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Six Ways to Kick a Bad Mood

Tips from psychologist Ruth Ellingsen will put the skip back in your step

By Matt Cooper  Illustration by David Gill  July 12, 2023

3 min read 

Even experts in psychotherapy get the blues.

ruth ellingsen

So says Ruth Ellingsen, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology and a member of the Faculty Leadership Council for the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health.

But when Ellingsen feels down, she uses the following tips to get back into a positive mindset. “You can’t just tell yourself to feel better,” she says. “But you can change the thoughts and behaviors that help influence your mood.”


Take Your Feelings Temperature

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Measure your mood with a “feeling thermometer,” where colors represent the intensity of discomfort: green (feeling comfortable, e.g. calm or happy); yellow (slightly uncomfortable, e.g. tired or distracted); orange (more uncomfortable, e.g. nervous, frustrated); and red (very uncomfortable, e.g. depressed, angry).

Taking your feelings temperature will help you figure out what to do about it—in fact, that mindfulness alone is a step toward feeling better.


Stay in the Moment

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Oftentimes when we’re in a bad mood, we’re worrying about something in the future. And the vast majority of the things we worry about never happen.

Deep breathing or tuning into your senses can redirect you to the present moment and ease anxiety.

Try “four by four breathing”: inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds. Or tune in to your environment with the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise: name five things you can see, four you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell, one you can taste.


Take a Mental Trip

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You can go somewhere pleasant without actually going there, and that can help you relax.

Visualize an especially satisfying memory: an unforgettable trip or favorite forest hike. Even imagining yourself at home in bed can aid your physiological response to stress.


Prosecute Problem Thoughts

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Our minds are prone to distorting, catastrophizing, mind-reading, and assuming others’ intentions—all behaviors that aren’t necessarily based in reality but can put us in a tailspin. Examine problem thoughts closely and check the facts.

“Look at the evidence—is there an alternative way of thinking about a situation?” Ellingsen says. “That person who didn’t say ‘hi’ and therefore doesn’t like you—is it possible they just didn’t see you?”


Work It Out with a Quick Workout

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Muscle relaxation can trick your body into calming down: make a fist and then relax it, or shrug your shoulders up high and then let them go.

Likewise, it can help to increase your heart rate briefly with five to ten minutes of cardiovascular exercise. Do some stairs, run around the block—whatever is within your fitness level.


Put Yourself on Ice

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Some tricks for calming yourself are based on body chemistry.

Especially if you’re angry, one thing that is actually quite effective is to literally cool down your body—take an ice pack and put it on your forehead. There is a connection between temporarily lowering your body temperature and feeling a sense of relaxation.

“It can also help you with sleeping,” Ellingsen says. “It’s a pretty cool technique. No pun intended.”

Matt Cooper is managing editor for Oregon Quarterly.

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