Do your moods swing wildly for no reason?
Are you anxious one day and depressed the next? Or maybe you "fly off the handle", get really angry, and later feel fine - yet remorseful?
Read on for an intriguing psychophysiological explanation for these kinds of bad mood swings.
The autonomic nervous system ("ANS") - the 'behind the scenes' system in the brain - regulates your energy level. Yet, what few people realize is that it's also the key player in regulating your mood.
That's why we use phrases like "Nervous Nelly" and a "bundle of nerves" . They express the fact that our emotions reflect the state of our nervous system.
Here's where it gets really interesting though. If you've ever suddenly "fallen apart" or seen a friend or family member take a deep dive for the worse, then what I am about to explain is extemely important.
Unless you understand the natural rhythms and fluctuations of the nervous system, you might interpret the symptoms in the worse possible light.
Let me explain.
Like the homeowner who's always shutting off the lights, the ANS is always trying to save energy. It's programmed to return the system to a balanced state...called "homeostasis".
"Homeostasis" is a state of optimal energy use. This balanced state is dynamically maintained by two "competing" elements of the nervous system.
Most people are already familiar with these "competitors": the "stress response" and the "relaxation response", also known as the sympathetic and parasympathic branches of the nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system ("SNS") pumps us up - it's energizes. As the basis of the stress response, the SNS moves us into positive "up" states like excitement. You'll feel this system in action when you're excited, frightened or stressed out.
The parasympathetic nervous system ("PNS") calms you down. It's the basis for what we know as the relaxation response.
You'll notice this "down regulation" when you're relaxing on a white sandy beach under the palm trees. You'll notice it when you feel tired. Or … when you've just had the greatest sex ever
However, the PNS can also bring us "down" into a depressed state.
These are the biggest mistakes you can make when you have a sudden down turn in your mood:
You're actually making two very distinct mistakes:
1. Foremost, you're not seeing that your physiology - your body state - is affecting your thinking.
If your body is feeling tight as a drum then your problems seem rigid and unrelenting.
If your body is feeling heavy then the problems you face also seem "heavy".
If you feel a lightness in your step, then the world seems bright and light.
2. And secondly, you're not taking into account what happened in the days or weeks prior to the downturn.
You see, energy in the nervous system expands and contracts 24/7, like the ocean's tides. These movements are summarized as the "biphasic response". "Bi" means "two" and "phasic" refers to the two PNS and SNS components of the nervous system.
Yet these energetic swings are quite predictable. The larger the amplitude or intensity of the swings the more you will notice the boosting and dampening effects of these two systems.
Let's say you’ve been under deadline pressure for several weeks to complete a report at work. Then you finish it (whew!), hand it in (yeehaw!) and feel terrific that's it's over.
The next day though, everything feels somewhat muted or grey ... not at all what you were expecting.
You think you oughta be happy that it's over but that's not how you're feeling. You feel so fatigued. You may even feel a little sad or "bummed out".
That heaviness in the body is the sensation of your nervous system correcting an energy imbalance.
When the need for intense concentration and effort was over, the parasympathetic system kicked in and in effect, 'de-energized' you.
The PNS needed to take action, because a cranked up nervous system is optimal for short periods of time only.
In the intense SNS mode the heart rate is elevated and the blood is pumping, an unhealthy state if prolonged.
However, in your case, the PNS brought the energy down so quickly that you shot past the point of homeostasis into a very low energy state - "as high as you go, as low as you go".
In other words, the PNS will try to relax the SNS to the same degree that the latter was energized.
Like a bungee jumper, it was only a matter of time (maybe a few days) before your de-energizing process reversed, and you snapped back to normal!
Did it occur to you that when mood swings are extreme they are much like what we see in Bipolar Disorder. Now isn't that interesting. I'll leave that for you to ponder.
I am curious to know what you think about CES (Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation), and if there are members of your site who have tried it. I've been using this treatment at least three months - my depression appears to be diminishing.
I don't tolerate anti-depressants very well, and have had to rely on mood stabizers to help me from sinking into the pit. Things get complicated because I take thyroid medication for hypothyroidism. The CES seems to be a good way to go...
