September 1, 2000
 Breaking the Grip
Of Mood Swings

 Taking Major Steps
In the Face of
Mixed Emotions
    
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This article is adapted from Blaine's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions.
     

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Henri Nouwen was only six when he became convicted of his life's calling. He knew he should become a priest.

His life was a history of astounding and diverse accomplishments. After ordination in 1957 he taught psychology and theology for many years in demanding academic settings, including Notre Dame and Yale. Later he became a parish priest serving a congregation solely of mentally handicapped people. He successfully related Christ both to those who demand the most exacting intellectual argument and to those who are unable to relate to intellectual argument at all but can only respond to the gospel emotionally. He also authored books that are among our most loved Christian classics.

Just several years before he died at 65 in 1996, Nouwen claimed he had never suffered an identity crisis or vacillated in his conviction that he should be a priest responding to challenging ministry. He was always assured of his calling and comfortable with his role.

I wish I could have this degree of confidence about my plans for this Friday night! I've already changed my mind several times about what I should do.

Gifted souls like Nouwen do exist, who are able to resolve even the most far-reaching decisions with astonishing assurance and never doubt their own judgment. They seem to have a surrealistic capacity to put their hand to the plow and not look back.

Most of us cannot identify. We doubt our judgment on major and minor decisions alike. We know the pain of mood swings--of accepting a job with confidence, then several weeks later wondering if we've missed God's will.

I've only known a handful of people personally who have been able to march through life with the level of assurance Nouwen has enjoyed. That capacity for certainty is so unusual that I'm certain it's a divine endowment. Mood swings are the lot for most of us. We can take heart in knowing the experience is normal. It's not unusual to change our mind on matters ranging in significance from what toothpaste to buy to whom we should marry, nor to have second thoughts once these decisions are resolved. Most of us experience at least some shift of opinion and feelings on the decisions we make.

Fortunately, most of us are able to come to terms with the fact of mood swings. While we might wish our feelings were more consistent, we usually find it possible to move beyond our fluctuating judgment, make a decision and stick to it. For some, though, the problem is more serious. To say they are tortured by mood swings is not to state it too strongly.

I've counseled with some who have rethought a decision to marry so often that I've lost track of how many times they've changed their mind. One woman described the process to me simply as "hell." During a five-year relationship she often has felt mountaintop certainty about marrying her boyfriend, then despaired of her choice within a short period. Others I've known have vacillated similarly over decisions about career, church involvement or personal ministry. And buyer's remorse is not just an occasional moment of regret but a chronic tendency for some.

When mood swings reach this level, they contribute significantly to commitment fear and may even be its primarily source. They greatly hinder our ability to make sound decisions, keep commitments and realize our potential for Christ. At this point simply tipping our hat to the problem will not help. A serious effort is needed to break the cycle.

What Triggers Mood Swings?

Let's look at why mood swings can occur even when decisions have been carefully made. Five major factors influence them. Any or all of these may affect the mood changes we personally experience.

1. Family background. The influence of our family background upon our emotional tendencies and patterns of judgment is considerable. For one thing, we instinctively emulate the attitudes and behavior we observe in our parents--a process psychologists term "identification." Even if we recognize these patterns as self-defeating, we may absorb them anyway. Isaac followed his father's practice of lying about his relationship to his wife in order to protect himself, for instance, even though the tactic had proven unnecessary and humiliating for his father Abraham (Gen 12:11-20; 20:1-18; 26:7-11).

Parents who themselves are prone to chronic mood swings often pass the tendency on to their children. If either or both of our parents frequently wavered in their feelings about their spouse, their calling in life or other important matters, we may be inclined to respond similarly.

Just as significant is how we ourselves were treated. If my parents were highly critical of me, often belittling my opinions and decisions, I may find it difficult to trust my judgment as an adult. While it may seem convincing enough that I should take a certain step, the voice of my parents rings in my mind telling me I don't have the ability to decide wisely. Two strong influences are swaying my thinking--my logical conclusion about what to do and my instinctive belief that my judgment is always mistaken. The result of this tug of war is that I vacillate constantly between conviction and doubt.

