In this post, I’m going to discuss the issue of extreme, sudden mood changes which happen frequently. First you fly way up, then a short while later, you crash way down. Then you do it again. And again. And again. And it’s just plain exhausting.
Emotions are best thought of as the ripples that appear on the surface of a lake as the result of a fish swimming past, or a stone striking the water, or a motor boat churning along. The sudden appearance of ripples on a normally calm lake tell you that something is affecting the lake, but they don’t tell you what that something is. The same kinds of ripples can be caused by many different things. In the same way, there are many different things that can trigger the same kind of emotional reaction within you.
Now whenever you seek advice from someone, it’s important to realize that all advisers are biased, because they are focusing on certain concepts and principles more than others. Being biased isn’t always a bad thing. To gain a deep understanding of something, you need to focus on it and in focusing on it, you stop focusing on other things which also have value. It’s when you don’t acknowledge that such a bias exists that problems happen. For example, I am a counselor who focuses on spiritual and psychological issues. While I can teach you all kinds of fascinating facts about how your mind interacts with your soul, I am not who you want to go to if you need to get your platelet count up, or if you’re trying to decide which medication to take for a particular issue. Such questions are better handled by someone who focuses on the body, instead of the mind and soul.
Now the problem with us “experts” is that we can each get so focused on our favorite part of the picture that we neglect to tell you that other parts exist. When it comes to something like mood swings, it’s important to realize that there can be important physical factors involved. Some volatile mood swings are the result of physical injuries, especially injuries to the head and brain. Sometimes diet can be playing a major factor, with certain foods, medications, or drugs causing your mind and body to react in negative ways. Other times you might have an imbalance of necessary nutrients, hormones, or neurotransmitters which can result in your mind and body being unable to keep your emotions in balance.
If you talk to someone who focuses on the body, such as a medical doctor, their attempts to help you stabilize your moods will typically focus on adjusting the balance of chemicals inside your body. Popular recommendations here are for you to change the way you exercise, adjust the way you eat, and perhaps start taking certain kinds of medications to see if they improve your mood. I am certainly not against using medications to help alleviate stress. But I do think that medication by itself is rarely enough.
Every health “expert” has formed personal theories about how humans work, and those personal theories drastically affect the kind of advice they give out. When seeking help, it would be wise of you to try to pinpoint what someone’s underlying theories are. You might ask “Can you explain to me how you came to that conclusion or why you feel this is a good solution for me?” It’s always a warning sign when advisers try to sidestep these kinds of questions. Advisers should be forthcoming about their reasoning, and they should make an effort to explain their logic to you in a way that you can understand. Once you understand what someone’s underlying personal theories are about a subject, it will help you decide if you want to listen to what that person has to say. For example, someone who personally believes all humans are jerks by nature, and that it’s impossible for people to change is going to give you very different advice than someone who personally views humanity in a positive light and feels that people can make drastic changes to their behaviors and attitudes. Understanding the personal theories of your adviser is important. It helps you understand biases they have and helps you anticipate the limits of their expertise.
My View of Emotions
So that said, here are some things you should understand about how I personally view mood swings. I believe that your subconscious and soul have a far greater impact on your mood than your body or conscious. I also believe that the state of your physical health is directly linked to the the state of your subconscious and soul. I believe that your subconscious plays a supervisory role over the body, and that your body is very dependent on your subconscious to help it regulate itself. I believe that your body is not only dependent on your subconscious for wisdom and assistance in managing itself, but I also believe that your body is very reactive to what the subconscious is doing. A good analogy here would be the young boy who depends on his father for food, clothing and shelter. While the boy can fork food into his own mouth, he can’t make food appear on his dinner plate. He needs the father to provide the food, then the boy can take things from there. In this analogy, the boy is your body and the father is your subconscious.
Now should the father stop managing the boy’s diet and choosing what food to give the boy, the boy would make very poor food choices on his own. He’d likely gorge himself on candies and find making nutritious meals too difficult and tiring to do. So the boy not only depends on his father to give him access to essential supplies, but he also depends on his father to choose what supplies are best for him. I believe your subconscious performs a similar function for your body: supplying it with the wisdom and guidance that it lacks.
I do believe that the body is extremely intelligent in its own way. Digesting a single potato chip is an immensely complex process which your body performs with stunning brilliance. I believe that each element of your being (body, soul, conscious and subconscious) is innately intelligent and that each has areas in which it excels, but other areas in which it depends on help from its co-elements. I believe there is a complex inter-dependent relationship happening between all of your elements which results in each element being very interested in what all the others are doing.
