The brain collates a vast amount of information subconsciously, before an individual decides how they are feeling. For example, if we are feeling tense and stressed, the brain may notice that our shoulders are raised and tight. However, stress also makes us raise and tighten our shoulders. The great news is that if we are aware of such feedback loops, we can interrupt them. You can help your teenager with low mood by increasing their understanding of simple strategies to change the way they feel.
If your teenager is experiencing low mood, some techniques may seem so simple that you (or they) may automatically rule them out. But think again. Simple changes can have a positive impact on your teen’s mood.
Smiling sends a message to the brain to say “I’m content”. It triggers brain chemicals related to positivity. A study at the University of South Australia also found that smiling can lead people to experience the world around them in a more positive way. This study found that the brain cannot tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one.
However, a 2011 study at the University of Michigan suggested that “empty” smiles may not have a positive impact on mood. In this study, people who thought about pleasant memories and smiled in response saw improvements in their mood. However, those who were asked to smile more without reason did not experience mood improvements. One possible reason is that if people consistently force a smile whilst feeling low, they may begin to feel inauthentic or incongruous.
Smiling can also reduce the stress response. It triggers the release of anti-stress neuropeptides, and neurotransmitters such as “feel-good” dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.
My take on this? Smiling is an effective short-term solution to help your teenager with low mood. It may cause them them feel less stressed and help them view the world around them more positively. However, in the long-term they need support to address the reasons why they feel low in the first place.
Acts of kindness are just as beneficial to the person performing the act as the recipient. There is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting this. A 2016 study reported that people who completed simple kind act felt more positive in their mood, compared with people who did nothing, or those who treated themselves instead. Encourage your teen to engage in micro-acts of kindness. They can build up to larger acts of giving such as volunteering in the future, but they may not have the energy for this right now if they are feeling low. Micro acts of kindness could include:
- Making someone a cup of tea.
- Feeding a pet or giving them a massage (only if this is enjoyable to the pet!).
- Paying a friend a compliment (online or face to face).
Focusing on a Simple Task
Everyday life can feel overwhelming for your teen if their mood is low. Low mood is usually associated with low energy. So help your teen choose simple tasks which can be easily accomplished, to provide a small sense of satisfaction and achievement, and a tiny hit of dopamine (the powerful “reward” neurotransmitter). Help your teen get started. Give simple instructions only, as the brain can feel foggy when mood is low. You may need to be more directive when your teen when they are low, as they will struggle to make decisions. Here are some ideas you can help them with:
- Tidy your desk.
Say gently but firmly: “Let’s tidy your desk. It will help you feel more clear-headed. I will bring you the waste paper bin and some cleaning spray so we can get it nice and clean once it’s tidy.”
- Sort of one of your clothes drawers.
“I know you have been meaning to have a clear-out of your clothes for a while. Let’s start with your t-shirt drawer. I will help you get started and we can make two piles: keep and give away.”
- Bake cupcakes using a simple, tried and tested recipe.
“I love your vanilla cupcakes. If you make some you can give some to your friends. I’ll get the ingredients out for you and open up the recipe, to help you get started.”
The circles of control exercise is a fantastic method for figuring out what to focus on. I highly recommend it.
The strategies here to help your teenager with low mood should not be underestimated. They can have a small but significant effect. However, if your teenager is very low in mood they may need support from a professional, so discuss support options with your child’s GP.
Want to read more? Take a look at this article on “quick wins” to improve your child’s well-being.
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