

    As no stranger to depression, I’d suggest 86-ing at least the technical reliance on the algos as therapy, and just go to a meeting for a reframe. Pushing the reset button on the defective software many of us carry in our ‘operating system’ aka belief system, needs a regular reset (at least of mine).

    One of the advantages of social media is the omnipresent potential of a real time virtual if not IRL meeting, perhaps that could be a data point for trackers.

    Thanks for your transparency Alex. Good stuff!

  2. Paul Kittson says:

    Its seems like alot of your success came from adapting your environment to your personality. Did you find any success in your personality changing to handle comfortably a wider variety of environments?

    • Alexandra Carmichael says:

      Great question, Paul! I do think I’m gradually becoming more flexible to a wider variety of environments, and I expect these algorithms I’ve discovered to change as I grow. I think of them as a scaffold supporting me very nicely for now, and perhaps some of them will fall away as I learn and become stronger.

  3. james says:

    My best “hack” has been to take my kids to school every day. It ticks off a few things at once, like getting up and seeing the sunlight early and getting my daily fix of caffeine on the way home. I’ve deliberately not fixed my broken coffee machine and I can only justify buying one coffee a day – being early in the morning has helped with sleep and I also benefit from chatting with the cafe staff. Lots of good strategies in the first hour of the day.

    Your bipolar infographic on Cure Together is excellent.

  4. All great comments Alexandra!

    I run a website called moodtraining.com that is dedicated to the same (neuroscience and QS-based methods that people can take anytime/anywhere to gain emotional awareness and control.) This is just the sort of thing that we love write about. Come check us out, and I’ll shoot you a separate email to see if you’d be up for us re-posting. Best-Matt

  5. haig says:

    Regarding #4, I have been using this technique for years to combat my anxiety, I call it ‘affect judo’ because, like in judo, you use the opponents strength against them. In my case, subtle negative stimuli would trigger a cascade of emotions that spiraled into unbearable fear and distress, I’d literally find myself in fight or flight mode (flight in my case) over minor imaginary or over-exaggerated threats. I know there isn’t anything terrifying at that moment, but my autonomic nervous system thinks otherwise, and once the adrenaline is circulating no amount of thinking is going to change your body’s state for some time. The problem with the flight option of fight or flight is that you can find yourself trying to run away indefinitely without an end in sight, prolonging the anxiety, whereas the fight option confronts the situation immediately, you either win the battle or die. Living in fear is a miserable existence, so I began to catch myself as a bout of anxiety was coming on and decided to fight instead–I’d try to consciously get angry instead of afraid, using the same energy to enter a different frame of mind, confronting the negative emotions immediately. My bouts of anxiety began to get less severe, lasting shorter, and eventually became infrequent enough to not be a problem anymore. Now hopefully I won’t develop an anger management problem!

    • Alexandra Carmichael says:

      Great comment, thanks Haig! Yes, I’ve found that channeling “unproductive” emotions like anxiety and depression into “productive” emotions like anger or love really helps me to take useful action instead of being immobilized. I love the judo reference! I practiced tai chi for many years, which also has that equal and opposite principle of balance. A new insight for my mind to think about, yay! :)

  6. Ginko says:

    This article is very helpful. I am new to all these self tracking stuff and am fascinated by it. Your article makes me more motivated to do my own self tracking. I am using MoodPanda, any suggestion for good tracking app online? Thanks!!

  7. 001041 says:

    It was very fascinating that you noticed being around loud machines seriously affected your mood.

    Did you ever do that experiment about mood and time perception? I would love to hear what you learned from it.

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