Returning to the metaphor of the boy and his father: suppose that the father were to withhold food from the boy for some reason. This would greatly stress the boy and he’d become emotionally upset. But why would a father want to starve his own son? In real life, parents who abuse their children do so in response to their own personal stresses. In the same way, your subconscious might begin to act abusive towards your body if it becomes too overwhelmed by its own stresses. In this example, we can see that the boy’s emotional state is dependent on how his father is treating him.
Now suppose the father is supplying his son with all basic necessities, yet the father himself becomes depressed and withdrawn. How will the boy respond to this? Even though he has what he needs for his own well-being, the boy will become emotionally upset when he senses that something is upsetting his father. Even though he doesn’t understand why his father is upset, the boy will still feel very threatened and anxious by sensing that the man he depends so much on is not well. In the same way, your body is very sensitive to the mood of your subconscious. When your subconscious seems calm and content, your body feels calm as well. But when your body senses that your subconscious is upset for some reason, your body becomes distressed.
Now in real life, body stress is expressed in many ways. Sudden crying, involuntary shaking, speech difficulties, muscular pain, digestive problems, and many illnesses can seem to have only physical causes because the body is the one expressing them. And yet I believe that in many cases, the body develops these problems as a reaction to what it senses the subconscious and soul doing. When this is the case, trying to “cure” the body will prove impossible to do until you address the issue that the body is reacting to.
It is impossible to convince a child that all is well with the world as long as that child sees his parent in distress. In the same way, you can’t fix physical or emotional problems that are really being fueled by psychological and/or spiritual distress until you identify and deal with the root causes. I believe that root causes are often ignored in cases of physical and emotional stress, with all efforts being focused on stopping certain stress symptoms from occurring. Well, when you ignore root causes, it’s like spraying an air freshener around your living room to block out the smell of the smoke that’s creeping in from one of your back bedrooms. What you need to do is recognize the smoke as an indication that there is a serious problem happening in one room of your house, then investigate what the problem is and take steps to properly extinguish the fire in your bedroom. Simply finding ways to neutralize the smell of smoke won’t make the fire magically stop burning. Instead, the longer you ignore the fire, the larger and more dangerous it will become.
The Complexity of Mood Swings
Now when it comes to chronic emotional problems, there is often a long history of worsening internal stress. Severe mood swings can often be analyzed via blood tests and brain scans and described in entirely biological terms like “malfunctioning adrenal glands” or “low serotonin.” The problem with stopping here is that we’re still describing the ripple on the surface of the lake. We’re not looking at the bigger picture of what caused that ripple to form. Why is your adrenal gland frying out so early in your life? Why has it been revving so hard for so long? Why is so little serotonin being produced by your body?
The longer root causes go unaddressed, the more complex the symptoms become until we can start writing whole books just talking about managing that one particular issue. Irritable bowl syndrome. Migraines. Fibromyalgia. Chronic depression. We’ve all heard the big names, and we’ve all been horrified to hear the sufferers of these things describe the various forms of agony that they are grappling with. But how do these things start? It is my personal opinion that many horrific physical and emotional problems develop as a result of subconscious and spiritual burnout. I believe the foundation for many brutal health problems that pop up in adulthood is laid much earlier when severe stresses experienced in childhood go unaddressed. As a result, the subconscious and/or soul end up feeling like they have to just keep “sucking it up” and pressing on regardless of how fatigued they feel. Yet none of your elements have endless resources, and when the subconscious becomes too frazzled, it starts dropping balls. Your soul starts having frequent panic attacks. And here is where we start noticing you showing all kinds of behavioral stress symptoms.
In my opinion, wildly swinging moods usually indicate the presence of deeper core stresses that are not being properly addressed. Properly addressing such causes begins with self-compassion, and that means deciding that you’re not a failure if it turns out you’re still really hurting inside from some rotten experience that you’ve been through.
All humans are far more sensitive, fragile, and limited than they want to admit, yet when you make it a crime to be human, you prevent yourself from ever identifying the root cause of your volatile moods. If this is an issue you’ve been dealing with for a while, then by now you probably have measurable deficiencies of certain biochemicals which could be positively affected by various herbal or pharmaceutical drugs. But you don’t want to get so focused on studying the properties of the ripple on the lake that you stop pursuing the issue of root causes. Your subconscious has an enormous impact on mood control. All of those mood impacting hormones, chemicals, and organs that people talk so much about are part of your body, yet your body is extremely sensitive to what is happening with your subconscious and soul. The challenge now is to try to find a way to backtrack through the surface symptoms and see if we can identify an underlying cause of distress.
