“There are good and bad times, but our mood changes more than our fortune,” said Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher who was considered one of the most influential social commentators of his era. Carlyle was right: moods can change, sometimes swiftly, from bright and sunny to dark and blue just like the colors of a mood ring.
Mood Rings and Mood Meters
Of course, mood rings have no scientific backing, but the fad from the 1970s has never really gone out of style, and people still wear the color-changing rings that were marketed as a tool to interpret emotional states of mind.
The secret to mood rings is the liquid crystal that takes the place of a gemstone and turns different colors based on the body’s temperature. Invented in 1975 and sold at the luxury New York City department store Bonwit Teller, mood rings most commonly appear green, which can signal mixed emotions, or blue, which reflects upbeat, optimistic emotions.1
However, the mood ring is able to interpret many more human emotions and can turn a rainbow of different hues. According to various interpretations, some other mood colors and the emotions they detect include:
- Black – Fear, major stress.
- Yellow – Anxious, distracted.
- Orange – Stressed, nervous, upset.
- Red – Energetic, excited.
- Blue-green – Relaxed, upbeat.
- Dark blue – Blissful, relaxed, happy.
- Violet – Romantic, moody.
- Pink – Happy, affectionate.
- White – Frustrated, confused, bored.
If a mood ring is a little old school, there’s also the mood meter to help read emotions. Designed to help people become more in tune with their emotional state of being, a mood meter also uses color variants to map moods and has been developed into an app by researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to make it even easier to use and interpret.
A mood meter is a square divided into four colored quadrants: red, which reveals energy, anger, fear or anxiety; blue, which reflects sadness or isolation; green, indicating feelings of relaxation and tranquility; and yellow, which indicates high-energy emotions such as happiness and excitement.
Users can map their moods throughout the day, and over time, will learn how those moods influence decisions, relationships, and other important aspects of their life. 2
A mood is considered an emotional state, usually described as being good or bad, positive or negative, rather than a specific emotion.
Moods can be changed by a specific event or triggered by memories. Additionally, moods can be altered by the chemical makeup of the brain, especially the levels of certain neurotransmitters that send messages from cell to cell.
Nerves, Neurotransmitters, and Mood
The brain and body are constructed of a complex set of nerve cells—the average human brain has 100 billion such cells—connected to other cells via neurotransmitters that send chemical signals directing movement, thoughts, and emotions.
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Neurotransmitters act as messengers, interacting with receptors to regulate factors like mood, energy, pain perception, fear, and anger.
The main neurotransmitters that impact mood are serotonin, a feel-good chemical that can play a role in depression if the neurotransmitter is not sending appropriate messages; dopamine, also a feel-good chemical that brings a sense of calm; GABA, which keeps neurons from becoming too excited; and norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that elevates the body’s fight-or-flight response.
Neurotransmitter imbalances can be responsible for a wide range of problems, including mood disorders, anxiety, and hormonal imbalances that can further influence moods.
Though neurotransmitter levels can fluctuate depending on a variety of different factors, chronic stress and improper nutrition are among things that can decrease or boost the presence of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Let’s take a closer look:
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
GABA is the neurotransmitter that keeps people calm. Most sedatives work through the GABAnergic system, which also regulates norepinephrine, adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. When GABA levels are low, anxiety, the inability to manage stress, irritability, and impulsivity include potential consequences.
Serotonin plays an important role in mood, and when levels of this neurotransmitter are out of balance, consequences may include depression, insomnia, obsessive thoughts, and an exaggerated response to pain.
Dopamine helps control the ability to focus. It also impacts the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and when levels are low, drugs and alcohol may often be used to fill the void as a method of self-medication. When levels of dopamine are high, mania is possible, and when levels are low—a potential side effect of stress, which can decrease dopamine levels significantly—concentration, interest, energy, and motivation can all be depleted.
This neurotransmitter keeps the brain performing well. Part of the fight-or-flight response, when levels of norepinephrine are high, feelings of anxiety and hyperactivity are potential symptoms. When levels are low, feelings of sleepiness, brain fog, and apathy may occur.
There are a variety of different treatment options for neurotransmitter imbalance, including both pharmaceuticals and homeopathy, especially the use of aromatherapy. Many essential oils have been shown to promote neurotransmitter balance. 3
In addition to imbalanced neurotransmitter levels, there are many other facts that can impact moods, including the weather, hormones, a bad diet, or simply life circumstances, which can result in a period of sadness. However, mood disorders, also called affective disorders, are different from simply being in a “bad mood.”
