Your quick-fix mood-boosting toolkit

Every now and then, you’ll have one of those days in which not just one little mistake or upset occurs, but another, then another, then (argh!) another. Most days, we find ourselves able to roll with the punches but on those days we feel more like a punching bag.

There are some quick emotional fixes that promise to turn those days around, of course, but not all of them are particularly helpful or healthful. Rather than relying on a “medicinal” hit of chocolate or glass of wine, there’s a collection of handy tricks guaranteed to lift your spirits and get you back to a sense of equilibrium.

The nostalgic nose

Imagine, as a child, the aroma of a fresh, crunchy apple as you bite into it and the feel of the sweet-smelling juice as it trickles down your chin. What about childhood memories of warm sand between your toes and the fresh, salty smell of the ocean? Or the toasty, tantalising aroma of freshly baked bread from the oven?

Nostalgic smells from childhood can transport you back there. At the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in America, Dr Alan Hirsch says smell is different from our other senses. “This adds credence to smell’s connection to emotion and explains olfactory-evoked nostalgia — such as cut grass,” he says.

Early childhood smells can tap into your emotional consciousness, leaving lasting memories. You might find it’s not so much the actual smell but the memories evoked by the scent. So, if you’re feeling blue, take a moment to think back to your childhood and recapture those wonderful aromas. Seek out those scents and see how they can raise your mood.

Get connected

Do you have others to turn to when you are feeling blue? Developing positive people connections is important, as it can help you when the chips are down. It has been shown that those who have positive support networks are more emotionally resilient during a crisis, says Dr Rachel Upperton, a psychologist specialising in stress, anxiety and depression. “Having emotional support from those who care about you can lift your spirits and gives you a sense of connectedness to the rest of the world,” she says.

There are countless ways you can connect with others through friends, family, sporting groups and community groups. If you have a little time on your hands, another positive way to reach out to others is to volunteer. Tapping into your altruistic side not only helps others in need but has been proven to help those who are feeling depressed, says Dr Upperton. “Stepping outside your inner self and making a contribution to others in need can distract you from your own problems, and it promotes a feeling of self worth,” she says. By volunteering, you’ll also have the opportunity to share your skills and talents with others in need, try something new and keep your mind and body active.

Music to your ears

Listening to your favourite tunes can help to lift your spirits, transporting you to a relaxing place of inner calm. Music works to draw you into its pace. Your body changes its rhythm as your breathing patterns respond to the tempo of the music, explains registered music therapist, Joanne McIntyre. “Research shows that music with a tempo of around 110 beats per minute is the ideal, but everybody is different. Experiment to find what works for you,” she says.

When you are relaxing to music, set the scene by finding a quiet place to lie down and light candles to create a soft, ambient atmosphere. McIntyre’s suggestions for a soothing therapy session are French composers such as Debussy, Ravel or Satie. Alternative sounds such as mediaeval chanting also engage the senses and are therapeutic to listen to, she says.

If you don’t feel like listening to music on the stereo, try hitting the shower and belting out some of your favourite songs. “Singing in the shower can be a bit like going out into the wilderness and screaming. It helps you to let go of your anger and frustrations,” she says. And perhaps for those who are not blessed with a melodic voice, singing out loud in the shower has the added benefit of privacy — hopefully, no one else can hear you.

Playing an instrument can also help to alleviate stress and depression. The ukulele has modified guitar chords and is easy to play. For a more uptempo beat, McIntyre recommends trying hand drums such as African djembes.

The power of hugs

There is nothing like the warm, fuzzy comfort of a hug. In 2004, Australian Juan Mann opened his heart and arms to those who needed a hug by walking the streets holding up a sign offering free hugs. The phenomenon has swept the globe and now hundreds of countries take part in the Free Hugs campaign.

Hugging makes you feel energised and both the person being hugged and the hugger benefit from the power of human touch. Hugging rejuvenates the mind, body and soul. Scientists say hugs can lift your mood, boost your immune system, induce sleep and help to relieve stress. Perhaps most importantly, reaching out and touching someone shows you care.

