You sleep through the alarm. The coffee pot breaks and the bus whizzes by without stopping. You sit on the curb and begin to feel the unmistakable dawning of a bad mood.
At other times, it's nothing you can put your finger on, just the underlying sense that all the cylinders aren't running, and things are getting off to a bad start.
From Stony Brook, N.Y., to Long Beach, Calif., psychologists are trying to learn why our moods change and why we have bad ones. Although conclusions differ, researchers and clinicians at several U.S. universities are beginning to find some answers.
What they've begun to conclude is that mood swings may be biologically rooted--that some people may be inherently more susceptible to the dark clouds of life than others--but that we're not helpless in controlling our feelings. In other words, it may be possible to lift yourself out of a funk--but also to get yourself in deeper.
Whatever the cause, experts agree that moods, which are prolonged feelings, shouldn't be ignored. "Moods tell us how we are getting along in the world. That's a source of information a lot of people neglect," said Randy Larsen, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Possible Genetic Link
Common sense dictates that a person who is tired, hasn't eaten, was chewed out by the boss and is stalled in traffic on the Harbor Freeway will be in a bad mood.
But researchers speculate that a genetic predisposition may make some people more susceptible to bad moods. "For some, the roof falls on their head, and they laugh. For others, the same experience is the devastation of their life. We think there probably is a personality trait involved," observed clinical psychologist Lee Anna Clark of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
For the last several years, Larsen of Purdue, with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, has been studying mood swings. In his view, some people need stimulation and use emotion to achieve that end. As one of Larsen's subjects put it, "I am an intensity junkie. I crave the ups and downs."
Intense people, commonly extroverted, have more mood swings. They also report more physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches and sleep disorders, Larsen found.
"What intrigued me is that even though intense people have more than their share of physical problems, they aren't unhappy about it. The emotional arousal fulfills a need that is greater than paying the price of these symptoms," he said.
By comparison, the moods of "low-intensity" people tend to be more flat. "We believe these people biologically are overaroused to begin with. They want to avoid emotion and to keep from becoming aroused," Larsen said.
If mood swings are biologically rooted, Larsen's hunch is that satisfying these needs is learned. "There seems to be a life-style component. For example there are different ways to achieve arousal. Instead of learning to seek emotional intensity, you might live a life full of activity, or you might create a highly stimulating home full of bright colors and loud music," he added.
Some experts think people unconsciously attempt to self-regulate moods. Robert Thayer, a psychology professor at Cal State Long Beach, recently observed students engaged in such an effort at the school cafeteria.
"They were stoking up on sweet rolls and coffee, buying Twinkies at the cash register, in an attempt to get themselves 'up' for their 9:30 a.m. classes," he said. "What they don't know is that they are being counterproductive," added Thayer, who for 20 years has examined the biological and natural processes influencing behavior.
The sweet rolls actually may have made these students grumpy. When investigating mood and sugar ingestion, Thayer compared eating a candy bar with taking a brisk, 10-minute walk. Although both strategies produced an immediate burst of energy, the subjects who ate candy experienced an increase in tension one hour later while the walkers enjoyed a full hour of greater energy as well as reduced tension.
His greatest insights into biological processes and behavior came when his daughters were young, Thayer said. "Any parent knows what happens when children are tired, hungry and in need of attention. Yet surprisingly, we don't pay the same attention to our own needs."
Although it's easy to recognize intense mood swings, Thayer believes subtle mood states can be of greater concern.
"If you are feeling tense and tired much of the time, at any moment, you can have a cup of coffee and go into that meeting. The danger is that you are overriding the feeling without noticing. When this characterizes your life, and you do it day after day, it could cause you to enter a state of mild, chronic depression," he said.
Although researchers have found a relationship between daily events and moods, it is sometimes difficult to tell which comes first.
No 'Blue Mondays'
Clinical psychologist Arthur Stone, for example, found there is no such phenomenon as "Blue Monday." Following 79 people on 84 consecutive days, he concluded that Monday moods were no worse than on other weekdays, but significantly different from those experienced on Saturday and Sunday.
"For most people, Sunday is a very nice day. Actually, we think it was the contrast with Sunday that made Monday seem like a relatively worse day," said Stone of State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"It is possible that you could start out in a bad mood and that could influence other events during the day," said Stone, who works in the department of psychiatry at Stony Brook's medical school. But he believes daily events do have an impact on mood and health.
Stone observed that when his subjects reported more positive moods, the immune system functioned differently, which he gauged by measuring antibodies in saliva. In another study, he found that when subjects experienced a preponderance of negative events, respiratory illnesses were more likely to follow in three to five days.
Psychologists in clinical settings have many theories about why we have bad moods. "We expect an enormous amount out of life, and we worship the Goddess of Happiness. Any interruption of seeking success and happiness can create disappointment," noted Robert Maurer, director of behavior sciences, family practice programs at Santa Monica Hospital and faculty member at UCLA Medical School.
There is also "the last straw" syndrome. "If you are feeling tired and hungry for appreciation and someone says, 'But how come you forgot to take out the trash?' it will probably trigger a grumpy mood," Maurer added.
And there is fear. "As with other animals, when we are challenged, we respond with fear. When we are afraid and unwilling to admit it, we get irritable," he explained.
Once in a bad mood, everything looks worse. In a laboratory setting, Larsen attempts to manipulate moods with slide shows depicting positive scenarios, such as a vacation in Hawaii, and negative imagery, such as a loved one dying.
His finding: "When people are in a bad mood, they overestimate negative risks. For example, if we induce a bad mood, subjects will overestimate the number of deaths due to tornadoes."
A good antidote for a bad mood, Clark believes, is becoming involved in a project requiring concentration.
And what is the best inducement of positive moods?
"I couldn't believe this but it held true for all my subjects," she said. "It turns out that when people were socializing, about 82% of the time they reported being in a better mood."