How to Escape the Dark Mood Spiral In Five Steps

Post written by Warren. Follow him on Twitter.

Don't let a bad mood get a grip on you.

Don't let a bad mood get a grip on you.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ali Hale. Ali writes about “getting more from life” on her blog Aliventures, offering an honest take on the realities of personal development. Readers describe posts as “so true”, “exactly what I need” and “exactly at the right time for me”. If that sounds like something you could do with, click here to grab the RSS feed.

Do you ever find yourself in the grips of a really bad mood?

Perhaps it starts off with a small stressful event, or a negative comment – and it spirals from there. You end up arguing with your loved ones, slamming doors, even crying. It’s a horrible place to be, but when that mood begins to take hold, it can be very hard to break out.

Letting these moods take over can harm your self-growth.

You might be good at repeating your positive affirmations or focusing on your major goals or thinking abundantly when you’re feeling bright and sunny … but when this sort of mood strikes, all that negative self-talk (I’m useless, there’s something wrong with me, I can never get things right, everyone hates me…) comes crowding back in.  Plus, you’re not going to get anything productive or creative done when you’re in a mood like that.

Here are five steps to pull yourself out of the downwards spiral. It’s easy to read these steps and agree with them – it’s much harder to put them into practice when that mood does strike.  Persist, though: once they become a habit, it’s a lot easier to self-regulate your moods.

Step 1: Recognize That Negative Thoughts Breed Negative Thoughts

It’s a long-held tenet of personal development literature that we get what we focus on. You might already be in the habit of repeating positive affirmations, writing a gratitude list, telling your partner about what’s been good in your day, or sending thank you notes. All of these habits help focus our thoughts – and thus our actions and growth – on the things in our life which are good.

What we don’t always remember is that this works just as well (if not even better) for negative thoughts. I’m sure you’ve experience this. It starts with one little comment that you take the wrong way, develops into paranoia that everyone thinks exactly the same about you, and then spirals out to encompass your entire life.

The only way to stop the spiral is to break right through those thoughts, before they can grow Medusa-like heads. Dwelling on negative thoughts and trying to work out the root or the cause of them can actually make things worse.

Step 2: Don’t Talk About It

This might sound like strange advice: after all, aren’t we always being told to “talk things through” when we have a problem? Although we think that talking will help, it can often make things worse. Just think about the times when you’ve had a bad day at work and moaned about it to your partner for twenty minutes – and you’ve both ended up snapping at one another.

If you feel the need to vent, try writing instead of talking. I’ve always found that journaling helps me to work through difficult moods or thoughts, and was interested by this post from Glen Allsopp which describes how, in one study, participants who talked about a traumatic event didn’t feel any happier as a result. Those who wrote about a traumatic event “were clearly happier, more enthusiastic, and more energetic.”

Step 3: Take a Break-Out Action

This is the hardest step for me; once a dark mood hits, all my motivation to do anything seems to drain away. But if you can simply get yourself moving, you’ll often find that the mood quickly passes. If possible, do something which helps you concentrate on your physical body rather than your mental state – and make it a pleasant activity, rather than something like cleaning the kitchen. I find that showering, walking or a gym session never fail to pick up my mood.

You might also like to try getting a soothing drink (I’m British, so “a nice cup of tea” is a popular bad-mood fix!) or having a snack: sometimes, an irritable or tearful mood is simply due to low blood sugar levels. If you’re feeling over-wrought and exhausted, take a nap if possible. And once you start calming down, give meditation a try – it’ll get you grounded and happy again!

Step 4: Really Take That Break-Out Action

If you find yourself stuck on step 3, get a partner or friend to help. Ask them to prompt you to take a particular action (choose one which invariably gets you out of a bad mood: a solitary walk, or reading fiction, for instance). Encourage them to suggest this if you’re sounding very stressed, or if you’re clearly upset or in a bad mood about something. It’s often easier to listen to an external voice of reason when our own internal voice is being drowned out by our mood.

Sometimes, you won’t have someone around who can easily play this role. Try writing out a sentence like “When I start to feel stressed (angry/tearful/overwhelmed/etc), I will go out for a ten minute walk …. whether I want to or not!” Pin it on your noticeboard, stick it to your fridge, or write it on a post-it note attached to your computer monitor. It’s a little reminder from the rational, conscious “you” to the “you” caught up in a dark mood.

