12 Common Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Mood And Your Life (Stop Doing These)
I mean, come on … you deserve better than this.
“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” — A Bronx Tale
Self-sabotage is a helluva drug. You can’t get high from it, but it willbring you down. It’s generally an addiction we don’t recognize until it’s far too late — we lose a job, napalm a relationship, run into trouble with the law, find ourselves hospitalized, run out of Doctor Who episodes to binge-watch.
It’s a low-grade chronic illness that can, if you’re not careful, bloom into something more sinister: 18.1% of Americans have some kind of Anxiety Disorder. (I’m in that 18.1%.) 6.7% of Americans have had a major depressive episode. (I’m also in that 6.7%.) It can be very challenging to see the signs, get the appropriate diagnosis and treatment, and follow through. That’s not to say you’re at fault if you fall into one (or both) of those buckets — clinical anxiety and depression are often caused by something outside the locus of your control.
What’s vital, though, whether you battle clinical mental health challenges or you’re just not optimally satisfied with your life, or you’re just feeling blue or experiencing existential dread a bit more regularly and seriously than you’d like, is to do the following: Take ownership of your happiness. Or, as much ownership as you can. (You do not control your mood 100%, I cannot stress this enough.) You owe it to yourself to wrestle back command of how you think and how you feel. The world is shitty enough — you don’t need to help it along by compounding it with boneheaded life choices.
So, consider the following listicle (hell yeah, clickbait!) to be a quick checklist. A sort of “mood troubleshooter.” I’ve arranged these sabotaging patterns in order from easiest to most challenging to un-break, just like you would when diagnosing the causes of a broke-down vehicle or a busted laptop (you typically start with “turn the computer off, then turn it on again” as a first-line treatment for PC issues, and venture into more complex solutions from there).
The human brain is a machine. It requires diagnostics, maintenance and repairs. I’ll even walk you through what I do to keep myself feeling somewhat better than profoundly miserable. This is no substitute for qualified medical or psychiatric care, but treating these 12 common challenges may keep your brain out of the “shop” for a while. Let’s go.
1. You’re Not Drinking Enough Water
Feeling sluggish? Feeling a little down? Perhaps you should try water — the original miracle elixir. Dehydration has been shown to have negative impact on short-term memory and attention, mood, cognitive and motor skills. How much should you drink? Probably more than you currently are. Estimates range that between 43% — 75% of Americans don’t drink enough of it.
My solution: I have a 1.5L bottle that I fill with water — once in the morning, and once after lunch. That’s 3L, or roughly 12 glasses. That’s plenty, and more polite than hogging the drinking fountain for several minutes at a time.
2. You’re Surrounded By Clutter
Does your desk look like an Office Depot stock room? Does your place look like it’s been hit by an F4 Tornado? Does your car look like you’ve been on tour with a jam band for the summer? Guess what: It’s probably stressing you out. Clutter overwhelms us with visual stimuli, distracts us, causes us feelings of guilt and shame, makes it difficult to relax, and makes it hard for us to find what we need to satisfy our needs at any given point. (You know this if you’ve ever tried in vain to find your keys or remote.) Plus, you know … who’s going to want to come back to your place when it looks like you live in squalor.
My solution: I clean my condo for 20 minutes per day in the morning. I clean my desk every Friday before I leave for the weekend. I wash and clean my car for 20 minutes on Saturday mornings, and then I deep clean my condo for 50 minutes right after.
3. You’re Not Getting Enough Sun
Humans are solar powered. Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, and it’s in the DSM-5. The sun provides valuable vitamin D that prevents it. Natural light increases serotonin and melatonin, which helps aid your circadian rhythm and increases the quality and quantity of your sleep. Plus, you could probably use a little color before you hit the beach this summer, Chad. And you don’t need a ton of natural light, either. 10–15 consecutive minutes will do just fine!
