Tag Archives: alexithymia

Noticing mood

Mood vs emotion

I don’t know if there’s an ‘official’ psychological definition for the distinction between these two. But for the purposes of this post, I’m making my own. Emotions are short-term things, which are typically more intense and often caused by something external. For example, I might be angry because I can’t find something I want. Moods are long-term things, which are typically less intense and more internal. For example, I’m depressed over several weeks of being vaguely sad and hopeless.

I actually have a lot of trouble with the distinction, though. I can logically define it like this, but that doesn’t really help me see it at the time. When I’m temporarily sad (a short-term emotion), I often mistakenly assume that my mood is bad and will be bad for a long time. In fact, I think I’ve figured out that my main problem is simply being unable to notice moods at all.

Mood blindspot

There are a lot of reasons why it’s hard for me.

  • Moods only exist in the long-term. So I can’t just go “I am in a negative mood at this moment”, I have to be aware of my state over several hours, days, or weeks.
  • Emotions are more obvious than moods. If I’m having a specific emotion, it overwrites the mood and makes it harder to detect.
  • Emotions and moods are similar but not quite the same. It’s very hard to tell what is one or the other.

Those aren’t the only reasons I can’t ‘see’ my moods, but they’re some of the main ones. It’s pretty hard for me to even figure out why I have trouble with it – it feels like I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to explain.

Workarounds

I know that I have moods, but I can’t actually identify them internally. I have to just try and pick up on them via the things that I can notice:

  • Emotions. E.g., if I’m having sad, angry, or negative emotions a lot, it means my mood is more likely to be negative.
  • Actions. E.g., if I’m tired a lot and don’t want to do things, it probably means my mood is negative.
  • Thoughts. E.g., if my default thoughts are things which sound negative (like “Life is hopeless”, or “I’m a terrible person”) – even when I’m not feeling particularly sad – I can assume they’re down to my mood.
  • Other people. Often, my parents are the first to notice that my mood is getting low. They’ll ask why I seem down, even though I don’t think I’m in a sad emotion – that’s a sign that my underlying mood is low anyway.

I’ve tried tracking my mood in the long-term, because I thought that my main problem was memory (it’s hard for me to remember both emotion and mood states that I’m not in). But I realised that’s not actually the problem, because I can’t give a momentary measure of mood. My moods don’t exist ‘in the moment’, only the long-term. I can’t say, “my mood score has been below zero all week so I’m getting depressed”, because I can’t measure my ‘mood score’. I end up tracking my emotional state, which is not a particularly good indicator of overall mood, and just ends up confusing me.

I don’t have a solution for this. I don’t know what other people do to identify their moods. Maybe other people have an innate sense for it. What difference does it make, anyway? Do other people change their behaviour when they identify a certain mood? Maybe they do. It certainly feels like I’m missing some ability that other people seem to have, but I can’t be sure what would be different if I did have it.

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Alexithymia

Alexithymia:
n. “The sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.”

Quite a common trait of alexithymia seems to be that people misinterpret emotions as bodily sensations. I doubted that I experienced alexithymia because I didn’t do that. More recently, I’ve realised I actually do the opposite. I am far more likely to  interpret a fairly harmless bodily sensation as a threatening and unpleasant emotion. I’m going to write about two of my most common errors, to hopefully help myself to distinguish between them.

Headache – Anxiety

I don’t get headaches all that often, maybe a couple of times a month on average. I get anxious very often. When I have a headache, I get that urgent ‘something is wrong’ sensation that I get from anxiety, so I often assume that I’m anxious. Which then causes more of a problem because my anxiety coping solutions don’t really help when I have a headache. So the headache carries on, and then I keep on thinking I’m anxious which makes me more anxious, and it usually ends up in a hideous spiral that only ends when the headache goes away (usually when I go to sleep – which is harder to do when I’m anxious!).

Here are some things that I am working on trying to remember in order to prevent this from happening. When I have a headache:

  • I usually feel better if I take a painkiller.
  • I usually feel worse if I get up and move around.
  • I am probably drinking a lot of water even though I don’t feel particularly thirsty (years of conditioning that headache must equal dehydration, even though I am probably the most well-hydrated person in my entire family).

When I’m anxious:

  • Painkillers probably won’t make a difference. Might also make me feel worse if the act of taking painkiller is anxiety-provoking.
  • I usually feel the need to be moving around and that will help me stay calm.
  • I probably have a dry mouth but don’t feel like drinking more than sips of water.

Tiredness – Sadness

I’m not often very sleepy during the day. I don’t need that much sleep and I’m not particularly active, so it’s rare for me to be very tired in the daytime. I’m much more likely to be inexplicably miserable, so that’s what I tend to assume. Both cause me to be unmotivated, floppy, and unable to concentrate.

When I’m tired:

  • I might really want to do things, but not be able to concentrate enough to enjoy them.
  • If I lay down on the sofa for a while I’ll probably fall asleep.
  • Physical tasks will be more difficult and daunting than mental tasks. For example, I’ll dread getting up to go to the toilet more than I’ll dread writing a long email.

When I’m sad:

  • I probably don’t feel like I want to do anything. I might be able to concentrate on thinking about something if I make the effort, but I still probably won’t enjoy it.
  • I’ll probably feel physically restless if I lay down for a long time, even though I might not actually want to be doing something else.
  • Physical and mental tasks will be equally unappealing. Or sometimes, mental tasks will be even more unappealing.

Troubles

I’m writing this stuff down in the hope that I will refer back to it next time I’m tired or have a headache – so that I can remind myself that I’m having a fairly harmless physical experience. I’ve known this all for a while, but when I’m actually experiencing it, it all goes out the window. That seems to be a pretty common thing, too. I can understand things in theory, but putting them into practise is a very different matter. Hopefully having this written down to refer to will help me bridge that gap.