“I’m sorry, can we back up just a moment?” Alyssa asked. “Are you telling me that my moods have cycles? That I can predict when I will feel this way? How is that possible when it seems like I always feel this way?”

Alyssa’s question is a good one.

For those of us living with a trauma-induced mental illness, we may be going through a one-time episode of anxiety or depression. However, for those of us living with a chronic illness, or a trauma-triggered mental illness, mood changes will continue to happen. As we attain respite, the periods between our mood changes will likely get longer.

Relapses happen, though, and the better informed we are about identifying them the better we are able to prepare and manage them.

When we think about changing our minds and how we think, we often think of the perfectionism or fears we live with, and focus on how to get rid of them. We don’t often focus on the person we wish to become, other than in general terms: “I want to be kinder; I want to be nicer; I don’t want to get angry as much.” We live with “shoulds” not desires: “I should really be more giving;” “I shouldn’t judge her;” “I really ought to eat better.”

The Difference Between a Mood, Emotion, and a Feeling

Let’s start by understanding the difference between an emotion, a feeling, and a mood. (For a more in-depth look at these definitions,  I love this article by Six Seconds.) The primary factors are time and causes.

For example, I can bring on a hypomanic mood by stopping my medication, or one may come on as a result of hormonal changes. My hypomanic stages – by definition – last at least four days, but typically stick around for a couple of weeks.

Another mood change is caused by winter: Those who live with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) find their depressions are triggered by weather changes and it may be several months before the depressions lift. For others, it may be our overall diet or consistency in exercise or other biological changes.

Mood changes are typically caused by broader environmental issues and last for an extended period of time – from a few hours to a few days.

Moods are different from emotions and feelings; whereas an emotion or feeling may briefly change our emotional outlook, they are much briefer and tend to sit “on top” of the mood. A moment of joy during a depression looks different than a moment of joy when we are in remission.

Emotions and feelings, in contrast, are more fleeting experiences. We may have many during the day: a flash of happy, a flash of disappointment, an experience of contentment. Emotions are in reaction to a very specific trigger (discussed in more depth here), such as a joke or an upsetting image on the news.

It is important to remember that moods are primarily biological cycles. Our bodies shift and change based on a variety of factors, including weather and physiological responses like a shift in hormone levels.

With some influences, it can be a little bit easier to draw a direct line to a change in mood. Other times, it can be more challenging. The reality is, though, that when we start to pay attention to our moods, it is possible to identify shifts and clues.

Identifying a Mood Change

What’s Your Current Mood?

Identifying the clues of a mood change is really about awareness.

Let’s start with identifying the current mood. Are we anxious? Are we depressed? Are we living in a mood of contentment or peace? Hypomanic? What’s your current mood?

Now, how long have you felt this way? Last weekend, I was in a mood of excitement. Now, I’m in a peaceful mood. I’ve been in this peaceful mood for a few hours now.

What are the markers of the mood? When I’m in a peaceful mood, I notice changes in my body: dropped shoulder, relaxed face. My thoughts are gentle. My breathing is slow and steady, and I’m breathing more into my diaphragm.

When I was in my excited mood, my thoughts were faster and I laughed a lot. My breathing was a little faster and I had trouble sitting still. (This differs from a hypomanic mood; I had no urges to spend money and I was not out looking for a new project or bombarded by a lot of new ideas. I was also not irritable.)

Now that I have these details identified, I can start to walk my way back a bit to before the mood started.

What Signals a Mood Change?

What were the first signals of my mood change? Today, it started with a sense of gentle anticipation, knowing that I would get to live out part of my morning routine without interruption. The closer I got to that moment, the higher the anticipation got and the calmer I felt. It accelerated after I dropped my daughter off at the school bus.

Next, my breathing shifted and my actions became more deliberate: carefully setting down a napkin just so and then placing my cup on it – right in the middle. I didn’t feel jittery or full of excess energy; my knee stopped bouncing.

From there, my thoughts started to change. They slowed down and became more focused. My mood had fully shifted to peaceful.

Have any other environmental changes happened? Have I been eating better than usual or exercising? What’s the weather like? And ladies: where are we in our monthly cycles? What about medications? Have we been taking them consistently, as prescribed, or been a bit spotty, as sometimes happens?

What about the weather? Last weekend was bright, sunny, and warm. Today, it’s overcast and it rained last night. Rain makes me feel cozy and dream of hot tea by an open fire. It lends itself to a mood of contentment. Later today, it should be sunny again and I expect my mood will shift by then, as well.

During this morning’s transitional period, I had several emotions. I got frustrated when the bus didn’t arrive at the time I expected. I was happy when my daughter gave me a kiss goodbye. I was excited as I pulled up to my local Starbucks. Each of these emotions was brief; none of them changed my mood.

Last weekend, when I was excited, I had many emotions triggered. Happy when I received a longed-for present. Disappointment when I learned someone couldn’t make it to a birthday party. Frustration when I got stuck in traffic.

The “happy” I felt last weekend was higher than the happy I felt this morning when I got my kiss. The frustration I felt in traffic had a stronger edge to it than the frustration I had when the bus arrived later than expected. These emotions were shorter and reflected differently due to my underlying mood.

So the answer is: Yes, Alyssa. We can predict when our moods will change when we start to pay attention and identify the signals. Even when we are in a prolonged mood period – like a depression – briefer moods can (and typically do) appear in them. Perhaps it was a visit with a friend that “lifted our mood.” It may have only been for a few hours, but we did experience a mood change.

The more we learn about our moods and how to identify them, the better we can influence them. We may find that our choice of music shifts our mood – negatively or positively – or that we need to make plans to see friends on overcast days and get some hugs to stave off a mood change. If we know what brings on a positive mood change, we can start to incorporate some of those factors in our lifestyle as well. Awareness is the key, and success is possible.


Additional sources used in this article:



What mood are you experiencing right now? What are some signs that you’ve had a mood change?

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