I've talked about thoughts and emotions, how they affect each other, and their roles in depression. Today I want to talk about how moods add to the mix. The difference between an emotion and a mood is the length of time they last. An emotion is generally brief and is a reaction to an event or a conscious experience. You can have a great number of different emotions during a day, and you're generally aware of what brought them on. Moods, on the other hand, can be caused both by ongoing events and by unconscious triggers.
Imagine waking up and discovering it's raining heavily. You have to drive to work and you know that traffic will be slower than usual. You'll probably be late for an important meeting. You may feel frustrated, helpless or annoyed. Then your mother calls and informs you that her doctor is recommending exploratory surgery. Now you may feel frightened, anxious or worried. These are all negative emotions and may leave you in a pessimistic or anxious mood. When and if things take a turn for the better, your mood will lighten.
Why do we need to think about moods when we're dealing with depression? If we're already monitoring our thoughts and emotions, isn't that enough? Not really, because moods not only affect our thoughts--making them more negative--but they can make our emotional responses more intense. If your mother's surgery is a few days off, and you spend them in an anxious mood, you're more likely to snap at others and overreact to daily annoyances. You may be distracted and make mistakes that you'd ordinarily never make, adding to your anxiety. On the other hand, if you're consciously aware of your anxiety, you can modify your behavior. You can pause before reacting to the everyday annoyances and take your time to make sure you're doing things correctly. You can also take steps to modify your mood. Your worry about your mother may be alleviated by getting more information about her condition, what the surgery is looking for and what can be done should they find a serious problem. Meditation or even sharing your fears with a good friend can help enormously.
Here's the kicker. We often don't know what causes our moods, for the triggers are often unconscious. I may be aware that I've been feeling sad all day, but have no idea why. Perhaps a song on the radio that morning--a song I wasn't paying conscious attention to--triggered memories of a romance that ended badly. But even if I don't know what caused my feeling of sadness, I can do something about it. Knowing that there is no immediate reason for that emotion, I can take positive steps to change it for the better. Remembering a pleasant experience or a joke I heard recently, thinking of a good friend or a beloved pet, doing something I enjoy--all are quick and easy ways to defuse the negative emotion and prevent it from becoming a mood that unnecessarily darkens your day.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.