My solution: I live in Austin, Texas. It’s located a mere three highway interchanges down from the actual sun. So every morning, I go outside and get my sunlight in by … oh … let’s not spoil #4. (Most people I know just wake up and walk their dog. Or cat. Or llama. That’s enough.)
4. You’re Not Moving Enough
When you’re stressed and anxious and miserable, the last thing you want to do is walk into a room full of beautiful people, hit the row machine, and wheeze through 30 minutes on an elliptical while the Advocare crew lovingly cheers each other on at the TRX. I get it. I wrote about how hard that can be. That said, holy shit, is exercise a high-ROI way to supercharge your brain in both the short-term and long-term. Exercise has been shown to improve (deep breath here): memory, mood, inflammation, structural brain health, sleep, anxiety, stress, brain size, cognition, learning ability.
My solution: I have a really sick Spotify playlist with like 150 songs. Every morning, I put that shit on shuffle, run for five songs, turn around and walk back. Sometimes I’ll go to the gym on my way back, but let’s not get carried away.
(UPDATE: Here is that playlist.)
5. You’re Not Having Enough Fun
Social isolation is the express lane to things like agoraphobia, depression and alcoholism, pain, chronic fatigue and poor health. Somewhat unrelated: always keeping yourself on the straight and narrow causes ego depletion — the fancy term for sapping up all your willpower and discipline — which causes you to lose your self control later. And, finally, looking forward to something has been shown to improve mood and impulse control. All of these things can be treated with regularly-scheduled, metered doses of what the scientists like to call “fun.”
My solution: On Mondays of every week, I schedule dates — either friend-dates or more-than-friend-dates —for every Thursday evening and for Saturdays after I’m done with my chores. I try to hike or golf with a friend every Sunday morning. After any vacation I take, I immediately schedule another one to look forward to. I get that this shit isn’t workable for everyone. Also: if you can have (enthusiastically consensual) sex, you should — as often and as kinkily as possible.
6. You’re Not Eating Enough Plants
Look, your mom’s been telling you “eat your vegetables” since before kale and acai bowls became trendy. In addition to living longer and healthier lives, herbivores tend to suffer from less depression, anxiety and fatigue. They’re less sluggish, too, because they’re not consuming big-ass sugar-bomb, carb-bomb meals that divert energy to the GI tract, and away from your brain — where you could be using it to be productive for once in your goddamned life.
My solution: My breakfast, every morning, is juice. My dinner, every night (if I am eating alone), is a salad.
Sidenote: My baseline diet largely consists of: mushroom, squash, spinach, avocado, banana, lemon, blueberry, tomato, chia seed, hemp seed, black beans, chickpeas, almonds, pistachios, salmon, tuna, shrimp, scallop, feta, pecorino, olive oil, coconut oil, garlic, honey, basil, eggs, mint, cilantro, dill, rosemary, turmeric, salt, and pepper. You would be shocked how many combinations of foods and cuisines you can make with just those things.
7. You’re On Your Smartphone Too Much
The data is out. Our phones are making us miserable. All that time you spend scrolling your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds wondering why all your friends have beautiful kids and Nantucket vacations while you’re binge-eating pizza and bemoaning your stupid-ass coach’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-9? It’s lowering your life satisfaction. Unless you’re using each platform to truly connect one-on-one with people and build real-world friendships, they aren’t helping. Plus, the world’s a grease-fire right now, and engulfing yourself in negative news is making you mentally ill. Plus, your smartphone emits that dreaded blue light that disrupts your sleep patterns.
My solution: I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone. I also put away my phone after 10 on weeknights, unless I’m texting or talking to someone important. I also sometimes throw my phone into a lake or drop it from a balcony.