Now again, you’re reading the blog of someone who focuses on both the mind and the soul. If you were to pop over to a medical site which focuses only on the body, you’d probably be reading about scary diseases you might have and the names of medications you might try. If you were to pop over to the blog of someone who focuses only on the soul, you’d probably be reading about Divine curses and evil spirits and being given lists of prayers and rituals to try. So consider the source. We’re all biased. It’s up to you to decide what to keep and what to ignore. If you already feel you thoroughly disagree with my personal theories on the relationship between the body and subconscious, then you shouldn’t be wasting time reading my material, because my advice to you is built on those underlying beliefs. There are always underlying beliefs supporting any conclusion. Why would you seek advice from people who you think are delusional in their worldviews?
Let’s say you want to explore the possibility that your unstable moods could be getting caused by spiritual and/or subconscious stress. How do you begin this kind of analysis? The first step is to start looking for patterns in the kinds of things that trigger a change in your mood. We’re particularly interested in the extreme spikes, either up or down. Jotting down some notes can be very helpful here, because it’s hard to keep your thoughts organized when your emotions are swinging all over the place.
Now your mind and soul are not the same thing and they need different kinds of care. They also have different priorities and beliefs, which results in different styles of behavior. With some education and practice, you can actually get quite good at sorting out the reactions of your soul from the reactions of your subconscious.
If I was actually talking to you in a counseling session, I’d be peppering you with questions right now to rapidly rule out various common causes of underlying stress. But since we’re doing this through writing, let me try to make things simpler by starting with a positive approach. Rather than chase down a thousand possibilities of what could be going wrong, let’s look at what needs to be going right for your subconscious and soul to feel calm.
For a calm mind…
You need to feel either pretty satisfied or happy with how you answer all of the following questions:
- Do I feel safe enough in my every day life?
- Do I feel I am on good terms with the people whose opinions are the most important to me (especially romantic partners, parents & siblings)?
- Do I have a reliable human source of emotional affirmation?
- Do I have a sufficient amount of social interaction with other humans?
- In general, do I feel pretty equal to the other humans around me in terms of value and social rank?
- Am I getting enough downtime in life to recharge and do my idea of “fun”?
- Am I easy to succeed with in my own eyes? Do I set standards that I can actually reach?
- Do I feel that my basic needs for food, clothes, and shelter are being met well enough for now?
- Do I feel pretty capable of escaping social situations that make me uncomfortable, or at least minimize how often I’m in them?
- How do I feel about the person I see in the mirror? Am I okay with my own appearance, mannerisms, and social behaviors?
- How do I imagine my life unfolding in the future, socially and materially? Do I feel optimistic that “a good life” is possible for me?
For a calm soul…
You need to feel either pretty satisfied or happy with how you answer the following questions:
- What’s the purpose of me? Why do I matter?
- Am I a morally decent person? Do I secretly view myself as being “good” and not “bad”?
- Do I feel I can honestly respect the person I see in the mirror?
- How much value/worth do I feel I have in comparison to other humans?
- When I mess up morally, am I gracious towards myself and do I give myself a new chance?
- Do I feel clear about what my own moral code is? Am I okay with someone else disagreeing with my view on something? Am I confident enough to be my own person without letting others always control how I behave?
If you believe in God, you also need to have positive answers to these questions as well:
- Am I on good terms with God?
- Is God reasonable and easy to succeed with? When I mess up, is He easy to reconcile with?
- Do I feel I have a good understanding of what God wants from me? Do I feel that I can meet those expectations?
- How much does God care about me versus other humans?
- Do I honestly believe that God is for me in life–that He’s good in Character and that He cares about what is best for me?
Negative Core Beliefs
As you mentally think about your answers to the questions I’ve listed, what you’re doing is becoming aware of your current core beliefs. Your subconscious and soul each have their own set of core beliefs. A single terrifying belief held by either element can cause immense stress for your entire system, which can then lead to volatile moods.
Now this exercise will only help you if you are giving your honest answers to these questions. If you’re answering what you think you’re supposed to answer based on some guilt trip you’ve been handed by other humans, you can remain blind to an important issue in your core beliefs. A very negative answer to any of the above questions can be very problematic. The more negative answers you have, the more internal stress you are walking around with in your daily life. Your emotional mood is very dependent on your internal stress load, meaning that it will be impossible to maintain a sense of emotional calm or joy in the presence of distressing core beliefs.
