How to avoid extreme emotional highs and lows

Gardening can help mood regulation, because it pulls us outward, away from self-obsession.  Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

It’s surprisingly common to experience uncomfortable highs and lows, even during the course of a day.  Of course we prefer the highs – joy, laughter and humour are easier to experience without pain – but we are sometimes aware of after-effects.  Some of us are liable to fast swings through from joy and laughter to despair and depression, and it can almost seem as though the ‘down’ is somehow caused by the ‘up’ before it.


To a degree, this is true.  Think of a child learning to ride a bicycle.  They may one moment go faster and become enthusiastic with confidence, and then next moment fall over.  It may be true that the confidence ’caused’ the fall… had they not been so gung ho in the first place, then they may not have fallen so hard in the second place.

We take this process, in muted form, into adulthood.  Our ups lead to over-confidence, and make our downs worse when they come.  To an extent, this process of up and down is natural and healthy.  It helps us retain what we might call ‘amplitude of emotion’ – the ability to experience a sufficient range of ‘up and down’ to give us an internal language of positivity and negativity.  This in turn gives us a sense of direction and identity: positivity-negativity differentiation helps us to develop a sense of attraction and avoidance.


However, extreme highs and lows can cause personal and social problems.  These include:

  1. Those who live with us don’t know what to expect, and become avoidant
  2. Others find it hard to ‘read’ our motivation, and reject us in favour of more even-tempered people
  3. Highs and lows tend to consume a lot of resources – energy and money can trickle away from consistent overuse
  4. The upwards flights and downward crashes can cause clumsiness and accidents, relationally and physically
  5. In the quest to moderate moods, we may develop unhealthy dependence on chemical uppers and downers

There are three key skills that we need to develop, if we are to learn to moderate unhealthy extremes of emotion.

The first is the ability to interrupt our own flow.  This seems counterintuitive at first – why would a person want to interrupt their own natural flow?  But the ability to change attention is one of the keys to controlling one’s own mood, and escaping personal slavery to mood swings.

The second is the ability to ‘split the difference’.  In negotiation, splitting the difference means meeting half way between what you want, and what someone else wants.  With mood swings, it means allowing the natural mood half of its amplitude, but reining it in with detachment.

The third is the ability to take a universal perspective.  Most extreme moods are generated in relation to a selfish viewpoint: selfishness amplifies our personal joy, and also our personal pain. From the point of view of the universe, we really don’t matter as much as we think we do.  This cognitive truth can dramatically soften our more violent mood swings.


Giving these skills names, then, let’s see what we can work on:

  1. SELF-INTERRUPTION – We can ensure that our day is full of interruptions to our selfish flow.  Changes in location, activity, and company all serve to interrupt our natural mood swings.  This is why being busy can work so well, as long as there is also variety.
  2. SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE – Let’s say your mood is neutral (0), and then suddenly goes bad (-10).  Splitting the difference involves learning to compromise with yourself – for instance, accepting an averagely miffed mood (-5) for a few minutes.  This can be enough to arrest mood swings.
  3. UNIVERSAL PERSECTIVES – Try to encounter things which remind you that you are not the centre of the universe.  For example, astronomy can be soothing to a selfish person, because it relieves them from self-obsession for a while.  Serving others can also draw us out of ourselves, and into a wider view.  Other hobbies, such as gardening, crafting and cooking, work in a similar way to distract us from selfishness.
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We all have cycles of emotion – it’s natural, and it helps us to develop our identity.  But sometimes we are prone to such extreme mood swings that it disturbs our lives, and the lives of those around us.

If we want to moderate our mood swings, firstly we can organise our day so that we are frequently interrupted by our surroundings.  Secondly, if we find our mood swinging violently, we can negotiate with it rather than feeding it.  And thirdly, we can undertake activities which bring us out of selfishness, and into communion with the universe outside our own self-involved mood.

If you like your highs and lows, then by all means keep them – they can be functional.  But if they are causing ill-health, then try these tactics.