Mood Changes: Looking for Signs

The sign reads, “You are now leaving Utah. Welcome to Colorado!”  The map on the front seat of the car and the sign tell us that we are leaving one state and entering another. If only we could have a guide to mood changes that were so clear.

People with mood disorders often describe symptoms “sneaking up on them,” something like this: I think I’m okay, don’t feel depressed, just tired, gee my family drives me wild, I wish my coworker would be quiet, OhMyGod – I am depressed. How did that happen?

Mood changes are by nature tricky. We are trying to assess ourselves with the organ of perception itself. In the midst of depression, folks often cannot recall feeling well. They may intellectually know but can’t remember the feeling of well being. The same is true regarding well being. When symptoms subside, people often doubt themselves. Was I really depressed? Maybe I exaggerated how bad I was feeling. It is at this point that people may decide to go off their medication because “it isn’t doing anything.”

In acute phases clients may be asked to fill out daily mood charts in detail. Keeping up this degree of record keeping can be cumbersome. So what works? How can a person check in with themselves in a way that is effective and increasingly so with practice?


Idiosyncratic Mood Change Indicators

That’s a mouthful isn’t it? And what the heck does it mean?

It means that most people with a mood disorder can report subtle changes specific to them.

Changes in relating to everyday activity:

Examples: I stop making my bed, procrastinate about doing the laundry, forget to feed the fish, stop answering the phone, can’t stand to listen to music while driving.

Physical quirks:

Examples: some people report jaw tension, a particular feeling of clumsiness, changes in diet, cravings or digestion, a flatness/tightness to facial expression. A number of people have told me that there is a distinct change in the tone and quality of their voices that they and loved ones can recognize almost immediately. Some folks notice changes in their visual perception- the world literally looks grayer, less vibrant.

Activities that are only engaged in during a mood change:

Examples: conflict with particular people that only tends to happen under the stress of symptoms, driven behavior that isn’t easily interrupted (like playing computer solitaire for endless hours, to the exclusion of a regular rhythm of sleeping, eating, and engaging), stopping at a convenience store for candy bars, buying Red Bull.


The Short List

I often encourage clients to write this mood change indicators on an index card and carry it in their wallets or tape inside their medicine cabinet. When the question comes up “how am I doing, am I getting depressed?” the index card is a place to start.

Self assessment in the middle of change is difficult.

The ability to pull out a good map and take a quick look can be immensely helpful.

Recognizing mood changes sooner can promote empowerment. “I see what is taking hold and can be proactive.”

It is another step to taking the symptoms less personally and be able to work with and master them.

The Short List can be shared with practitioners. It can become a tool for clear, short hand communication about the flow of mood states.

It can decrease the float time of feeling isolated and confused about what is happening and hasten the mobilization of support.


Pulling it all together

Sara has had numerous bouts of depression. When she is feeling well she is a wonderful free lance writer, enjoying her work and the connections it brings. Her short list looks something like this:

Changes in everyday activity: I stop washing my face and brushing my teeth before bed because I feel too tired and it just feels like too much work. I wear three or four outfits over and over.

Physical quirks: My jaw feels tight and it is effortful to smile. My smile feels false in a particular way.

Activities that are only engaged in during a mood change: I go to fast food drive thrus.

I close the curtains in the living room.

For more info about mood disorders and depression please visit my website