8. You’re Drinking Too Much Booze
Drinking is dope AF. I love it. It’s a social lubricant, temporarily enhances joy in moderation, and is the liquid courage I need to play music shows without wondering why everyone’s staring at me so uncomfortably. It’s also fucking terrible for your brain if you do it too much. And, for a long time, I did. In addition to the potentially embarrassing things you do while drunk, the day after drinking you might find yourself with an inability to concentrate, depressed mood, disinterest in basic upkeep, impaired mental performance, impaired memory, verbal deficits and a shit-ton more that keeps you from humming on all cylinders.
My solution: If you’re going to drink, drink 2–3 servings of beer, wine or liquor max to avoid that hangover. When I stopped drinking my usual 10–15 drinks each night, my mood stabilized within one week, improved within three weeks, and I lost 35 pounds in seven weeks. I also remembered I left the oven on.
9. You’re Smoking Too Much
I don’t think I need to tell you how bad smoking is for your lungs. But what about your mind? Studies show smoking damages the brain, particularly in the areas of working memory and executive function — again, things that keep you from firing on all cylinders.
My solution: I’m addicted to mint-flavored nicotine lozenges. Whatever, Judgey McJudgeface, it’s still better than lung cancer.
10. You’re Not In The Flow State
You ever do something and lose track of time and sense of self? Like when you’re learning something, and that thing equally challenges and rewards you? That’s called Flow State, and getting there is the key to both mastery and bliss. It decreases stress and increases satisfaction, self-esteem and self-efficacy — and it’s effects don’t wear off until long after you stop doing whatever put you there.
My solution: I write every day. I golf or rock climb once a week. For you, try practicing new skills that stimulate your mind and body. Tetris works. So does Chess. So does skiing. So does salsa dancing. So does shelling. (Which, alright, Ethel.)
11. You’re Not Maintaining Your Brain
We put gas in our cars. We change the oil. We flush the transmission. We change the tires. We take the engine in for tune-ups. We treat our cars better than we treat our minds. Often, we won’t seek to optimize our mental health until someone else tells us to, or until someone leaves us, or until the pain is too great to bear, or until our life becomes a fucking Joy Division B-side. Don’t let it get to that point. An ounce of preventative maintenance is worth a pound of cure.
My solution: Weekly yoga (Sundays), weekly guided meditation (Headspace app and also at a zen temple), 13 consecutive weeks of therapy or life-coaching every year.
12. You’re Hanging Out With The Wrong People
Elle Kaplan is smart AF. I’m painfully average. So I’ll let her take it away from here: “Research has shown that … negative attitudes can also affect your intelligence and ability to think … negativity compromises the effectiveness of the neurons in the hippocampus — an important area of the brain responsible for reasoning and memory.”
In short: your negative, uncomfortable social circle is bringing your mood and cognition down. Who you chill with affects your level of chill.
My solution: I delete all my text messages weekly, so I have to actively choose who to continue communicating with. I purge my 20% of my Facebook friend list every three months and keep it around 500. I don’t make plans with anyone that doesn’t excite me. Every year, I pick 10 people I admire who I set out to get to know better, and then I do exactly that. (Sometimes they disappoint, but more often than not, they surprise and delight.) Also, treat your family like casual friends. (Shout-out to Jessica Wildfire for that gem.)
DoI do all these things above all the time? Hell nah, B. Like I said at the top, my mind is a neurotic mess. But I do most of these things most of the time, and that’s made a world of difference. I can make it through a work-day without napping or skipping a meeting. I can make it through a week without coming home to a pile of pizza boxes. I can head to the function and engage in conversations that don’t sound like the Nihilist Arby’s twitter. Sometimes that’s all we’re looking for — those small victories that help us feel a little happier, a little more stable, and a little less likely to rage at the next motherfucker who brings their checkbook to a supermarket express cash-out.
Life’s better than you think it is, and if you can gain mastery over your mind, you’ll be able to more fully appreciate the full scope of its beauty, possibility, and grand cosmic meaninglessness of being just specks of space dust on a space rock that’s too small for the universe to notice. Pursue your dreams, anyway. Eat Arby’s.