Virginia Satir, an American psychologist and educator, offered a timeless insight into the power of human touch. “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance and we need 12 hugs a day for growth.”

Child’s play

Do you often feel there aren’t enough hours in the day to fit in all the demands of your busy life? Well, you are not alone. These days, there seems to be a never-ending stream of responsibilities and chores. Many people are fighting a constant battle, trying to juggle their day-to-day lives. Yet, as we all know, trying to keep all the balls in the air can lead to high stress levels, depression and eventual burnout.

One way to cope with the stressors of day-to-day living is to keep in touch with your inner child, says Dr Upperton. “Many people find themselves simply operating in survival mode — getting on that same treadmill each and every day. There is often no escaping the many stressors we have in life, but we can learn better ways to manage our stress levels,” she says.

Getting in tune with your playful, carefree side is all about changing your thinking, according to Dr Upperton. “Give yourself permission to embrace your life and get caught up in the magic of here and now from time to time — just like children do,” she says.

Rediscover your energetic, creative and playful self. Ignore the fact that the windows need cleaning or the dishes need doing and toss a ball around the backyard with the kids. Take the dog for a run. Pick some flowers. Paint a picture. Watch a sunrise. Kids live their lives moment by precious moment. We could all learn a little from their thinking.

Think fishy

How many serves of fish do you eat each week? According to experts, Australians should be eating more omega-3-rich deep-sea fish — at least three serves a week. In Western countries, the balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is not what it should be, says Melbourne-based naturopath, Peter Phillips-Rees. “The ratio should be about 3:2 but it tends to be about 25:1,” he says.

There is good reason to increase the amount of fish you eat, particularly if you suffer from the blues. Recent studies by dietitian Dr Dianne Volker, from the Department of Psychology at Sydney University, showed that eating more fish can help alleviate depression symptoms. “We have found evidence of the potential therapeutic benefits of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid incorporation in the diet which may contribute to an eventual recovery in the long term. This is definitely a valuable add-on to the psychosocial and pharmacological treatment therapy depression sufferers undergo.”

Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are mackerel, tuna, sardines and salmon. “It’s also a good idea to reduce consumption of, or even avoid, farmed fish (check the provenance of salmon) as these tend to be grown with artificial hormones,” adds Phillips-Rees. “If you have a dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids, eat more fish and avocadoes and take fish oil supplements,” he suggests.

Folic acid

If you aren’t consuming enough folic acid in your diet, you could also be at risk of depression, according to new UK research. Dr Simon Gilbody concluded there was a link between depression and low folate levels, following a review of 11 previous studies involving 15,315 participants.

“Although the research does not prove that low folate causes depression, we can now be sure that the two are linked,” he says. Folic acid is a vitamin needed for red blood cell formation, new cell division and protein metabolism. Good natural sources of folic acid are green leafy vegetables, beans, eggs and legumes. It’s also important to ensure you have adequate amounts of other B group vitamins, as low levels can lead to feelings of lethargy and depression.

Challenge your thoughts

Some days, it seems like nothing is going to plan. Just about every little thing that happens creates even more stress. It’s not the events that occur that are stressful, it’s how you look at them that determines how you feel, says clinical psychologist, Dr Abigail Pamich.

According to Dr Pamich, people can fall into the trap of personalising a situation, so when something bad happens, you automatically think it was your fault. Another common scenario is catastrophising — always anticipating the worst possible outcome. “It’s important to learn to be aware of your thought patterns and to look at situations realistically,” she says.

You might be thinking about an upcoming exam you have for work. You are revising for the exam, but you immediately think you won’t pass it and you won’t cope. You imagine losing your promotion or, worse, being sacked. “When you catastrophise you’re imagining something that isn’t realistic. Even if you failed the exam, your life isn’t going to fall apart and it won’t be fatal. Thinking realistically means you’d say to yourself, it’s going to be tough, but I am going to get through it. Or I might fail the exam but I am good at other things.”