Mood disorders impact 20.9 million American adults each year, or about 10 percent of the adult population, and 20 percent of the U.S. population as a whole report experiencing at least one depressive episode a year.
Mood disorders can interfere with the ability to function, especially when experiencing symptoms associated with depression, including sadness, hopelessness, and irritability.
Certain personality types are thought to be more at-risk for mood disorders, especially individuals who are self-critical, have existing anxiety, or are hypersensitive to loss. Anxiety can lead to mild or major depression, especially if symptoms persist for long periods of time without easing.
Physical illness can also lead to depression, especially chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and hepatitis, as well as neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, multiple sclerosis, brain tumors, and strokes.
Heart attacks and high blood pressure can also lead to depression, and depressive symptoms can worsen the symptoms of any illness, escalating both. 4
Mood disorders include:
Anxiety impacts mood and symptoms may be paired with depression. However, there are several different specific types of anxiety disorders, each with its own set of symptoms:
- Panic Disorder – Panic attacks that include sweating, extreme fear, chest pains, and heart palpitations are the primary part of panic disorder.
- Social Anxiety Disorder – Individuals with a social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, are usually self-conscious in common social situations. Those with this disorder feel judged or ridiculed by others and may worry about having to do everyday tasks like grocery shopping or running errands.
- Phobias – Phobias can include common fears such as fear of heights or fear of spiders. The difference between a fear and a phobia is that phobias can cause individuals to avoid certain situations, which has the potential to negatively impact their lives.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – Individuals with generalized anxiety disorder tend to feel excessive worry and nervousness with no proximate cause.
Most anxiety disorders share similar symptoms, including panic, fear, difficulty sleeping, difficulty remaining calm, tingling hands or feet, sweating, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, nausea, dry mouth, tension, and dizziness.
Although experts are not certain about the cause of anxiety disorders, they are most often the result of environmental stress, changes in the brain, genetics, or a manifestation of stressful circumstances.
Treatment options include medications such as benzodiazepines that can help relieve symptoms, psychotherapy to help teach different ways of dealing with stress, exercise, a regular bedtime, and cutting back on or eliminating caffeine entirely. 5
Persistent Depressive Disorder
While considered a less severe form of depression, persistent depressive disorder, also known as dysthymia, is a chronic, low-grade, depressed, or irritable mood that lasts for at least two years. It is considered a mild form of depression that lasts on average five years, occurring in short episodes but still acting as an intruder on a person’s work and social life. Treatment can ease symptoms in four out of five people.
Persistent depressive disorder is more common in women than in men, and it tends to show up earlier in life than major depression, although it can manifest anytime from childhood until later in life.
Approximately four percent of the population suffers from persistent depressive disorder. Those who experience it typically suffer from chronic moodiness that could escalate into severe depressive disorder.
Causes include genetics, abnormal functioning of the neurotransmitters that control emotional processing, chronic stress, illness, poor coping skills, difficulty dealing with stress, and isolation. Poor coping skills can reinforce depression, stress, and anxiety, causing symptoms to escalate.
Symptoms of persistent depressive disorder include:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Poor appetite or stress eating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Chronic fatigue
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty making decisions
- Pessimistic views
Treatment options include medication, psychotherapy to learn new ways of coping with stressful situations, and exercise.
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
Major depressive disorder (MDD), also known as major or clinical depression, is also a mood disorder, although it is more common than persistent depressive disorder. It is marked by long periods of a low or sad mood. Because it is not accompanied by the mood swings or bipolar depression, it is also sometimes called unipolar depression.
Women are more likely to experience MDD than men—20 percent of women and 12 percent of men in the United States will develop the disorder at some point in their lives—and it is most common between the ages of 24 and 44 years of age.
MDD can be recurring, with multiple major depressive episodes and can also include psychotic elements, most often delusions. 6
Although dysphoric mood is not classified as a true mood disorder, it is often a symptom of other mood disorders, such as MDD. Dysphoria causes feelings of chronic sadness, depression, and loneliness. While a dysphoric mood is more serious than a temporary bout of the blues, it is not as severe as some mood disorders.
Also known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by extreme highs and extreme lows: periods of depression followed by periods of mania. There are four different types of bipolar disorder, which are categorized by the severity of symptoms:
Bipolar I Disorder
Bipolar I is characterized by manic episodes that last at least a week, with symptoms including feelings of elation, energy, increased activity, difficulty sleeping, and risk-taking. Depressive episodes also occur—symptoms include feeling very sad, hopeless and empty, as well as decreased activity, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, a lack of enjoyment or interest in activities, and difficulty concentrating. Depression and manic symptoms can also occur at the same time.
