What does it mean when our moods get messy?
We’ve all been there. You succumb to a random crying jag on your otherwise cheery run. Or you snap at your significant other for being the no-biggie, usual-bit late. When your mood shifts dramatically, you might be wondering what’s up.
“We all have mood shifts at times, whether triggered by something real or perceived,” says Lauren Rigney, a Manhattan-based mental health counselor and coach.
Life’s usual mix of ups and downs can bring on a bout of irritability or heightened reactivity. And if that isn’t enough, Aunt Flo’s visitation schedule and the resulting flux in hormones can have an added impact on mood for us gals.
So how do we know if our pendulum of feelings is related to typical stress, our cycles, or a mood disorder we may need pro help navigating? And if our shifts in mood are affecting our lives, how can we have more control over this carnival ride?
1. Do you regularly experience extreme highs and extreme lows?
On the hike of life, we all navigate peaks and valleys here and there and some stretches of steady terrain — you know, when things are kind of just ho-hum.
But constant emotional volatility could be a sign of something else.
If you’re altering your mood with substances like alcohol, the dramatic changes of a high or buzz followed by withdrawal or a hangover might lead to swings in your state of mind. Check your caffeine consumption, too. That late-afternoon cold brew could be the culprit.
A small indulgence in alcohol, especially during festivities, could modify your mood temporarily. But constant emotional volatility could be a sign of something else such as perimenopause.
If you’re in your 30s and 40s, there’s a chance it’s perimenopause. This stage begins several years before we actually stop menstruating, and we usually don’t realize it. Our estrogen levels can spike and dive a bit more sporadically during this time, causing fluctuations in mood.
Another more serious consideration, if your shifts in mood follow a pattern, is bipolar disorder (BP). This psychiatric disorder is characterized by extreme mood shifts.
In BP, an intensely elevated mood is called episodes of mania and may involve energetic or impulsive behavior which lasts at least a week.
It can last less if symptoms become so severe that the person must be hospitalized. A plummeted mood, or depression, may involve intense sadness or fatigue lasting at least 2 weeks.
2. Do you go through periods of sadness, irritability, anger, or anxiety that last longer than two weeks and aren’t related to a major life event?
Struggles or big changes, such as a breakup, divorce, job loss, move, and more, can toss us into a bit of a downward spiral. And grief over the death of a loved one — human or pet — can bring on a range of emotions.
Plus, we all just get a dose of the blues sometimes. We’re more vulnerable to a down-in-the-dumps frame of mind right before we get our periods. Hello, PMS.
Depression is also a commonly reported side effect of birth control pills.
Did you just start the pill or switch brands?
3. Are your shifts in mood harming your relationships?
If we have the rare snippy moment or just need our space, the people who love us understand and cut us some slack. And we do the same for them.
We all spin our wheels about our relationships occasionally, and a little DIY cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help get us out of a rut or decide on an appropriate course of action.
But long-term patterns could cause major relationship changes, and patterns may be a sign of a mood disorder. Any mood disorder can cause you to unwittingly withdraw from others.
Personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), can cause similar behaviors. Some of the symptoms of BPD include alternating between idealizing and devaluing others, feeling angry without cause, and lashing out.
4. Are your shifts in mood impacting your job, schoolwork, or ability to function?
Work or school can be chaotic with meeting deadlines and even dealing with people’s BS. Tension can lead anyone to react in frustration, feel more sensitive to criticism, or need more time than usual to complete a to-do list.
You may just need a little help soldiering through stressful times, especially when you’re PM-essy. Try adaptogenic herbs to keep you calm and ward off moodiness.
But if you’re regularly struggling to get out of bed or complete everyday tasks, that’s a concern.
Feeling drained of energy before or during your period is common, but exhaustion throughout your cycle could be a symptom of a health condition such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, or chronic fatigue syndrome.
Long-term and severe low energy could also be a sign of depression. Paralyzing periods of procrastination or worry about work performance could be a sign of anxiety.
“If you’re always down the second half of the month or are irritable right before you start a period, this could be associated with hormones,” says Dr. Daniel A. Skora, a reproductive endocrinologist with Fertility Specialists of Texas.
“If the mood swings are erratic and not able to be tied to a certain part of your cycle, it’s unlikely they’re tied to hormonal shifts.”
Tracking your shifts in mood can help you determine if they’re tied to your menstrual cycle.
If you suspect you need help with shifts in mood or other mental health conditions, consult a mental health professional.
Here’s the thing: If you don’t track your mood, it’s going to be really hard to pinpoint the cause. Plus, tracking how you feel can also help your therapist look for patterns to see if there’s a mental health cause behind those shifts in mood.
To track both menstrual and mental changes side by side, use a prediction-based app.
Clue is a period tracker, but you can also track things like emotions, energy level, pain, and cravings.
Based on your data, Clue will give you a 3-day forecast of how you might be feeling. That way you can be prepared for things that could set you off or just get a heads up on when to stock up on lavender bath bombs. You can even share certain info with a partner if that’s helpful to you.
Eve by Glow is another period tracker, and it offers up emojis for PMS monitoring. It’s simple and fun. It’ll even cheer on your sexual adventures if you log them — and not assume that you’re doing it with a dude.
In regard to your emotions, the app will remind you when your feelings might be more intense and that even if they’re all over the place, they still matter.
RealifeChange acts as a mood tracker that doubles as an on-the-fly life coach. Plug in how you’re feeling at any given moment and you’ll get actionable help for decision-making and reducing stress and anxiety.
This type of tracking can be helpful when you feel like your emotions are in charge.
Daylio is a mood tracker and mini mobile diary. Using just a few taps, you can log your moods, like when you’re feeling “fugly,” and your current activities.
You can then view a monthly chart of mood fluxes to determine if you’re experiencing frequent or extreme highs and lows. It can also alert you to certain triggers.
As you go about tracking your cycle or your emotions, remember that occasional changes in mood are normal. We all experience highs and lows, regardless of gender, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
One hour you might be laughing with your coworker, and the next you might be irrationally mad at your roomie for eating the leftovers you were looking forward to snarfing at the end of a long day.
But if changes in mood and reactivity are leaving you feeling wrecked, it’s time to talk to someone.
“Mood swings, whatever the cause, can have negative effects on your life,” Rigney says. “Talking through this with a professional can help you recognize when it happens, why it happens, and what strategies to use so you can work through it in a more productive way.”
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.