If you’ve been dealing with moodiness and anxiety, you’re not alone. The American Psychiatric Association (2020) has found that two out of three Americans are anxious about their health, their finances, and keeping themselves and their families safe—and this increased anxiety began even before the Covid pandemic.
In her engaging and informative new memoir, The Book of Moods (2020), New York writer Lauren Martin tells of her personal journey from debilitating moodiness and anxiety to greater peace of mind.
Realizing the toll her moods were taking on her life, Martin began recognizing the triggers that sent her spiraling into anxiety and self-doubt. At first she tried avoiding them these triggers—cutting down on social media and talks with her mother. She changed jobs and got a new haircut, but new triggers appeared and the moods were still there. Triggers, she realized, are part of life. And while we cannot always control the events around us, as psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl found, we can choose how we respond to them (Frankl ,1959).
To change her own responses, Martin began paying greater attention to her moods and studying Buddhism, mindfulness, psychology, and neuroscience. Her quest revealed four important lessons.
1. The Power of Being Present. Anxiety, she realized, takes us out of the present moment. When we’re hijacked by anxiety, she says, “We’re not really living. We’re surviving. We’re holding on, waiting for the anxiety to pass, losing out on minutes, hours, and days of our lives” (Martin, 2020, p. 11).
So Martin began applying the practice of mindfulness meditation to her life. She started noticing when her mind wandered off from the present moment into regrets about the past and worries about the future. In a process she called “whack a mole,” she watched her mind lead her into dark nooks and crannies, then began focusing back on the present moment to pull herself out.
2. Reframing—Moving From Threat to Challenge. When we’re confronted with uncertainty and problems, we often fall into worry, trying to control the threat with ongoing analysis and planning. Psychologists call this process “rumination,” which can drag us into negative, depressive spirals (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, & Kabat-Zinn, 2007). An alternative to such worry is mindfulness, bringing our minds back to the present moment, which can support our physical as well as our emotional health.
Lauren Martin read a study about stress and telomeres, the caps at the end of our chromosomes that determine our cells’ ability to renew themselves. She learned that frequent worry can damage our telomeres, weakening our immune system and causing premature aging (Epel, Blackburn, et al, 2004). She found that that the women in the study stayed healthier when they perceived their stressful situation as a challenge rather than a threat. Martin realized what a difference attitude makes, that “by viewing stress as a challenge, rather than a threat, you can maintain your telomeres and live a longer, healthier life” (Martin, 2020, p. 33).
3. Recognizing What Drains and What Replenishes Us. Becoming more mindful of her own needs, Lauren Martin began to recognize what drains her energy. She’d been accepting invitations to “to bridal showers and dinners and after-work drinks. . . . [and] brunches with people I didn’t like” because she felt bad saying no (Martin, 2020, p. 86). Tuning in to her feelings, she realized how exhausted and drained she’d become from saying yes all the time. She began to practice the power of saying no at the end of a long week when she needed time to herself on Saturday. She also learned to replenish herself, realizing how we often forget “to stop and treat ourselves in small, caring ways.” She recognized that “We’re so used to the state of stress and depletion that we’re actually uncomfortable out of it.” Now she takes time for small moments of pleasure, which, she says, are “not selfish” but “restorative.” She enjoys her favorite perfume, a piece of chocolate, a new book, the pleasure of cooking and lighting a candle in the evenings (Martin, p.93).
4. Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion. Like many women, Lauren Martin had felt insecure about her appearance, dwelling on what she thought were her flaws. But then she visited her grandmother, who introduced her to friends as my “beautiful granddaughter,” and she began learning greater self-acceptance.
She learned from Buddhism that excessive dwelling on ourselves causes suffering. By being overly attached to “what we look like, what we have, or what we don’t have, we stifle and block ourselves. We create this tension, this awkward self-awareness, and are unable to move and function with ease. We become obsessed with our outer selves and lose our authentic selves” (Martin, p. 58).
She started relating to herself as a friend. Turning away from self-analyzing, self-doubt, and negative self-talk, she began practicing what psychologist Kristin Neff (2004) calls self-compassion. She found gentle reminders all around her. When asked to perform a challenging posture in her yoga class, she heard her teacher say, “Hold the pain. Find your sweet spot.” (Martin, 2020, p.130). Then she took the lesson with her, realizing that “outside of yoga, sweet spots are those moments when you want to judge yourself.” One moment like this came up during a conference call with a client when her boss was listening in. In the past, she’d been anxious and judgmental, obsessing about her performance. But now, recognizing her sweet spot, she turned to the present moment and “decided to be myself—to accept whatever came naturally to me.” The call went well and her boss texted her, “great job!”(Martin, 2020, p. 131).
In The Book of Moods, that feels like a conversation with a close friend, Lauren Martin shares these four strategies and others that have helped her transform her anxieties into strengths, bringing her greater self-acceptance and peace of mind.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.