Step 5: Learn Your Trigger Conditions

Bad moods never arise out of nowhere. Once you’re feeling calm again, after some time has passed, give yourself a chance to examine how it happened. Maybe the immediate trigger was something as trivial as a printer jam … but it was the last straw for you because you were on the productivity treadmill and anxious about getting through everything. On a better day, the printer jam would have been just a temporary annoyance.

I tend to react badly when I’m tired or hungry. On the flip side, if I exercise regularly and take time for my creative endeavors, my mood tends to remain positive even when little irritations and worries come up.

What are your trigger conditions?

What helps you sail straight past the choppy waters of a bad mood spiral?


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Posted on October 14, 2009

Happy Comments

20 Responses to “How to Escape the Dark Mood Spiral In Five Steps”
  1. Seth Godin has something to say about negativity causing you to quit your goals:

    “Never quit something that has long-term potential because you can’t handle the stress of the moment.”

    Bad moods make us doubt what we’re doing and who we are. This is BAD if you’re a dreamer because you’ll constantly bash your own endeavors because you feel poopy.

    Great post!
    .-= Pete | The Tango Notebook´s last blog ..Tangoholics Anonymous: How I Balance My Tango Addiction =-.

  2. The points of learning to recognize your triggers really strikes a chord with me. I know that has been one of the most important things I’ve started to do that has improved my mood. Nice article ^__^
    .-= Justin-´s last blog ..Why I’m Killing the Clock =-.

  3. Ali Hale says:

    Thanks Pete, that’s a good point via Seth about not quitting something in the heat of the moment. I expcet we all have times when we feel like throwing our hands in the air and giving in … the trick is to get through these (or to realise if it really is unending hell, and cut your losses and run…)

    Justin, glad that chimes in with your experience too!
    .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..10 Scary-but-Exciting Reasons to Work for Yourself – continued =-.

  4. I think the best way to get out of the spiral (for me is)…

    1. Watch my thoughts and don’t let them spiral down and turn against me.

    2. Stay present, stay present, stay present!

    3. Say to myself, and believe, “This too shall pass”…because everything (good or bad) does.

    Thanks again Ali for the wonderful post! :)

    .-= Dayne |´s last blog ..How to Escape the Dark Mood Spiral In Five Steps =-.

  5. Hi Ali (and Dayne),

    This is a potent list that offers powerful advice. Thank-you. I would add..


    This is more about dark mood prevention. I’m not one to really suffer from dark moods very often, but I do go to great lengths to keep a positive mind-set. One thing that really works well for me is to get a sense of perspective about life and how things really are.

    For example, a friend rang me yesterday and was complaining how cold it was in the local library. Curiously, I had just read a history of the Leningrad siege in WW2.

    Survivors spoke of how at the nadir of the siege they would go to the library to read the great Russian authors for solace i.e. at minus 40 degrees with no heating, suffering from severe starvation, dreadful disease e.g. typhoid and the constant shelling by German artillery.

    Yes, they would sit and read in the library “for comfort” under the worst imaginable conditions. Wow, that makes any problems I have pale into insignificance. More than that. It’s about developing a heightened awareness of just how good things really are and constantly celebrating that.

    I surely have compassion for people who suffer dark moods, but for me, it takes a lot to trigger one. Having a broader understanding of history and how humans have demonstrated extraordinarily positive attitudes under the worst possible circumstances is a constant source of powerful inspiration.

    Reading Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl is a great place to start. Amazon:

    Best to you both, and all of Happy Self readers

    .-= Robin Dickinson´s last blog ..The time-life switch: peak productivity in an instant =-.

  6. Ali great post and advice!

    You’re absolutely right about the point 3: taking a break-out action we can improve our mood and stop that dark spiral.

    Something that helps me to get out of that spiral is: – to perform a small task and get rewarded for it. It’s a little victory to recover self-confidence to start again on a good footing.

    Regards ;)
    .-= David |´s last blog ..CREATIVE THINKING: HOW TO BE AN INNOVATOR FOR LIFE =-.

