Mood Gremlins: How to Banish Them for Good
Unlike the biggies—a layoff, a broken heart, a terrifying diagnosis—these tiny things bring you down without your even noticing.
mood gremlins
The Airborne Stress Gremlin
We all know that we can be infected by the fear and stress that we see on other people’s faces. We unintentionally imitate them, and then feel what they feel. This transfer is what psychologist Brené Brown calls the work of gremlins—little tricksters that bring us down. The big surprise is that the infectious agent may be in the air. When volunteers at Stony Brook University sniffed pads that had been in the armpits of anxious first-time skydivers, their amygdala—the brain region associated with emotion and danger—"lit up" in an fMRI (brain scan) in a way that it didn’t when they smelled "exercise sweat." At Rice University, the smell of "fear" sweat biased women toward interpreting ambiguous facial expressions as negative. And in another experiment, people who smelled "fear" sweat made fearful faces, and people who smelled "disgust" sweat made disgusted faces. Their gasps or grimaces were completely unconscious.

This might help: Picking up on others’ moods is nothing new, but smell contagion is a surprise. The science here is still young; there’s no saying that the chemicals in another person’s sweat will definitely make you feel the same way they do. But there is mounting evidence that, on a subconscious level, exposure to their stress sweat might make you more vigilant and cautious about potential threats. (An upside to stress sweat is that it might also make you sharper temporarily.) The standard advice for avoiding emotional contagion applies: Reset yourself by going on a long walk. Oh, and do it in a well-ventilated place.
mood gremlins
The Airbrushed Gremlins
Of course they’re airbrushed. They don’t look all that happy, and they’ve probably never met a chocolate cake. We tell ourselves this. And yet—we know that those long coltish legs that cellulite dare not invade and those perfect Russian/Estonian/Kazakh cheekbones can put us in an ugly mood. When Kathy Wilcox and James Laird, psychologists at Clark University, asked women to rate their feelings after looking at 10 photos of slim, gorgeous models, many reported feeling negative, with deflated self-esteem.

This might help: Surprisingly, some women in Wilcox and Laird’s study felt terrific after looking at photos of models, and—hello—reported higher self-esteem. Why did they feel so good? Because these women found a way to identify with some aspect of the photograph. So when you start flipping through pages, pick out a facet that you can genuinely relate with or aspire to: a Cleopatra look that would play up your deep-set eyes or that pixie ’do you might try. If identification doesn’t help, you know what to do: stop looking.
mood gremlins
The Shaky-Ratio Gremlin
We all know that comfort foods such as potato chips, mac 'n' cheese and ice cream make us feel guilty (also bloated). Yes, these treats—which are deep-fried or contain vegetable oils, shortening and dairy—are high in fat, but that’s not the whole problem. They’re rich in omega-6, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that may affect mental health when there's too little of its cousin, omega-3. When researchers raise mice on a diet that has a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, those animals suffer from depression symptoms similar to those observed in people (they brood more, give up faster and explore less).

This might help: Try snacks that are higher in omega-3: walnuts and edamame instead of potato chips, avocado instead of mayonnaise, grass-fed milk instead of ice cream, and foods cooked with canola oil instead of vegetable oil. But when you’ve already succumbed and need to repent, there’s another way to help balance your wonky ratio. Some studies, but not all, have found that mild-to-moderate depression may be relieved with fish-oil supplements, which are high in omega-3s.
mood gremlins
The Pill That (May) Make You a Pill Gremlin
We all know the benefits of birth control—and one of them is hormonal control (less acne, fewer cramps and less flow). But for some Pill takers, there’s one crucially important area in which control is lost: their moods. When researchers asked women to rate their emotions after starting a regimen of oral contraceptives, 4 to 10 percent reported an unexplainable downswing in mood and well-being. If you’ve had a preexisting history of depression, you’re more likely than most to suffer from depression while on the Pill, especially in the days before your period.

