Nothing is truer than the lyrics of the old Neil Diamond tune, Song Sung Blue: “Me and you are subject to the blues now and then.” We all feel blue now and then, and we all have anxious or negative feelings from time to time. These human emotions are a normal reaction to stressful events in our busy lives, from difficulties on the job to sitting in traffic or having an argument with a friend or a family member.
But people seem to be more – or less – able to let such stressors slide off their backs without succumbing to a long-lasting grumpy mood or panic, said Kenneth Yeager, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Behavioral Health at Ohio State University, Wexner Medical Center. “There are certain people who live their lives as if it’s a constant crisis,” he said, “And others who are able to let things go easier.”
According to Hillary Goldsher, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, this is a result both of genetics and environment; in other words, we are born with an innate disposition that is then shaped by the environment in which we were raised. “If you were born with a sunny disposition but experienced childhood trauma or instability, you may be less resilient to stressors than someone who is a born worrier but raised in a loving and predictable environment,” said Dr. Goldsher.
Unfortunately, according to a recent study out of Penn State, people who harp on daily stressors to the point of daily anxiety or depression run a much higher risk of chronic health problems down the road. The good news? Even though you can’t change your temperament or how you were raised, you can learn to manage your emotions better so you’re less likely to have that black cloud of anxiety and depression rain on your parade. Here are some tips from the experts:
- Try to identify the source of your anxiety or blue mood and then begin to take actions to resolve the problem. For example, advised Dr. Yeager, if you are grumpy because you’re overwhelmed by everything you have to do at work or at home, keep a prioritized task list and then cross things off as you complete them. It helps, he added, to assign a time frame for each task, such as 30 minutes for returning phone calls or emails. Even if you don’t get all of your correspondence completed, you’ll have begun working on it, which generates a sense of accomplishment.
- If you don’t understand, learn more. If your black cloud has to do with issues you know little about, such as a disease or illness – yours or a loved one’s – read everything you can about it, so that you’re better able to identify what you can do to cope more effectively, said Dr. Yeager. You might learn about medications that can be prescribed for your mother’s early Alzheimer’s disease, or find a support group for those who are facing similar challenges as you are.
- If you can’t fix the problem right away, learn to compartmentalize. Compartmentalization, by definition, is a natural (and sometimes unhealthy) coping mechanism, a way we have of not thinking about things that cause us anxiety or negative feelings. But it can also be used in a healthy way by isolating a particular problem from the rest of your life challenges and focusing on it selectively, said Dr. Goldsher. “You can overthink and overanalyze, even get obsessive about things you can’t change,” she explained. “But if you set aside a scheduled time to think about a problem rather than ruminating constantly about it, it takes away some of your ongoing anxiety.” If the problem is severe enough that it’s invading your life, you might consider therapy as your “scheduled time” to focus on it, she added.
- Train yourself to look at the good. People are “hard-wired” for survival, explained Dr. Yeager. “That is, we can easily identify what can go wrong. But we have to work harder to identify what could go right, to focus on the positives in our lives.” A good way to train yourself in this skill, he said, is by identifying three things each day that have gone right for you and thinking about what you may have done or contributed to make that happen. “Professional sports teams build on the positives in this way – by identifying what went right, why it went right, and then problem solving what can be done to make it go right more often,” said Dr. Yeager.
- Ask for help. If you can’t shake away your blues or stave off your anxiety, reach for assistance, whether it’s a friend or a family member, a leader at your place of worship, or a mental health professional, advised Dr. Yeager. Another person can often help you identify what the issue is, where you are going with it, and what you might do to make it better. “And if possible, do it in person rather than by telephone or email,” he suggested. “There’s something about a face to face connection that soothes and grounds you.”
Practical Tips For Better Emotional Health
There are essential actions we all need to engage in every day to maintain our emotional health and stability, said Susan Noonan, MD, MPH, author of Managing Your Depression – What You Can Do to Feel Better. “When you follow these steps regularly, you will decrease your vulnerability to fluctuations or changes in mood,” she advised. The steps are:
- Get good sleep. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night, keeping a regular sleep routine.
- Eat a healthy diet. Eat a balanced, healthy diet high in fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, fish, whole grains and olive oil, and avoid alcohol, street drugs or excessive caffeine.
- Follow directions. If you take medications for physical or mental issues, take them as directed.
- Exercise. Include cardiovascular, stretching and strengthening activities
- Stay connected. Maintain social contacts and connections with others.
- Have a daily routine and schedule. Include pleasurable activities, “mastery” activities (learning a new skill or challenge), and activities that give you a sense of purpose.
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN