Q: I’m not depressed but often ﬁnd myself in a bad mood. What’s going on?
The next time you ﬁnd yourself in a bad mood, try to pinpoint exactly what is bothering you and describe your feelings more precisely. Are you frustrated? Disheartened? Despondent? Exasperated? Instead of resigning yourself to a generalized negative mood for the next few hours, try to label your emotions.
People who are able to differentiate their negative emotions are better at regulating and managing them, according to science. Rather than being consumed by a general feeling of malaise, differentiators are more action oriented. Knowing what is wrong empowers them to seek a solution and tailor a response to the situation. For example, recognizing that you felt flustered after a disagreement with a colleague might prompt you to speak to the manager or go for a walk outside. Feeling “bad” doesn’t provide you with the same kind of useful information. It just hovers over you like a cloud. And because it is so vague, it can easily spill into other aspects of your life and be the reason you snap at your partner later that day.
People who struggle with emotion differentiation are more likely to feel overwhelmed and helpless. They may also be more vulnerable to unhealthy or unfocused responses like binge drinking or physical aggression. Distressing feelings are more likely to dominate their attention and dictate how they behave.
The good news is that emotional differentiation is a skill that can be learned and deployed on a daily basis. By expanding your emotional vocabulary, you are giving yourself the tools to label and understand an array of nuanced emotional states. Not only will your bad moods be less bad, you will be better equipped to handle negativity when it arises.
Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positivepercription.com.
This story originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Marie Claire.