Hi Sal, I'm so glad you posted about this. There seems to be a lot of interest in this new emerging science - using electrical activity to change brain waves. I don't know much about it and I've only read short pieces on related treatments like transcranial magnetic stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation.
My gut reaction is that if it's gentle and pleasant, it's worth looking into.
I'm pleased to know you've found CES helpful. If you're up to it, can you keep us posted on how you're doing? I think it might interest a lot of folks who don't want the complications of medications.
Shrinklady, I'm wondering, in your opinion, if there's ever a time when the roller coaster ride becomes so overwhelming, that you would recommend meds. I ask this, because I recently began taking anti-depressants.
I've had a lot of huge things happen in the past 10 months, and it has completely thrown me off: death of my mom, separation from husband of 10 years, which entailed becoming a single mom and moving out of my house/neighborhood/support system of 10 years, loss of my job, and to top it all off, I've gotten lice twice!
I have a great therapist, and she supported my decision to go on meds, although when I asked her if I should go on meds 8 months ago, she recommended trying to work through it. So, what's your opinion on using meds to gain the balance in one's system, if good therapy and using the techniques mentioned here is not balancing one's system?
Such a great question...and such a challenging one Catgirl. As I see it, there can be a place for medication when the stresses to the mind-body are such that a person is not able to manage day-to-day. What you have gone through in recent months is a significant as it combines not only a loss of resources (support system and finances) but it also adds in the stresses of being a single mom. There are just times when we have to keep on going (to provide for yourself and your family) and we just don't have the time and space to do it without some additional help - and sometimes this is a medication.
What a medication can do is smooth out the highs (anxiety) and lows (depression) so that we have the energy to do good therapy and keep on practicing the strategies for balancing the nervous system. As the stressors get sorted out, and you're feeling less overwhelmed, you and your therapist can talk about very slowly reducing the medication.
Band-aids (like a medication) can help protect the wound as the body mobilizes its healing powers.
Just so you know, there are numerous holistic solutions that might also appeal to you. They are generally more easily tolerated by the nervous system. They include homeopathy, naturopathy (e.g. Sam-e, St. John's Wort) and acupuncture.
Hope it works out for you,
Sage (Pennsylvannia, USA)
Since surfing your site I have been recognizing and understanding when my therapist is using different techniques in therapy. Especially titration and keeping me in the moment. The more progress I feel I make in therapy the more emotions I feel. Sometimes it feels good to "feel", but sometimes it is overwhelming mentally and physically. It helps to know that things should even out. I have never liked rollar coasters.
Thanks Suzanne that does help.
Wow, that does explain a few things. But, once the parasympathetic nervous system had kicked in and we know why we feel like we crashed and burned is there any way to get back to normal (whatever normal may be) sooner.
Or maybe I am asking if it always going to be a rollar coaster or will things even out?
Absoutely Sage, there are ways of moving out of these states. The easiest way is to use your body. By resourcing your body in a titrated, gentle manner, you'll be helping the nervous system move back to baseline. No matter if you're in a heightened anxious or stressed out state or you're in the "couch potato" state, relaxing the body helps. It helps at both ends.
It's useful if you understand that the compensatory parasympathetic response is still dealing with a lot of pent up energy. It's just that now your body is feeling the effects of it.
Keep in mind that veging out on the couch in front of a television isn't relaxing to the body. It's too distracting for the left brain for it to be relaxing. However, yoga or a hot bath might do the trick. So might right-brain activities like looking at images or painting. The more awareness you can bring to your body during these moments can help the nervous system to learn how to manage energy better.
Body psychotherapy is an excellent therapy for this type of problem. It re-sets the nervous system so that eventually you don't go so high when you're stressed nor so low. It evens out the swings.
All therapies do as well especially if the therapist is skilled at helping clients contain and move through their emotions.
I'm partial to body psychotherapy because it seems much faster than other types probably because we get clients to track their sensations in the moment.
Hope that helps,
P.S. Since writing this post, I have now created a program to help get back into balance and to avoid the roller ride. Catch it here.
Ismini (Athens, Greece)
Hi Suzanne! Very nice article! It explains very well what happens when we get really super-charged about a project or something challenging that we focus on and how. It explains that sense of feeling let down after feeling high for a while, even though we may have been successful in our endeavor.