An abusive or unsupportive family background may make me prone to mood swings in a different way. If I didn't receive the love I needed as I child, I may be uncomfortable being loved and affirmed as an adult. I may earnestly desire a romantic relationship. Yet when the opportunity comes along, I feel strangely ill at ease with the experience of being loved and accepted unconditionally. Such exuberant affection is unfamiliar, foreign to my comfort zone. Again the tug of war sets in: I long for the relationship at one time, feel smothered by it at another.

An unsupportive upbringing can have a similar effect on my attitude toward career and other major endeavors. If I was never affirmed for excelling in activities I enjoyed as a child, I may feel guilty pursuing work or options I'm motivated for as an adult. Again my feelings will likely fluctuate. One day I'm attracted to the idea of starting my own business, the next I'm unsettled by it.

We who experience chronic mood swings may be reverberating more than we realize to the impact of a difficult upbringing. While we can do much to change the patterns that have resulted, understanding their source is a vital first step toward healing.

2. Biological factors. In addition to our upbringing, a variety of other factors influence mood swings and may affect us even if our family background was healthy and supportive. Biological influences are especially potent.

It's shortly before midnight, and I feel as if I've discovered hidden treasure. I've finally resolved a difficult turn of thought in a chapter I'm writing and have the perfect solution. I'm thoroughly pleased with my idea, certain it will edify my readers and bless the ages to come.

Now it's 7:00 the next morning. I wake with a start, sit up in bed and shake my head in disbelief. "What a stupid idea," I muse. "How could I possibly have thought it would work? It will certainly confuse readers and take the book in the wrong direction."

I've been through this pattern so many times that it no longer surprises me, though it always frustrates me when it occurs. I'm a night person, not a morning person. My outlook is affected by a daily biological cycle that never fails. The result is that I wax optimistic in late evening, skeptical in early morning. The effect is strong enough that my opinion may change significantly during this brief period: an idea which seems brilliant at midnight seems misplaced when I wake up just seven hours later.

We each experience a daily flow of energy and fatigue which even on our best days is largely consistent. The pattern varies from person to person. My wife's cycle is the opposite of mine: Evie is ready to hibernate at bedtime and a head of steam when she wakes up. All of us have daily periods when our energy predictably peaks and times when it just as reliably sags. The impact on our moods and perceptions can be substantial.

Fatigue always has a dampening effect upon our outlook, by robbing us of the energy needed to support optimistic thinking. Anything which contributes to fatigue--sleep loss, illness, stress, overwork, delaying meals or skipping them--can induce a mood swing.

Although the emotional impact varies among women, some are strongly affected by the hormonal changes associated with the menstrual cycle. While men do not have a corresponding physical process which produces an emotional cycle, they typically experience a greater emotional letdown following sexual relations than women do.

Biological factors affect everyone's emotional state. Interestingly, many who suffer chronic mood swings are not subject to stronger biological influences than others but simply react to them more adversely. Some are not sufficiently aware of how their physical cycle affects their emotions and thus take their mood swings too seriously. Others do not believe it is appropriate to discount a change in judgment merely because a physical influence induced a mood swing. They assume that a conviction about what to do--especially one that's in God's will--must be consistent and not swayed by any human factors. They feel obligated to wait for perfect certainty before taking any major step.

We don't have to look beyond Scripture, however, to find many instances where a person's physical condition affected emotions and judgment. Examples include the most mature and spiritually enlightened people in the Bible.

Jesus himself became irritated when he encountered a fig tree with no fruit (Mk 11:12-14). His aggravation arose even though the tree was barren for a perfectly good reason: "it was not the season for figs." Mark notes a physical factor that influenced Jesus' emotions: "he was hungry."

