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  • Writer's picturemeganwilliamsphd

Brain Hacks for Improving your Mood

Updated: Jan 16

If you’ve been having more trouble than usual lifting your spirits or reducing stress than usual, you’re not alone. Many of us are facing unusual challenges, like increased stress and decreased social interaction, during the pandemic that can worsen mental health symptoms. Luckily, we have some tips and tricks to help you shake some of the extra symptoms you might be experiencing! It’s important to remember that these tips are not an effective substitute for meeting with your regular mental health care provider, but rather provide some extra tools to help you feel a little more like yourself.

1. Tap into your Dive Response




Feeling overwhelmed? Try dipping your face into a bowl of cold water for 5-10 seconds. This will activate a “dive response”, which is the body’s physiological response to submersion in cold water and includes selectively shutting down parts of the body in order to conserve energy for survival. This trick will temporarily lower your heart rate, slow your breathing, and help you calm down.


Helpful Tip: If you don’t have a bowl of water, you can also try holding ice cubes to your forehead around your temples for 5-10 seconds for the same effect.



2. Practice Gratitude




The simple act of naming things that you’re grateful for has been linked to an array of positive outcomes, including better sleep, decreased symptoms of depression, and increased energy and concentration. This is in part due to the fact that practicing gratitude directly activates brain regions associated with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. So, the next time you’re feeling bogged down and blue, try naming off a few things that you’re grateful for—and try not to get too caught up in what you come up with. It’s not the thing you’re grateful for that matters, it’s the act of searching for something that you’re grateful for that boosts your mood.


Helpful Tip: Keeping a gratitude journal and writing down three things that you feel grateful for every day is a great way to kickstart intentional gratitude practice!


3. Spend Time in Nature



Feeling drained, bummed, or unfocused? Try stepping outside to get a few minutes of fresh air. The research on spending even a small amount of time outside shows benefits for our mood and cognitive function. In fact, researchers have found as little as five minutes outdoors in a natural setting can improve mood, increase motivation, and boost self-esteem. The benefits don’t stop there. Spending time outdoors also improves working memory and attention! Don’t have access to a safe space to relax outdoors? No problem! Research has shown that even looking at images of nature or listening to nature sounds can produce similar effects.


Helpful Tip: If you have a smart phone or access to a computer you can download an application called “insight timer” that can give you unlimited access to nature sounds. You can also try typing “nature images” into your google search bar if you have access to the internet.

4. Motivate yourself with Microtasks



Feeling unmotivated? Try making a good old-fashioned to-do list! When we set small goals and achieve them, our brain produces more of that neurotransmitter that makes us feel good (i.e., dopamine). Our brain then tries to get more dopamine by increasing our desire to do that same task again, thus motivating us to do the thing we need to do! Try breaking down your to-do list into smaller steps, or microtasks. For example, if you need to wash the dishes and that task feels too hard, try instead writing down “Wash two dishes” on your to-do list for that day.


Helpful Tip: Try writing the first item on your to-do list as “Make to-do list.” Now you’ve already accomplished your first goal and should get a small boost in dopamine that will help you feel motivated to keep accomplishing other tasks on your to-do list!

5. Smile More



I know, I know. This one sounds silly, but it’s actually backed by science! Most of us tend to smile more when we’re feeling good, but did you know that the physical act of smiling can actually make us feel good, even if the smile is fake? This phenomenon is called the facial feedback hypothesis. When we smile, we move muscles in our face that trigger the release of neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, that improve our mood and reduce stress.


Helpful Tip: Having trouble forcing a smile when you’re feeling down? Try holding a pencil between your teeth. Researchers found that the act of holding a pencil between your teeth in a horizontal position tricks your brain into thinking that you’re smiling and produces the same positive effects on mood!



Author: Dr. Megan Williams, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Megan Williams Psychology, LLC

IG: @meganwilliamspsychology



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