This might help: Ask your doctor for the less bleak-inducing pill. That's our phrase, but Dr. Inger Sundström Poromaa, a professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Uppsala University in Sweden, found that women report less moodiness when their prescription contains anti-androgenic progestins (drospirenone and desogestrel) and lower doses of ethinyl estradiol (estrogen).
mood gremlins
The Stoop That Conquers Gremlin
Depression is a slump—literally and figuratively. Slouched over our desks, or walking slowly, looking down, we reinforce bad, low-energy moods. Recently, Erik Peper, PhD, a professor at San Francisco State University, asked volunteers to try walking down a hallway in two different ways: once with a slumped bearing, and again with a peppy skip. The more depressed a person was feeling before the experiment, the more the slouchy stride drained her and made her feel worse. Bad posture, according to Peper, may only strengthen a vicious cycle of sadness and depression. It’s another artifact of the brain-body link: we act how we feel... and we feel how we act. This might help: Make the feedback loop work in your favor. While Peper found that energetic skipping raises energy levels, you can go even one step further by adopting the “power posture”. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, a researcher at Harvard Business School, found that spreading your legs and raising your arms above your head for two minutes—like an Olympic gold medalist receiving the world’s ovation—increases testosterone and decreases the stress hormone cortisol. This technique not only makes you look happier and more confident. You feel it.
mood gremlins
The Last Straw Gremlin
Imagine that you’re on a low-carb, low-fat diet. All that’s on offer at your office’s “working lunch” are cheese sandwiches, so you resist. Then your computer breaks. The clueless cad in tech support makes you want to scream, but you resist that, too, as well as the consolation chocolate offered by your assistant. At this point something else bad happens. Except you’ve pushed down temptation too many times—and now you’re tapped out. You blast the cell phone billing agent who you know (even if you can't stop yourself) doesn't get paid nearly enough to deal with your bitter, screechy self.

What just happened? Willpower depletion, says psychologist Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., whose experiments at Florida State University involve making people resist eating fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in lieu of radishes, and then asking them to solve puzzles. People who had used up their willpower resisting the treats had less stamina for their next task and made poorer decisions. Baumeister says that when this happens, it's harder to hold your the tongue. You become your sourest, snippiest self.

This might help: Our willpower is restored when we do things that make us happy. Humor helps. Baumeister and his colleagues found that when volunteers laughed along with a comedy show, their willpower rebounded (Yes, science is telling you to watch more 30 Rock.) One strategy is to try to schedule tasks that require willpower at a time when you’re feeling strongest, well-rested and well-nourished. “Eat something healthy,” says Baumeister, “and allow enough time for the food to get into your system: 15-30 minutes.”
mood gremlins
The Online Rabbit Hole Gremlin
Eighty-one minutes—that’s how much time the average woman spends every day on Facebook, finds one study at University of Gothenburg in Sweden. And the more time people spend on the social networking site, the more likely they are to be unhappy and discontent with their own lives. Correlation is not causation; it may be that we take refuge in Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Path and so on, when we’re unhappy. Or, as we've all been told, the problem may be that we become discontent with our own lives after comparing ourselves to our “friends” who only eat the fanciest food, jet-set with flair, soar in their careers, and give birth to Gerber babies.

This might help: We know...we can cut back with apps like Facebook Nanny, which limits the time we spend on social networking sites. But for those of us without even that much self-control, terrific news! Jeffrey Hancock and Mary Gonzalez, who have studied Facebook’s effect on mental health, found one way to avoid the "my poor, pale, little life" syndrome: Post your own flattering photos, joyful events, and witty repartees. Posting positive information sets in motion a virtuous loop: by focusing on the best parts of our lives, we reinforce them. The person on your Wall is your best you—and it becomes you.
mood gremlins
The Everest on Your Desk Gremlin
On your desk: Painkillers, unpaid bills, and a brownish bamboo “luck” shoot. On the counter: overdue library books, tiny packets of ketchup, and gewgaws galore. On a very subconscious level, the stuff is blocking your light. Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, Ph.D., says, “In our minds, we view this clutter as unfinished business, a constant reminder that our work is not done, and in cases of chronic clutter, never done.” Suddenly, out of the depths, a bad mood surfaces—and not only for neatniks. Most people don't directly associate mess with stress,” says Bourg Carter.

This might help: "Designate spaces for frequently used items and supplies,” Bourg Carter says. But here’s the crucial part: “Make sure that these designated spaces are "closed" spaces, such as drawers and cabinets, if possible.” Of course, you can’t stash away all your to-dos the way you can trinkets—we all rely on visual reminders. But one goal might be to keep clean your flat working surfaces.

Next: Martha Beck's 10 questions to ask if you're over-stressed