Following the elation of his incomparable victory over 400 prophets of Baal and the restoration of rain to Israel, Elijah became suicidal upon receiving a veiled threat on his life from Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-8). Elijah had been stressed beyond all reasonable limits that day, through an extreme confrontation with the Baal prophets and a twenty-mile jog from Mt. Carmel to Jezreel.

Peter's repeated denial of Jesus to bystanders in the courtyard of the high priest's residence seems incomprehensible at first (Mt 22:69-75, Mk 14:66-72, Lk 22:55-62). He had passionately insisted, a short time earlier, that he would die with Jesus. He had zealously intervened with a sword when the soldiers came for Jesus. Yet Peter was undoubtedly depleted from the events of that day--observing Jesus' agony in Gethsemane, confronting the soldiers and adjusting to the reality that Jesus had been captured.

Such examples remind us that no one is above being influenced by the physical. We cannot expect to gain a superhuman resistance to biological influences on our outlook. We must take them into account in weighing the significance of mood swings in our important decisions.

3. Temperament. Personality classifications abound, and it's beyond our scope to look at any of them in detail. Several points about temperament are indisputable, though. We are each gifted with a distinctive personality from God which is with us for life--the effect of nature and not nurture within us. Each personality has its strong points as well as its vulnerable ones. It's clear, too, that certain personality types are more susceptible to mood swings than others.

One of these is the analytical temperament. We who are analytical by nature tend to scrutinize all sides of an issue. We rehash our assessments over and over. Our conclusions may fluctuate, depending upon which aspect of a matter we're focusing on. When our analytical tendency combines with other factors, such as our physical cycle, we may be subject to strong mood swings and shifts of judgment.

The sanguine temperament is also susceptible to mood swings, but for a different reason. Sanguine personalities are feeling-oriented. They are strongly affected by the outlooks of those around them and the influence of their surroundings. The effect can be continual vacillation in a decision. Martha is often confident about her intention to marry Andrew in the evening. She lives with her parents, who are both highly supportive of the relationship and eager for her to marry. During the day her conviction often crumbles. Her closest coworker disapproves of the relationship and is convinced Martha would be happier staying single.

Understanding your personality and its effect on your thinking can help you learn to respond to mood swings more appropriately. This is especially true when your personality by its nature makes you susceptible to them.

4. External influences. While sanguine individuals are more affected by these factors than most, we each are influenced by the people and circumstances in our life more than we usually realize. Our mood can be swayed by the weather, the attitude of the person we're talking with, the architecture of the building we're standing in or the associations we make with our surroundings.

Scripture abounds with examples of those whose mood and outlook were affected by their setting.

Saul, king of Israel, could become inordinately depressed by the burdens of his office, yet often was incited to faith and optimism by the influence of music (1 Sam 16:23).

David could be inspired to great reverence by the influence of godly people such as Nathan, but he was thrown into a moral tailspin when he caught sight of Bathsheba bathing from his vantage point on the palace roof (2 Sam 7, 11:2-4).

Peter broke sharply with his bias toward Gentiles following his rooftop vision and missionary experiences, yet was drawn back into the same prejudice through the influence of less enlightened Christians (Acts 10; Gal 2:11-13).

External influences often affect our own feelings and perceptions. Respecting them and making allowance for them is vital in breaking the unhealthy grip of mood swings.

5. God's peace is perfect--but the feeling isn't. A popular spiritual misconception also contributes to mood swings and makes it especially difficult for some Christians to put them in right perspective. It's the belief that if God is leading you to do something, you'll experience perfect peace. This is usually thought to mean that no fears or doubts will intrude. If you have any misgivings about taking a step, God is warning you not to go ahead. This assumption leaves many Christians stuck in the inertia of mood swings, unable to reach a conviction consistent enough to move forward.

