When Feeling Down
Our Complicated Relationship with Sorrow
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 2016
Moods interfere with our interpretation of life events. Stepping back widens our views, helps soothe unpleasant emotions and gets us back into emotional balance.
Throughout the days, weeks and years, we move through a medley of moods, feelings shifting back and forth, up and down. Some moods linger; others quickly pass. Some moods gently shadow, while others forcefully intrude. These moods become the backdrop of experience. Our life happenings significantly influence our moods; but our moods significantly influence our interpretations of those happenings. Round and round moods, experiences, and interpretations go each independent but also intertwined.
Biological Substrates of Emotion
Moods are biological. We can’t force the body to chemically respond by adjusting a knob (although medications may do this); working with moods is more complex. By approaching moods with hostility, we create additional turmoil. We further perturb the irritant mood, adding non-acceptance to a feeling—our feeling, part of our experience. When we reject discomfort, grappling with internal states to force correction, we disconnect from the world.
Brain manipulations to desensitize feelings may alleviate the ache of sorrow, but we also lose the essential guiding wisdom to connect. Denying the feeling of emotions doesn’t dismiss their presence. They exist in the body. Desensitizing feelings disconnects us from their ancient wisdom while our bodies and minds remain subject to the ill effects of emotions experienced but not felt.
Moods, Emotions, and Behaviors
Moods and emotions constrain and motivate behavior. Emotions are essential for survival of all living organisms with power to move. Our consciousness of emotion (a function of the cerebral cortex) arrived later in the evolutionary chain of human existence, pushing emotions back into the brainstem and out of consciousness doesn’t eliminate their function. Emotions are reactive to experience; unconscious functions receive inputs from the senses micro-moments before conscious thinking intrudes.
In the search for happiness, we cannot wish away the constraints of biological existence. We cannot force our bodies to chemically react different than the design of the biological programming. With acceptance, we appreciate the highs and gracefully accept the lows of the complexity of existence.
But we hate sorrow. We don’t want to feel yucky. Instead of gracefully accepting the nuisance of displeasure, we try to force emotions into submission, manipulating feelings into something they are not. This internal conflict—a self-rejection—creates more drama and more discomfort, alarming the body that something is wrong. Self-rejecting systems slowly stagnate and die.
With focused energy on ridding normal emotional responses and lingering moods, we employ maladaptive thinking to intervene in healthy responses to unpleasurable existence; Instead of learning what we are feeling, extracting wisdom from the moment, we re-label, readjust and distort experience, making everything appear a little rosier and much less disturbing. But reality remains unchanged. Often optimism helps but when ramped up with denials, and mis-coloration of facts, it hinders. The middle path works well here.
"Instead of gracefully accepting the nuisance of displeasure, we try to force emotions into submission, manipulating feelings into something they are not."
We can Influence Moods
While we cannot physically change a mood by sheer will, we can influence moods indirectly by forming healthier environments that encourage enjoyable emotions. The friends we choose, the relationships we establish, and security, we create an external environment. We also can examine the mental maps—internal environment—that organizes and creates meaning from experience.
Unrealistic expectations, lack of personal compassion, and harsh self-criticism all dampen experience, and spark discouraging emotions. There is a subtle but important difference between creating a positive atmosphere and completely rejecting anything less than utopia.
See Unrealistic Expectations for more on this topic
Mindful Awareness of Feelings
Recognizing the experience of moods and emotions changes the felt experience, exposing internal processes, creating a small space for adjustment. Recognizing a low mood helps identify the dark shading the mood adds to perceptions. When we are sad, the world appears a little less kind. With this knowledge, we create a sliver of reprieve from the dismal perceptions, knowing the mood is partially responsible.
Understanding internal moods reign of control, we can refrain from thoughtless and hurtful comments that damage important relationships. Our spouse appears inconsiderate and children seem selfish because we misinterpret through the dreary lens of sorrow, or anxiety, or anger, or frustration. We misperceive other people’s intentions when taxed with painful emotions and distressing moods.
"Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity."
When acting in mindlessness, we respond with an added sharpness offending those we love. Hurting our beloveds creates more tension and further deteriorates the mood. We must remember the low mood colors mundane interactions with deep meanings that don’t exist. When we recognize this, we can separate catastrophic interpretations from actual happenings.
Relationships and Moods
Moods often are reflective of relationship interactions. Either an obvious comment or action; or a subtle look, sneer, or embrace. Our big brains extract large amounts of information from the slightest input. But our understanding is not complete. A relationship is between two living beings, with individual dynamic experiences, involving individual moods and emotions.
We often draw wrong conclusions, giving too much weight to a slight remark. Catching negative interpretations of extensive meanings from small interactions is helpful. Recognizing a partner’s low mood prepares our minds to respond less defensively when they make a sullen or cutting remark; we realize the mood is coloring their perception. We can rightfully soften personal meaning, deflecting the comment as a reflection of their current mood rather than a rejection.
"Every human walks around with a certain kind of sadness. They may not wear it on their sleeves, but it's there if you look deep." Taraji P. Henson
When we understand the power moods cast on perceptions, we no longer blindly serve the mood, instead of protecting our hurtful words with ridiculous justifications, we can catch the sharp retorts before they escape our lips. Occasionally, under a sour mood, we may slip. We all do. But with mindful attentiveness and understanding, we own our words and apologize.
With greater awareness, we avoid magnifying relationship problems. Through graceful acceptance of low moods, we create a kinder environment, nurturing enjoyable moods when they pass through and allow more sullen moods to give appropriate wisdom and then gently fade away.
We all experience the blues—the normal malaise of ordinary living; but with balance, we may disentangle from the extreme waves of sadness, anger and discouragement. By distrusting past faulty perceptions and clinging to hope of a brighter tomorrow, the difficult feelings become manageable. With practice, we may discover that during moments of sadness a subtle feeling of peace still breaks through the clouds of despair, shining hope of a better tomorrow.
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