Bipolar II Disorder
This type of bipolar disorder is also marked by episodes of depression and mania, but the manic episodes aren’t as severe as those that accompany bipolar I.
Also known as cyclothymia, cyclothymic disorder is marked by periods of emotional highs, along with periods of mild depression lasting for at least two years in adults and one year for children and teens. Symptoms are not usually severe enough to be categorized as manic or depressive episodes.
Other Specified and Unspecified Bipolar and Related Disorders
This catch-all category includes any other mood disorder marked by periods of mania and depression that are not specific to the previous three categories.
Bipolar disorder is traditionally treated with mood stabilizers, although it can be difficult to diagnose because most people don’t report manic episodes and instead focus on symptoms of depression. Because mania symptoms can border on psychosis, some people with bipolar disorder, especially bipolar I disorder, are mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Risk factors for bipolar disorder include genetics, a family history, differences in brain structure or function, and neurotransmitter level disbalance. 7
Episodic Mood Disorder
Any event that causes a major change in your life—the death of a loved one, a debilitating injury, giving birth, losing a job—can trigger an episodic mood disorder. Many factors can contribute to episodic mood disorders, and for some people, a traumatic event may not lead to a period of depression.
For others, however, a negative life event or a trigger that forces a previous trauma to resurface can cause a period of deep depression known as an episodic mood disorder.
Those who are pessimists and those who are prone to stress and anxiety have a high risk of sinking into a mild depression after a traumatic event, and after a mild depression has made itself at home, a deeper depression could be nipping at its heels.
While experts have not yet determined what causes episodic mood disorder, some studies suggest that, as with other mood disorders, imbalanced levels of key neurotransmitters may play a role. 8
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder
Sometimes, mood changes and accompanying irritability are related to a woman’s menstrual cycles. The premenstrual dysphoric disorder is related to changing hormone levels and lifts with the onset of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that impacts one to two percent of the population, most often women and young people. SAD is triggered by limited exposure to light and usually strikes during fall and winter months when the sun rises late and sets early.
Outdoor exercise to provide exposure to light and phototherapy, also called light therapy, may ease symptoms. Symptoms of SAD usually dissipate with the arrival of spring, turning into a more joyful mood, as the days grow longer, and the sun tends to shine more brightly, under bluer, more cheerful skies.
Mood disorders can also be brought on by an underlying health condition, such as a cancer diagnosis or a head injury, or can be triggered by substance abuse. For some people, drugs or alcohol are used in place of prescription medications as a form of self-medication, while in other instances, mood disorders are triggered by the use of drugs and/or alcohol, which can cause highs or lows.
What If You Don’t Have a Mood Disorder?
With so many different mood disorders, it may seem as though almost everyone has one, but for those who do not, there is euthymia. Euthymia is considered a balanced mood, without extreme happiness or extreme sadness.
Those with a euthymic mood are calm, peaceful and have little to no difficulty living their lives, including in work or social activities.
Those who do not have a diagnosed mood disorder can sometimes go in and out of states of euthymia due to job difficulties, diagnosed medical problems, the death of a friend or family member, or another problem that would trigger feelings of sorrow or anxiety.
Euthymia is not the same as euphoria, however, which is an exaggerated mood with extreme displays of happiness and an extra boost of energy. Euphoria can be the result of drug use, the manic stage of bipolar disorder, or extreme good fortune, which can bring on short bouts of euphoria.
When individuals hear the words “mood swings,” many immediately picture the extreme highs and major lows of bipolar disorder, or the low moods and spurts of anger associated with borderline personality disorder, which is marked by varying moods, episodes of anger, anxiety and depression, issues with self-esteem, and a distorted self-image. But everyday mood swings are nothing like that. Individuals don’t have to have a mood disorder to simply experience mood swings.
Everyone experiences different emotions at varying levels of intensity depending on their feelings at the time, what is going on in the environment, and self-esteem. Some people’s moods are generally level, or eurythmic, while others fluctuate. These are mood swings.
Mood swings that are associated with mood disorders or mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder, often include labile mood, which is in opposition to a eurythmic mood and is marked by uncontrollable, severe mood swings that are out of proportion in a given situation.
Labile moods can include uncontrollable laughter along with other exaggerated emotional responses, including rage or inappropriate tears.