To promote healthy thinking, you need to learn how to recognise thought distortion and then challenge your thoughts, explains Dr Pamich. “Think of it a bit like being in a court of law — analyse it, question it and challenge your negative thoughts. Then you can replace your negative thoughts with something that is a realistic appraisal of the situation,” she says.

Learn to breathe

It might sound like something everybody knows how to do, but few know how to do it properly — especially when you’re feeling anxious and depressed. Learning effective breathing techniques when you’re feeling stressed can help to relieve your anxiety.

When you experience extreme emotions it signals danger and your body releases adrenalin — the fight or flight response. With adrenalin in your system, your body wants you to breathe in more oxygen. To calm down, you need to do the opposite and reduce your oxygen levels, which reduces the intensity of the emotions you’re feeling, explains Dr Pamich.

“Breathe slowly and you’ll eliminate more oxygen in the body, which helps you to think more clearly. With adrenalin surging around your body it’s difficult to problem solve and make rational decisions — all these things happen when we are very stressed, upset or anxious.”

The idea behind the technique is to breathe out more oxygen than you are breathing in. Take a deep breath and aim to fill your lungs to around 60 per cent capacity and then breathe out very slowly until you have eliminated all the oxygen so your lungs are completely empty, explains Dr Pamich. To master the technique, practise it when you aren’t feeling stressed. “That way, your body becomes conditioned and you’ll know how to eliminate adrenalin when you are in a stressful situation.”

Get physical

When you become depressed, chances are the last thing you feel like doing is strapping on your joggers and going for a walk. However, getting outside and into some physical activity is one of the best things you can do to lift your mood. The effects of exercising outdoors are twofold, explains dietitian and exercise physiologist, Joanne Turner. “Exercise outside and you get essential doses of vitamin D, which has been proven to improve your mood — just half an hour each day is all you need,” she says. “Plus exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, nature’s own feel-good chemicals.”

If getting motivated is a chore, try enlisting the help of a walking buddy to get you moving. “Chatting with a friend can make your exercise session more enjoyable, plus you are also less likely to opt out if you have someone else depending on you,” she says.

If walking doesn’t appeal, there are countless other physical activities you can get involved in to chase those blues away, suggests Turner. “Ride a bike, take up a dance class, go for a bushwalk or go kayaking. Use your imagination and get physical, doing something you enjoy,” she says.

Scientific studies have proven the mood-elevating and therapeutic benefits of exercise. In a 2007 study in the journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, depressed people who were engaged in an exercise program recovered about as well as people who took medication. Both groups did better than a third group that received only a placebo. To gain maximum benefit, ideally you should be aiming to do something physical each and every day, says Turner. If you can’t fit it in, aim for five sessions of 30 minutes to an hour a week, she says.

Natural anti-anxiety boosters

Naturopath Peter Phillips-Rees recommends:

  • Skullcap: Scutellaria lateriflora is an anti-anxiety herb that helps to alleviate mood swings.
  • St John’s Wort: an anti-anxiety herb that can be very effective in cases of mild depression.
  • Bach flower essences: “These are tools for positive emotional transformation,” he says. If you are feeling down it will uplift you and take the edge off the intensity of your negative feelings.”
  • Blues busters

  • Hug a pet: Research shows pet owners enjoy better physical and mental health than non-pet owners. Patting a pet is therapeutic. Your pet also knows when you need a hug because they can tune into your moods.
  • Get into the zone: Soothe your soul by learning meditation. Make it part of your daily life. Take a yoga class or treat yourself to a well-deserved massage.
  • Put a smile on your dial: Try smiling or, better still, laugh out loud. Laughter really is the best medicine. Rent a funny DVD, read a book that tickles your funny bone or get together with some upbeat friends and have a chuckle.
  • Snooze away the blues: Try to catch more Zs. Experts tell us the optimum is 7–8 hours a night. If you aren’t getting enough sleep it can leave you feeling fatigued and lethargic.
  • Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist based on the Sunshine Coast hinterland, Queensland. She writes about natural health, lifestyle and environmental issues.

    Carrol Baker

    Carrol Baker

    Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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