If you’re suffering with low mood, you might decide to seek out a formal treatment such as counselling or cognitive-behavioural therapy. But this can take time, and motivation, to organize; and, once organized, can take time to start working.
While you wait, here are 12 simple ways to lift your mood. You may already be doing some of these things, and you certainly don’t need to be doing them all. Just try the ones that feel most natural, or that are easiest for you.
As your mood begins to lift—and sooner or later it surely will—you can make more and bigger changes to your routine. And if you can hold on to those habits once your mood has lifted, you will, I promise, feel better than ever before.
1. Spend more time with sympathetic friends and relatives. Talking about our feelings helps us process them, put them into perspective, and obtain advice and support. Don’t be afraid to tell people that you need their time, or feel guilty for taking it. If you’re uncomfortable talking to relatives and friends, or are unable to do so, you can phone a helpline instead. Even if you don’t want to talk about your feelings, spending time with others, for example, playing sports or cooking a meal, can help to lift your mood.
2. Do more of the things you normally enjoy, even if they no longer seem appealing. Re-read your favourite childhood book, re-watch your favourite romcom, go shopping or to the cinema, prepare a delicious meal, renew with an old friend—anything that removes you from your negative thoughts is likely to make things that much better.
3. Get out of your home at least once a day, even if only to fetch milk or walk in the park. Bright daylight, fresh air, and the hustle bustle of everyday life can all be helpful, as can the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. If you can, try to take some mild exercise such as a 30- or 60-minute walk—if possible, through some greenery, on a stretch of coastline, or past some beautiful buildings. Close your eyes and listen to the birds and the wind.
4. Fight off negative thoughts. Make a list of all the positive things about you and your life (you may need help with this), keep it in your bag, pocket, or wallet, and read it to yourself every morning or as needed. However bad you may be feeling, remember that you have not always felt this way, and will not always feel this way.
5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Try to reduce your stress levels. Simplify your life, even if it means doing less or doing only one thing at a time. Break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones, and set realistic deadlines for completing them. Don’t blame yourself for “doing nothing;” you are merely giving yourself the time and space that you need to get better. Look upon it as an investment into yourself. For now, you are your main task, you are your priority.
6. Practice deep breathing. Low mood is often associated with stress and anxiety, which respond well to deep breathing. Deep breathing simply involves regulating your breathing: Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds. Then, purse your lips and gradually let the air out. Exhale as far as you comfortably can. Carry on with this cycle until you are feeling much more relaxed. Try it now and see if you notice the difference.
7. Listen to some good music. Music boosts levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger in the brain. From a more psychological point of view, music can help us to recognize, express, and process complex or painful emotions. It elevates these emotions and gives them a sense of legitimacy, of context and perspective, of order, beauty, and meaning. I don’t think that music has to sound uplifting to be uplifting, so long as it helps us to work with our emotions.
8. Get as much sleep as you can. Sleep, said the Dalai Lama, is the best meditation. Sleep enhances mood and cognitive function—one reason why we "sleep on it" and "sleep it off". A single night’s sleep, or even a nice nap, can make a world of difference to the way we feel. For most people, there is no such thing as too much sleep.
9. Be patient with yourself. Improvements in mood are likely to be gradual rather than sudden, and you may even get worse before you start to get better. The road to recovery is a bumpy one, and there are going to be good days and bad days. A bad day that comes after a good one may seem all the worse for it. Don’t blame yourself for the bad days, and don’t despair. As with an English spring, the bad days will gradually become fewer.
10. Avoid making or acting upon important decisions. Now is not the time to split from your partner, quit your job, or spend large sums of money. While in the throes of depression, thinking errors are likely to impair your decision-making. Check your reasoning with people you respect and carefully consider their advice—especially if you don’t agree with it!
11. Seek professional help. Tap into your family doctor or a mental health professional for advice and support. Maybe ask your doctor for counselling and take things from there.
12. Establish whom to call in an emergency. This may be a relative or friend, your doctor, or a helpline. Think of a backup in case your preferred option is unreachable. Save their contact numbers into your phone so that they are always at hand.
Neel Burton is author of Growing from Depression. The new 4th edition is out on 1 June.