Both men and women are susceptible to mood swings, but women experience them more often in their lifetimes due to hormonal changes that occur earlier in life, as well as women being more at risk for developing anxiety, which can change the way the body and brain respond to stressful situations over time.
Hormones and neurotransmitters are the most common causes of mood swings.
Mood Swings in Men
Sometimes called irritable man syndrome, mood swings in men are common symptoms of andropause, which is also known as male menopause. Perhaps a result of low testosterone levels, caused by aging or diseases such as type 2 diabetes, low testosterone can often be treated with hormone therapy.
According to Men’s Health, almost 40 percent of men age 45 and older have levels of testosterone that are below normal, which has a possibility of causing symptoms of andropause. Traditionally, anger in men is linked to high levels of testosterone; however, andropause postulates that low testosterone levels can also lead to mood swings in men.
In addition to irritability, symptoms of low testosterone can include depression, low self-confidence, difficulty concentrating, low energy, and difficulty sleeping. Weight loss may be more difficult, and recovery after exercise may be slower. Erectile dysfunction and a sluggish sex drive are also possible.
Men who experience mood swings that fall under the category of irritable male syndrome will likely suffer from anger or even hostility, impatience, hypersensitivity, or feelings of being anti-social and withdrawn.
If low testosterone levels are not the cause of mood swings, and mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder have also been ruled out, some other reasons for changes in temperament in men may include:
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – Those who suffer from ADHD are easily distracted and easily frustrated. The disorder makes dealing with depression more difficult, so moods can be erratic.
- Borderline Personality Disorder – Borderline personality disorder is characterized by turbulent emotions that make establishing stable relationships difficult.
- Intermittent Explosive Disorder – This disorder is marked by extreme, uncontrollable anger that could lead to acts of violence.
- Substance Abuse – The abuse of drugs or alcohol can trigger mood swings, especially during withdrawal periods when cravings trigger strong emotion
- Stress and Anxiety – Long-term stress can cause mood swings, especially because it can lead to high levels of cortisol, which amps up feelings of anxiousness, keeping heart rate elevated.
- Head Injuries –Men are especially likely to suffer from head injuries that can damage parts of the brain that control mood because of high-impact sports like football.
- Chemical Imbalances – Neurotransmitters that govern emotions and mood include serotonin, GABA, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When the production of these neurotransmitters is disrupted, it can result in mood swings.
While hormone therapy—injections of a synthetic version of testosterone—may help ease symptoms of the irritable male syndrome, other ways to improve mood swings include regular exercise and a healthier diet that erases foods high in fat and sugar and keeps alcoholic intake to a minimum.
Activities that relieve stress, including meditation and yoga, can also bring feelings of calm, leading to a more eurythmic mood. 9
Mood Swings in Women
In reality, hormones are not the only reason women experience mood swings. Sure, hormones sometimes do play a part, and fluctuations in estrogen levels may make women feel more emotional. There are times, however, when emotions and mood are in no way related to hormonal surges.
In addition to hormones, mood swings in women can be can be caused by:
- Stress and Anxiety – Stress, whether due to a job, family, or financial concerns, can cause feelings of anxiety that can trigger volatile moods.
- Lack of Sleep – Insomnia can cause a wide range of health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and depression. Without enough sleep, irritability and an inability to handle stress can lead to mood swings.
- Drug or Alcohol Abuse – Mood swings are often the result of drug and alcohol withdrawal or can be attributed to the altered states that come while on drugs or alcohol.
- Premenstrual Syndrome – PMS and the hormonal fluctuations that accompany it can have an impact on mood, leading to highs and lows depending on what hormones are doing.
- Perimenopause and Menopause – As estrogen levels drop, mood swings, depression and anxiety are all more likely to occur.
- Chemical Imbalances – Neurotransmitters that govern emotions and mood include serotonin, GABA, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When the production of such neurotransmitters is disrupted, it can result in mood swings.
Managing mood swings can be a challenge, but it is possible to create a eurythmic, stable mood by getting enough sleep, limiting intake of caffeine, and alcohol and getting enough exercise. Eating a healthy diet, drinking plenty of water, and practicing other methods of self-care can also help. 10
Getting in the Mood
One of the best ways to boost a blue mood is with some quality time between the sheets with your partner. In fact, physical contact has been shown to reduce stress hormone levels. What’s especially important about sex is that touch boosts dopamine levels.
While anxiety and depression can squash a desire for intimacy, the act itself can ease both emotions, making it an effective way to alleviate symptoms.
To help get in the mood, try breaking free of your routine. Doing something new helps boost dopamine levels, helping to erase stress that can dampen desire.
