Thinking “Categories” When Thinking Mood-Boosting Activities

There are a lot of different things different people find useful for when they’re feeling down—here, for example, author and reporter Andrew Solomon talks about a woman found what made the biggest difference for her depression wasn’t medication, therapy, or ECT, but “making little things from yarn.”

It really can be helpful to look at what works for others. It gives you lots of ideas of things to try yourself.  I’ve noticed, though, that a lot of these ideas fall within certain categories—and once you know the categories, it actually becomes a lot easier to figure out what works for you. I wanted to share four of these categories along with some examples. Several of these ideas come from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) created by Marsha Linehan—so if they’re helpful, it might worth finding out more about DBT!

Regardless, I hope this concept of “categories” will help you get thinking about what’s helpful for you, get you trying new ideas, and most of all, assist you in building a toolkit LINK to be able to help yourself.

Category 1: Distractions

Distractions are a good way to give you some immediate relief from emotions you don’t want to feel. Personally, a lot of times, things like binging on Netflix or getting sucked into a game on my phone for hours doesn’t make me feel any better. I find the distractions that work are the ones that pretty much require my whole attention—as well as things that are positive and/or funny. Good distractions really can help you get beyond feeling crappy for a little bit. Here are some ideas:

  1. Read an engaging book

  2. Call a friend or family member

  3. Do an activity you enjoy (and maybe haven’t done for a while). For me, this might be baking a new recipe or going to a dance class.

  4. Listen to a playlist you love (and maybe sing along)

Category 2: Mindful Activities

A big benefit of mindfulness is that it helps train you for feeling better even when you’re not specifically meditating. For me, mindfulness is like working a muscle. When I meditate, I specifically practice letting the thoughts that come into my mind just continue to “float on by” without focusing on them. This makes it easier later to do the same thing with a distressing or anxious thought.

Mindfulness also helps you feel different in the moment. Recently, I’ve found it really helpful to just focus on thinking about the present moment. This gives me some relief when my mood’s really low.

Here are some examples of mindfulness activities:    

  1. Try a guided meditation

  2. Try a grounding exercise

  3. Be mindful while taking a shower (great for smells and sensations, a good time for self-care)

  4. Go on a walk or hike, and focus on what you see, hear, smell, and feel

Category 3: Physical Activity

Research has shown that regular physical activity can be as effective in some cases as medication for depression. We also know a workout can increase the good stuff in your brain, like serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine.

For me, especially when I’m depressed, the hardest part of getting these benefits is just the motivation to get myself up and moving. But once I do…I can’t think of a time I didn’t feel better both physically and mentally after a workout.

Some ideas for this category:

  1. Follow along with a YouTube workout

  2. Go on a bike ride

  3. Invite someone on a walk, for a pickup basketball game, or to throw a football around (the social interaction can be really helpful in addition to the physical activity)

  4. If you have young kids, take them to a playground, but join in and play with them rather than watching

Category 4: Doing Something That Will Make You Feel Proud of Yourself

I think this category can be helpful for a couple of reasons. For me, I think of the term “self-actualization”—the idea that you’re capable of doing something, you want to do it, and so achieving it feels good. It doesn’t have to be anything huge, either. Just doing something in this category can help you feel differently for a little bit. Maybe the term “self-respect” also fits here?

I also think this category works just because of momentum. When I’m depressed, it often feels really hard to do anything besides sitting and mindlessly stare at my phone (and wishing for it to make me feel different, which it never does). When I can get myself to do something in this make-yourself-proud category, it can be just the thing to get some momentum going for a while—and to keep me out of the sad-phone cycle for a time.

So here are some things to try to help you feel good about yourself as a way to improve your mood:

  1. Do even a single task on your to-do list, then cross it off with a big red marker (another suggestion: write a to-do list just so you can cross something off of it;)

  2. Do something nice for someone else. I follow a lot of mental health-related accounts on my blog Instagram account, and honestly, sometimes I just try to write nice things to people on Instagram who seem to be having a hard time.

  3. Do something that helps you reach a personal goal. For me, over the last few days, this has actually been spending even a little time on the blog. Over the summer, I gott really out of sync with writing and posting and working on other blog things. Forcing myself to sit down and write has helped me feel good about things.

Talking through a conflict or frustration. If part of why you’re not feeling good is because something in a relationship is making you upset or angry, it can be helpful to go to the person and calmly state the facts of what happened, how you feel about it, and what you’re hoping to change. I suggest the DBT skill “DEAR MAN” as a really good guideline here.

Are there other activities you can think of that fit in these categories? Or are there other categories of skills that are especially helpful for you? I’d love to hear about them.

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