Editor’s Note: Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and is the author of The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques. An expert on the treatment of anxiety and depression, she also has extensive training and expertise in the neurobiology of psychological disorders. She is co-founder of the Reflex Delay Syndrome (RDS) Research and Training Institutes, founded to promote research and treatment for this disorder affecting academic, social and emotional functioning in children. She earned her M.A. specializing in psychodrama and play therapy with children. She was trained in addictions counseling and has years of experience in that field, working with the U.S. Army in Germany and Lutheran Social Services in Illinois before beginning a private psychotherapy practice.
Since obtaining her doctorate from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology, she has specialized in treating clients with trauma and anxiety disorders. As a consultant, she is a sought-after speaker for continuing education seminars, consistently getting the highest ratings from participants for her dynamic style and high quality content.
I will admit it. I am a crabby traveler. And I am writing this as I sit for an indefinite delay on my departure to my next location.
I believe my travel irritability is understandable. Planes are more likely to be late than on-time. Flights are ever more crowded and there are fewer non-stop options. Don’t get me started on the TSA procedures! I just do not like that lack of control coupled with the unpredictability of air travel.
I am not proud of being crabby on the road, and worse, I have discovered that being in a bad mood does not help me. Actually it causes me more stress than if I were cheerful in the same situation. Others are not pleased about it: Not one single person has ever been nicer to me because I was grouchy. And acting on the outside the way I feel on the inside, makes me feel even worse because I don’t like myself that way and situations are not improved. Talk about lose-lose!
I have only one reasonable option: If I am feeling bad, I have to act as if I am in a good mood. I have discovered that if I can just contain my perfectly well-deserved, reasonable, crummy mood, I am better off. Why? Neuroscience can explain. There are two important brain-based principles at work when you act pleasant even though you do not feel it. One is interactive and one is intra-active.
Our brains are set up to respond to others with complementary, contingent and congruent faces, which means our facial expressions return to others the face they give us or a face that is in response to their face.
• If I smile, you will smile back.
• If I frown you will not offer a pleasant facial expression in return.
• If I am crying with sadness you might not feel sad, but might (congruently) look sad and comfort me.
• If I look scared you might (contingently) look calm and help to soothe me.
The impact of neural networking contributes to the other brain-based principle. Memory is efficiently stored for easy retrieval by emotion. Whatever my emotion, my memory scans for other times I have had a similar feeling and finds the situations that triggered it. In other words, if I get annoyed at the current trip, I am more annoyed remembering every other time security procedures, crowded or late flights or lousy service on a plane interfered with my plans. This principle makes it necessary to deliberately haul my memory out of the negative emotion network if I don’t want to dwell there.
In these principles lie the hope to change a bad mood into a better mood, and here is the hope for depression. Depression irritability functions exactly as my travel crabbiness does. When you are depressed, you probably show your bad mood to others who are more likely to leave you alone than try to cheer you up. And, thanks to efficient neural networking that has wired together your similar rotten moments, depression gets worse as one bad mood brings back other bad moods.
There is a brain-based benefit to acting as if you are feeling okay. For example, just this week, I qualified for “re-screening” when something in my briefcase needed a closer look. I asked the TSA agent how I could pack differently to prevent the screening on my next trip and he joked, “Well, if you did it right then you would miss out on waiting around here, and you would not hear all of our friendly conversation and jokes.” I replied with a smile and a laugh and perfect honesty, “Sure, but it is hard for me to generate friendly conversation with steam coming out of my ears.” He laughed very hard at that. He thought I was kidding!
But that little exchange lightened my mood. I smiled and laughed and I did not take myself so seriously. I was pleased with myself for the restraint to make a joke instead of showing irritability. So, I stayed out of the neural network and boosted my self-esteem a tiny notch. Plus, I switched into a neural network of times I have felt pleased with myself. Both the TSA agent and I were better off because I contained my inner irritability and smiled.
You can help your brain to exit networks of unpleasant memory by deliberately switching up what you say and think when you are feeling irritable. Plan to look and speak kindly or pleasantly, even if you cannot muster a happy mood. Smile at others. Thich Nhat Hanh in his precious book The Miracle of Mindfulness, talks about the benefits to you of cultivating a half smile: your inner self feels more pleasant as a result of the smile, and others respond more pleasantly to you when you have a pleasant expression on your face.
Despite your depression, it is not fake or phony to smile and be pleasant to others when you feel crummy inside. It is kind and wise. Kindness is an admirable value and you will feel better about yourself for rising above a bad mood. And you will immediately change your brain to a better place, which is very wise. That is a win-win.
This article first appeared in Psychology Today who owns all copyrights to this piece.