While Scripture teaches that Christ gives peace to those who follow him, it never guarantees that we will feel peaceful before we take a step forward. God doesn't overrule our psychology. The peace he gives, rather, enables us to transcend our fears--to move ahead in spite of many hesitations. We may, in short, feel a mixture of peace and uncertainty at the same time, especially in the early stages of a major change. Many of us, too, are so constituted psychologically that we simply cannot feel peaceful in advance of a major step but only afterwards. Taking the step is vital to experiencing Christ's peace and opening ourselves to the full blessings of God.

Simply recognizing that perfect peace is not required to resolve an important decision can help enormously to break the spell of mood swings. This insight can make possible a greater experience of faith as well, for faith in the biblical understanding is the courage to move forward in spite of less than perfect certainty.

Changing the Pattern

Beyond revising the way we think about Christ's peace, a variety of other steps can help reduce the intensity and influence of mood swings. They include these:

1. Gain a good self-understanding. Take a careful look at your life, and identify the factors which most obviously prompt your mood swings. Make a special effort to understand your personality. Take a standard personality test, or seek counsel from someone qualified to help you identify your personality features. Pinpoint your physical cycles also. Are there predictable times when your energy surges or lags? Do your moods typically change at these times? Your convictions about decisions?

Give close consideration to your family background. Did your parents' example or behavior in some way render you susceptible to mood swings?

Determine, too, what external factors most strongly influence your outlook. Are you affected by weather changes? Others' attitudes? Features in your surroundings?

A good understanding of why we experience mood swings helps us in two important ways. This insight alone is therapeutic, for our confusion over why mood swings occur is part of what makes the experience so disconcerting. In addition, this understanding enables us to better control our mood swings and reactions to them. We are able to identify which influences we can change and which we have to simply accept. We are also able to weigh the significance of mood swings more clearly in working through decisions and are less likely to be thrown off guard by them.

2. Accept your personality and physical makeup. An unfortunate result of chronic mood swings is that the experience can demoralize us. We imagine something is terribly wrong with us: we're psychologically unstable or even mentally ill. We despise our personality and the factors which make us prone to emotional shifts. This self-disdain robs us of the motivation needed to change, for we imagine we're cursed with a condition we can do nothing to improve.

In reality, our personality and energy cycle have been given us by Christ for extraordinarily good purposes. They are exactly the features we need to carry out his best intentions for us. This doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to recognize the vulnerable side of our makeup and do what we can do counteract it. Stewardship requires that we manage our life as wisely as possible for Christ. Yet stewardship begins with accepting--even cherishing--our personality and energy pattern as God's gift.

Appreciating them as God's gift strengthens our faith in Christ, sometimes radically, for our confidence that he can be trusted with the details of our life is boosted. This leads to greater trust that he will enable us to confront the problem of mood swings successfully. We are more inclined to do what we can personally to reduce their impact--and to take steps of faith in spite of them.

3. Manage those influences you can control. We cannot change our personality and shouldn't want to. We will not be able to alter certain features of our biological cycle either. We can always do much, though, to reduce our inclination to mood swings.

If watching "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" causes me to despise the home and neighborhood I usually love, I should stop viewing that particular program. If dour weather dampens my spirits, improving my environment indoors may help. A man told me recently that he had broken a spell of depression simply by increasing the light in his home. (Recent studies of the effect of light on SAD--Seasonal Affective Disorder--corroborate his solution.). If certain people have a knack for belittling my judgment or deflating my optimism, I should look honestly at whether it is possible to avoid them altogether or at least to reduce my contact with them.

The influences we expose ourselves to can enhance good judgment or discourage it. This is the lesson of Psalm 73. The psalmist grew bitter observing certain successful but unscrupulous men who seemed to have an easy ride in life. He became despondent and "was a brute beast before" God (v. 22). His jealousy subsided when he entered the reverent atmosphere of the sanctuary and took time to think things through from God's perspective. He was able to appreciate the plight of the people he envied and to see his own position in life more optimistically. The psalm is a good reminder, too, of the benefit worship and positive church experiences can have in helping us maintain a faith-centered outlook.