Mind Over Mood
There’s a quote from Buddha saying, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think,” that served as inspiration for the self-help book Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger, Ph.D., and Christine Padesky, Ph.D., a treatment method based on the idea that negative thinking that leads to negative emotions is cemented over time. The therapy approach uses positive reinforcement to erase negative thinking. 11
Talk therapy can give you the tools you need to help ease symptoms, but if therapy isn’t your thing, there are other options for lifting a blue mood.
Studies have shown that even a 10-minute walk can help reduce stress. Even better if that walk is in the woods. Time spent in the woods puts you in contact with stress-relieving terpenes that reduce feelings of anxiety through aromatherapy.
Yoga and tai chi, a form of martial arts that focuses on slow, deliberate movement, can also help ease symptoms of stress. Traditional exercise is also effective.
Types of meditation include:
- Guided meditation – This type of meditation calls for forming mental images of places that relax you, visualizing as many smells, sounds, sights, and textures as possible to bring relaxation.
- Mantra meditation – Mantra meditation uses the silent repetition of a calming word, thought, or phrase to create peaceful vibes.
- Mindfulness meditation – This type of meditation focuses on breathing and increased awareness, and requires a quiet, comfortable position and deep breathing to bring calm.
Time Spent with Family and Friends
Social support means emotional support, and studies have shown that contact with a social support system can act as a buffer against stress. According to the American Psychological Society, those who spend quality time with friends and family reported their stress at level 5 on a 10-point scale, compared to 6.3 for individuals who said they did not have similar support.
Aromatherapy and Mood
Aromatherapy can have an amazing impact on mood. The idea behind aromatherapy is that fragrances of essential oils penetrate the blood-brain barrier, interacting with the limbic system, which is linked not only to emotions but also heart rate, blood pressure, stress, memory, and hormones, allowing the aroma to ease symptoms of stress.13, 14
The limbic system contains the amygdala and hippocampus, which are associated with memory storage and the emotional response to memories. The hypothalamus, which regulates hormones, is also part of the limbic system.
Some of the most effective essential oils to ease symptoms of stress include:
There are several different citrus-based essential oils that can brighten the blues, including the Italian citrus fruit bergamot, grapefruit, wild orange, lemon, mandarin, lime and yuzu, an Asian fruit with an aroma somewhere between grapefruit and mandarin.
For example, a 2011 study that appeared in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism found that lemon balm helped ease symptoms of anxiety by reducing damage to the neurotransmitter GABA, which plays a role in the body’s levels of other stress-related neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin. 15
Lavender, geranium, jasmine, ylang-ylang, and rose help brighten the spirit and alleviate stress. Studies have shown that compounds in lavender including a terpene called linalool are especially effective relieving excess stress, anxiety, and worry.
Some powerful compounds essential oils offer include:
A monoterpene, myrcene helps relieve anxiety by interacting with neurotransmitters associated with stress, especially the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. While cortisol provides the energy needed to manage stress, over time, chronically elevated cortisol lowers levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Some of the essential oils containing myrcene include bay leaf, ylang-ylang, wild thyme, parsley, cardamom, and hops.
Alpha-pinene has been shown to inhibit an enzyme that is believed to damage the neurotransmitters in the brain used to communicate with the rest of the body. It is especially helpful at protecting the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, both of which are the targets of anti-anxiety drugs in the benzodiazepine class.
Eugenol helps ease stress by interacting with the neurotransmitters in the brain that are related to stress, including dopamine and serotonin. Some essential oils that contain eugenol include clove oil, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, and basil.
A monoterpene, thujone impacts GABA, the main neurotransmitter that sends messages from the brain to the rest of the body. GABA also controls the other neurotransmitters associated with stress, including dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
Thujone has been shown to be as effective at easing anxiety as drugs in the benzodiazepine family. Some essential oils that contain thujone include sage, clary sage, tansy, and yellow cedar.
How To Use Essential Oils
Scents can be used alone or in a blend, which allows the compounds found in the oils to work in synergy to amplify the aromatherapy benefits.
Oils can be used in a diffuser to fill a room with your chosen oil’s aroma, mixed with a carrier oil, or mixed in a bath. Try using some of the essential oils highlighted above for their mood-enhancing effects, or if you’re looking for an easy on-the-go option, try Happy or Zen MONQ portable diffuser.
Knowing more about just how moods work on a biological level can get you on the path towards improving or managing your mood, whether good, bad, or changing.
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