The Needle’s Quivering: Keeping a weather eye on mood fluctuations

Part of living well with anxiety and depressive disorders is learning to be finely tuned into one’s mood. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is so easy to get caught up in the “paraphernalia” of mental health: getting one’s meds right; attending medical appointments; participating in therapy. Sometimes all this busy-ness distracts us from the very basic skill of monitoring our mood.

Sometimes I like to visualize my mood as a needle on some sort of meter. When we’re unwell, the needle may be flying all over the place, or may be firmly planted at one end of the spectrum – for me, that’s the bottom end.

When we’re well, the needle’s movement’s aren’t quite so polarized. Well, that’s my experience, anyway 🙂 Of course it goes up and down, but … smoothly. Predictably. Understandably. *ARGH* None of these words are quite expressing what I mean! Even when I’m very depressed, I can predict what might make me feel even worse, and I can understand why it might have plummeted … but hopefully you know what I mean.

So: a very useful skill in living with anxiety or depression is monitoring what the needle’s doing. Call it introspection, mindfulness, or self-awareness; refer to the “observing self”; or use art, music or journalling to ‘reveal yourself to yourself’ – it’s all about getting in touch with what’s going on and, if possible, why.

Surprisingly, in discussions of self-awareness, there is often little mention of things which obscure the needle’s movement from us. When I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol altogether, I remember telling my therapist one reason was because alcohol impacted on my mood so much it made being self-aware a bit like trying to hear a whisper in a storm. Other, perhaps less obvious, things which obscure our mood from us are well-worn stories we tell ourselves (e.g. habitual thinking which leads our mind down a well-worn track instead of focussing on the present moment), focussing on just one aspect of our wellness regime to the neglect of others (e.g. “I took my meds half an hour late today, so any mood fluctuation might be because of that”) or scapegoating (blaming any and all mood fluctuations on one thing, e.g. a past trauma).

Are there other things which  prevent you from noticing that your mood needle is quivering? And do you have stories of self-monitoring helping you prevent a mental health episode becoming worse than it had to be? I’d love to hear what you think.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Needle’s Quivering: Keeping a weather eye on mood fluctuations

  1. Aah, habitual thinking patterns. Definitely one thing I struggle with a lot. What’s helped me I think is that by looking at my major breakdown in retrospect, I’ve noticed a lot of physical symptoms that were indicators of the spiraling problem. Now, I try to be aware of those signs: insomnia (is that physical?), psoriasis breakouts, back and neck pains, rapid weight gain, worsening physical health. The latest one I’ve added is clenching my jaw (the dentist pointed that one out!). I’ll have to figure out how to stop doing that in my sleep. :-S
    In a way I think it is easier for me to notice these physical signs. That’s why I started journalling: to help notice the other signs. How often I feel drained of energy, loss of interest in almost everything, avoidance of friends/social settings. I’m hopeful it will help me break down those habitual behaviours and thinking patterns. I do feel it is helping somewhat and it has only been a week or two. 🙂 I’m still haven’t had success at establishing a meditation practice, but that’s something I’d like to try too.

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    • Yes, it is so important to keep tabs on those “outward and visible signs”, isn’t it? Also behavioural ones: e.g. have I been driving differently than usual? Have I been spending more time doing [fill in the blanks] than usual? Even things like cancelling on social outings can creep up on you if you’re not careful – an early warning sign, not noticed, becomes part of the problem.

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      • I really just cancelled on plans for Saturday because I don’t feel like being around people right now. And earlier this week I had plans that I didn’t cancel but the whole time leading up to it I felt so anxious and I didn’t want to go! Nor did I enjoy it… I’m just coming to realise the past couple months these are some of the signs when I’m starting to deteriorate in mental status.

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      • Excellent! Because now you’ve realized that, you can … do whatever you do in those circumstances. (I won’t presume to speak for you! 🙂 )

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  2. I’ve had depression, likely Bipolar, for some time now. In 2009 I had a psychotic break and was diagnosed with psychotic depression. I was diagnosed with Bipolar when I changed Psych. Docs (I moved from CA to NC). The thing that stands out to me the most is that I HAVE to get a good night’s sleep. If I don’t sleep for 3 or more nights I am highly likely to have a psychotic episode. The doc has given me some Ambien as a prophylactic treatment and I’ve only had to use it once in the past 6 months. I take Amitriptyline now, which has a hypnotic affect, and helps me get a good night’s rest.

    As far as depression, hypo-manic, or manic episodes go… I feel that I have a pretty good track record identifying when I am depressed or hypo-manic. Though I can only tell if I’m having one of those once I am actively having the episode. Once the depression is identified I can usually take steps to help move myself out of the episode. Hypo-mania is different. I usually leave it alone, because I have energy, creativity, etc. and I am very productive.

    Since they have rarely happened, I do not have a good way to tell if a full-on manic episode is coming or if I’m actively having one. I suspect that both the psychotic and the manic events alike are coupled with a disturbance in my self-awareness and I don’t have the ability to realize what is actually happening.

    All in all, I feel like I have the ability to keep myself pretty mentally healthy. That is due to living with myself, being as self-aware as possible, taking my medication as prescribed and having a good healthy support system (this includes a good therapist, doctor and loving family).

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