Any steps we take to reduce fatigue also have a stabilizing effect on our emotions. Basic improvements, like getting enough sleep, eating properly, exercising and keeping stress within reasonable limits can make a considerable difference.

4. Look at your pattern of feelings over time. We who are subject to mood swings face our greatest challenge when it comes to resolving important decisions. It's here that we also have to take our most courageous steps. Our inclination to mood swings can derail our most cherished goals and cause us to pass over golden opportunities. The point comes for each of us--even in decisions as monumental as marriage and long-range career plans--where we need to move forward even though some wavering of conviction remains. Our best understanding of God's will at these times comes from considering our pattern of feelings over time.

Fred has been dating Gloria for over three years and has often felt confident they should marry. Yet each time he has reached this conviction, doubts have set in within days and a period of ambivalence has followed. Fred has been through this cycle over twenty times.

When Fred looks honestly at the factors influencing his thinking, he finds that he has usually become confident about marrying Gloria on weekends or holidays. These are times when he is well rested, away from the pressures of work and most able to think clearly about his future. Doubts have arisen when he is back at work and drawn into difficult assignments. Attractive women flirt with Fred on the job also, leaving him wondering if he's really ready to give up an active dating life for marriage.

Fred's conviction about marrying Gloria has come during times when he was most capable of good judgment. If he waits for perfect consistency of feelings, he'll not likely marry Gloria (or anyone for that matter). He would be wisest to follow his recurring conviction and decide to go ahead with marriage. Stability of emotions will more likely follow the step of marriage than precede it in this case.

We will each need to take a similar step of courage at major decision points if we're ever to break the bind of mood swings and realize our potential for Christ. Such a step is justified when, like Fred, our conviction about what to do has resurfaced frequently and has usually come during our periods of best judgment.

5. Pray earnestly for God's help. We who regard mood swings as a serious problem should be just as serious about praying for God's help. Christ expects us to bring our most daunting challenges before him frequently in earnest prayer. The fact that God is willing to respond positively to such prayer is one of the most blatant and persistent themes of Scripture. In the case of mood swings he helps us by strengthening our resolve, giving us success in our efforts to deal with them, bringing gifted people into our life to encourage and support us, and providing numerous serendipities as well.

Even Jesus needed to pray fervently for God's strength as he faced his ambivalence about going to the cross. We should make it a practice during our daily devotions to pray for God's help in responding to mood swings. We should ask both for greater consistency in our convictions and for grace to make wise decisions in spite of mood swings. And we should always ask for the courage needed to move beyond our confusion and take steps of faith. Following Jesus' example, we will also do well to occasionally set aside an extended time for praying for God's help. We should not regard such attention to prayer as merely catharsis but as one of the most critical steps we can take toward healing.

6. Don't be afraid to seek professional help. In confronting any personal struggle, the question always comes back to, "Do I need professional help?" If my inclination to mood swings is rooted in a difficult family background, it may be triggered by repressed anger and deep feelings of inferiority. In this case the help of a qualified counselor will be invaluable and may be essential in coming to terms with my past and working through conflicts. If my mood swings stem from a physical cycle I merely need to better understand and manage, or if they are inherent to my personality or the result of outside influences I can better control, I may be able to handle the problem on my own.

When mood swings are chronic, though, there's often a variety of factors producing them. I may need the help of a counselor or qualified friend in determining the causes and my best route toward healing.

If we're not certain whether we need outside counsel, we should err on the side of seeking it, at least initially, to determine whether we need further help or can manage the problem without it. Simply taking the step to get help is therapeutic, for it boosts our confidence that we can resolve an important decision in spite of mood  swings.

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This article is adapted from chapter 7 of Blaine Smith's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

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Copyright 2000 M. Blaine Smith.

  
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