  7. Kaushik says:

    Interesting I just wrote about this. You give some excellent advice. What has worked best for me is to let go. Bad moods–negativity–do strike. We can recognize that pain comes to us from sort of resistance to what is, or from embodied patterns of the past, or often the incompleteness we feel in being identified with the phantom ego.

    I’ve found it best to allow, welcome and even love the bad mood, and from this place of stillness, it’s easy to release the negativity.

    Thanks for opening up an important subject!

    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Positive Thinking =-.

  8. Here’s a favorite piece of advice I borrowed from Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project. This simple concept has made a huge difference in how I face difficult situations.
    Take Care,

    Jill’s recent post: Romper Bomper Stomper Boo.
    .-= Jill MacGregor´s last blog ..Romper Bomper Stomper Boo =-.

  9. Paul Norwine says:

    Hi Ali – great tips.

    The best way for me to snap out of a funk is to (1) recognize that I’m in one and (2) snapping my attention and focus back to the present…

    .-= Paul Norwine´s last blog ..Kaizen | A Business Model or a Way of Life? =-.

  10. Great post, Ali! Thanks for sharing these tips with us. #1 is SUCH an important one…Glad you brought that up!
    .-= positively present´s last blog ..let your imagination run wild… =-.

  11. Movies. The only way to get out a spiral is Movies for me. Inspirational ones like OctoberSky, Goodwill Hunting, Pursuit of Happyness, and a few more.

    During my early days in designing, not a day would go by without waves of sarcasm and criticism dashing my emotion-shores eroding the sands of happyness; most of them from my hugeeee family(they hated it when I started my journey as a designer, they wanted me to join the family business).

    And I would just turn to the movies I mentioned and realize, “Man! If they can go through it, I can go through it”.

  12. How about realizing that “arguing with your loved ones, slamming doors, even crying” is just plain immature. People have got to stop blaming others for their shitty moods and excusing this kind of behavior. If anyone behaves like this, then he/she is just wrong and needs to get their act together.
    .-= Gordie Rogers – Lifestyle Design 4U´s last blog ..Is There Anything That’s Unforgivable? Part 1. =-.

    • I 100% agree with you Gordie. Many times, I think, when we are in that kind of mood, ego is playing a role too. I think it is best to get out of ourselves and help others, etc. to break the spiral. Many times when people act that way, they are most likely not frustrated at others (even though it seems this way)…they are frustrated with themselves.

      Thanks for sharing!
      .-= Dayne |´s last blog ..How to Escape the Dark Mood Spiral In Five Steps =-.

  13. Sunny says:

    Excellent article. My break out action is to go for a run. Works every time!

    .-= Sunny´s last blog ..Water for Weight Loss Challenge =-.

  14. Srinivas Rao says:

    Great article. I was just listening to Brian Tracy yesterday who talked about the fact that successful people talk about what they want to experience. It’s interesting that we can perpetuate the spiral just by talking about it. I’ve been very cautious of it lately and don’t even write about the things that been challenging for me when I comment on other posts. I’ve noticed a tremendous difference in my external world in just the last week alone.
    .-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..How to become a connector and leverage the hell out of your network =-.

  15. Hi Ali. I had this problem just yesterday. My wife kept asking me what was wrong and as I man I had no problem not talking about it. :-) Just recognizing #1 and refusing to stay in a spiral was the key for me. This was an excellent article. Thanks!
    .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Helping Others While Helping Yourself =-.

  16. Hey Dayne. And Ali :)

    such awwwsome timing reading this. just posted summen similar but this nails the practicality that was tough to get across :)

    step 1 is super power. cool quote, “in the way you do anything, you do everything” – it’s kinda like a negative thought makes your overall being negative. from that point everything you say and do is coming from that negative place.

    number 2 is mad on point too. wanting to explain your problems to feel special.

    3,4 and 5 mashup into the same thing: changing your focus. decide to live constructively, to live life instead of problems, to be free instead of stuck.

    awesomeness :)

    gave it a stumble. boom.

    keep well and in touch
    alex – unleash reality

  17. Looking at every one of these comments I can’t cease questioning why there are lots of offtopic. It’s like every person has Hyperactivity or something, : ).

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