Gathering More Evidence
Now if you found yourself having negative answers to some of the above questions, notice which list those questions were on. Was it the list for your subconscious or the one for your soul? Once you identify a general underlying belief problem, you’ll probably find that your behaviors and moods change drastically whenever that subject comes up. For example, suppose you realize that you actually think you’re quite ugly and that you feel embarrassed when you look in a mirror. Once you make this connection, start thinking about the ways you’ve recently behaved when the general topic of your appearance came up. You might discover that you were in a good mood Saturday morning until you got a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, at which point you thought “I’m such a fat cow,” and instantly crashed down into depression. The depression hung on until your friend called with an emergency and you became completely distracted from the issue of your appearance. Your friend needed a big favor, you were able to help her out, and that made you feel like a hero. Your mood soared. All was well until you went outside and saw a passing stranger glance at you. You instantly interpreted the woman’s expression as critical and thought, “It’s this outfit I’m wearing. She thinks it’s ugly.” And down you crashed.
Now let’s look at a spiritual example. Suppose you talk a good game about God being merciful and an all around nice Fellow, but deep down you’re actually very concerned that God has impossible standards and that He’s always finding fault with you. Once you realize that this fear is lurking in the background, think about how often the issue of Divine judgment comes up in your life. You might realize that you were feeling great on Tuesday until the thought “I don’t do enough charitable deeds” came to mind and down you crashed. You then hopped online, shelled out a large, guilt driven donation to an organization that sounded like they did good work, and then you felt a wave of relief wash over you. Believing that God was pleased with your actions, your mood soared. But then you got an email from a podcaster you follow, and his latest rant was about how a truly devoted Christian would never abide watching a movie that uses Jesus’ Name in vain. Well, lately you’ve been binge watching a new favorite show that drops J-bombs all over the place. The image of God’s scowling face flashes in your mind and down you crash.
Can you see how paying closer attention to details can reveal some useful information? In both of these examples, we have a person who is beaming one moment and teary-eyed the next. But when we take a closer look and start jotting down notes, two very different issues emerge. Our first moody woman is feeling extremely distressed by self-disgust. This is a belief that she learned to adapt from an experience or series of experiences that she went through in the past. She needs to identify what that experience was, and start processing it in a healthy way.
In the second scenario, we have a woman whose soul is feeling very distressed about ending up on the wrong side of God’s wrath. In this second case, what’s needed is a more accurate understanding of how God judges humans.
Now it’s important to realize that you don’t need to believe in God to have a soul that is majorly stressed out. A very common cause of soul stress is self-condemnation. This is when you won’t get off your own back about some crummy thing you did in the past. As a result you’re trying to function with a soul that is always grumbling about what an immoral worm you are. It’s impossible to feel calm in this kind of situation. Instead, you’re going to feel drained and hypersensitive.
While frequent, extreme mood swings aren’t always tied to underlying core stresses, this is the case far more often than is acknowledged, which makes considering this possibility well worth it. Hypersensitive moods often indicate that your stress levels are very high, which is causing your internal resources to be stretched thin. Rolling with the punches life throws at you and being gracious in the face of irritations are both things that require a lot of internal resources. When your resource budget becomes too tight, it’s quite normal for your emotions to start bouncing all over the place as you “overreact” to minor details.
When possible, it’s wise to try to postpone making big decisions while you’re at either end of the emotional spectrum. When that’s not possible to do, a good backup plan is to write down a list of the pros and cons of making a certain decision. Writing out a list and making an honest effort to fill both columns with factors will help you make a more balanced decision. For example, the PROS of taking a new job might be more money, higher title, better future resume, learn new skills. But the CONS might be leave a good boss, have to move, longer commute, leave best friend. Once you spell it out like this, you can start doing the math and figuring out if your anticipated pay bump would be more than the extra travel costs that you’d incur. Lists help you be more objective and think about factors that your current emotional mood will cause you to ignore. It can also be helpful to review your list when you’re up and again when you’re down to help yourself consider your perspective from both emotional states.
Shifts in moods change what you naturally emphasize about your situation. Negative moods cause you to overemphasize the importance of negative factors, while positive moods cause you to overemphasize the positives. Combining both biased viewpoints can help you gain a more balanced perspective. You can even try giving each of your factors an importance rating from 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “extremely important” and 5 meaning “doesn’t really matter.” After you score all the factors in both a high and low mood, see how the combined scores add up. Bear in mind that any kind of change is stressful, so if you’re already emotionally fragile and you don’t see any direct connections between your current situation (such as the job you’re thinking of leaving) and your current stress load, it’s probably best to avoid adding more upheaval to your life until you have a chance to work on root causes.
For more about how to change stressful core beliefs, see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs.
For more about how your subconscious controls your mood, see Optimism vs. Pessimism: How The Subconscious Controls Your Outlook.
For more about how your mind and soul can affect your body, see The Supremacy of The Subconscious & The Soul.
For a follow up to this post, see Reader Q&A: My Soul Seems Happy, But My Mind Is Upset…What Now?
This post was written in response to a request.
Looking for advice? You can submit an anonymous request through the Ask a Question page.