Did Descartes have it backwards? We often envision our brains as “computers” that tell our bodies what to do and we assume that our moods are determined by how our brains process what we experience. Happiness, then, should come from thinking happy thoughts. But research is showing that is not necessarily true. Instead, our bodies (and what we do with them) can profoundly influence our mood. For example, a brisk five-minute walk can do more to our improve moods than just thinking positive thoughts. Try it!
Moods (good, bad, and ugly) can be described as a combination of two states of arousal—energy and tension. Energetic arousal is the desire to move either physically or mentally. Tense arousal is our body’s warning system and is often felt as anxiety—either physical or mental. Fundamental questions related to moods are usually these:
- Do I feel energetic or tired?
- Do I feel calm or tense?
As energy rises, tension usually drops. As tension rises, energy often rises as well but only to a specific point. At a certain point, high tension causes energy to “free-fall.”
The best moods involve high energy and low tension (“calm energy”) where our mind is open, able to receive and process information, and concentrate well and our body has muscle energy to spare.
“Tense energy” is a combination of high energy and high tension. During this state our body is anxious, distracted, and we feel the need to get things done to a point of exhaustion.
Another state is called “calm tiredness” characterized by low energy and low tension and an overwhelming desire to sleep.
The worst state is “tense tiredness” where there is low energy and high tension. When we are in this state we usually feel like we don’t have enough energy to face what we need to do but the tension keeps our mind racing.
Our body may resort to many different paths to increase our energy level when it is sagging. For example, some people crave a candy bar or a strong cup of coffee. Others “shop till they drop.” But there are much healthier (and more productive) ways to increase our energy—and improve our mood too. Try these to reduce tension and increase your energy:
- Engage in moderate exercise (such as walking) or even strenuous exercise (which can reduce tension)
- Call a supportive, positive friend
- Try meditation or prayer
- Listen to music that appeals to you
- Get plenty of quality sleep
- Eat properly
- Watch a funny movie
- Practice a random act of kindness for a stranger
- Engage in a creative activity (such as dance or an artistic passion)
- Get a massage
- Spend time in nature
In addition, try keeping an “energy log” to see if there are daily patterns to your energy and tension levels. Everyone has different cycles and they can vary from time to time but getting a sense of your own rhythms may be useful in proactively addressing them. For example, once you understand your energy levels, you may not want to schedule stressful activities during low energy times.
Remember, if you listen to your body, it will tell you how to achieve a fairly constant level of calm energy and your moods will thank you!
Kiesling, S. (2013). How the body creates our moods. The Soul/Body Connection, 26-31.