Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years.
Image from Flickr via
These days, experts are full of advice on how to keep to the New Year’s resolutions you make to improve habits and solve problems that have been needling you over the past year (or years). Some of this advice will be heeded, much ignored, but the fact remains that some problems just can’t be solved. Some worries, chronic or otherwise, must be endured for a variety of reasons: now is not the time to act, or the problem is out of your control. And sometimes when a bad mood comes on, it looks as if it is—like the cold, deep-winter sky—going to stay awhile.
The good news is that neither one is permanent. Like winter, bad feelings often go away, and sometimes the best thing to do with worries is to ignore them, distract yourself with something that will take your mind off them, and wait until the weather improves. While this news may seem obvious, completely intuitive, and/or something your grandmother has always known, it bears repeating, since so much emphasis is put these days on the proactive approach to working through your problems.
It’s also true that your grandmother (as always) was right: New research shows that with time, the biochemistry of the brain does alter, and it can happen in a matter of hours. Things do often look better in the morning (although not, of course, to the clinically depressed). Shakespeare knew that “sleep knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.” In fact, a good night’s sleep improves mood, and not just by providing rest. Overnight, the chemical balance in the brain can alter enough so that what seemed tragic the night before doesn’t look so awful the next day.
Daytime interventions can work too. We have heard many times about the power of exercise to get those endorphins going, and activities that work out your brain can be effective too. Much research has also been inspired by the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the concept of “flow,” which occurs when you are so engaged in an activity that time is literally forgotten because you are so absorbed in what you are doing. Meanwhile, studies have shown the power of music to “soothe the savage breast.” One study found that singing is particularly therapeutic (provided you sing songs that you like).
To make music is to trigger the flow of endorphins—neurotransmitters that are the brain’s natural opiates, associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. Listening to your favorite music is a quick way to get endorphins circulating in your bloodstream—even to get chills of pleasure. But performing music (singing or playing an instrument) has an even stronger positive effect. According to an Oxford University study published in 2012 in Evolutionary Psychology, “Circumstances such as passive listening to music do not produce quite the same response as active musical performance . . . .We show that singing, dancing and drumming all trigger endorphin release (indexed by an increase in post activity pain tolerance) in contexts where merely listening to music and low energy musical activities do not.” So sing in a choir, or sing along to the piano, to a CD, to a YouTube performance, for a lift in spirits.
Although more passive, the magical effect of a good book or a movie to take you away from yourself (the more absorbing the better) is well documented. Actually, going out to see a movie can be particularly effective—the journey to get there, the darkened theater, and the coming attractions, which run for so many minutes now that you can forget not only your troubles, but what movie you came to see. Going out to the movies provides a space with an absence of distractions. Two hours later, you emerge from the theater, if not healed, at least that much farther along the road to getting through your bad day.
Now, of course, you can see any movie you want at home in your own cocoon of self-care. I recommend trying to reproduce the theater experience, if you can, by eliminating distractions and dedicating yourself to the activity—as if you have actually gone to the movies. Give yourself permission to take this “healthy” break. In 1979, long before neuro-imaging confirmed that he was right, the author Norman Cousins wrote in Anatomy of an Illness about that healing power of laughter. Now we know from hard data that laughing, or even just smiling, has the power to change our moods.
So go to a movie, or stay home and rent a classic, one with the proven power to make you smile, laugh, or feel inspired. Below is a list of some old reliables, in no particular order:
Holiday (the 1938 version): Cary Grant as a counterculture rebel 30 years before this was cool in the rest of the world.
The Shop Around the Corner: The incomparable Ernst Lubitsch film that inspired Nora Ephron to write You’ve Got Mail.
The African Queen: Katharine Hepburn finds her true self and love with Humphrey Bogart as they become self-appointed saboteurs.
The Bridge on the River Kwai: Alec Guinness inspiring a group of WW II war prisoners to prove to their Japanese captors the indomitable spirit of British officers.
Arthur: Dudley Moore as the world’s most lovable drunken billionaire, when that could still be funny.
Muriel’s Wedding: An awkward Australian girl has the wedding of her dreams, and finds out what really matters.
The Birdcage: Mike Nichols’s American remake of La Cage aux Folles, featuring an ending with Gene Hackman as the funniest drag queen ever.
Father of the Bride: Both versions are great, but the Steve Martin remake has Bronson Pinchot as a wedding planner with the most indecipherable accent of all time.
A Fish Called Wanda: Kevin Kline as a wacky thief who takes screwball comedy (for adults only) to the next level.
Office Space: A group of disgruntled employees take deliciously satisfying revenge on corporate culture.
Amélie: For a touch (or more) of whimsy, pay attention to this gamine French girl, who sees herself as a modern self-appointed fairy godmother.
My Life as a Dog: A Swedish film that is as light as most films from that country are dark, in which a misfit young boy finds a place for himself.
What’s Up Doc: A remake of Bringing Up Baby with Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand—but wait! It’s hilarious.
Sleepless in Seattle: Directed by Nora Ephron, always romantic and ironic, with a wonderful supporting role by Rosie O’Donnell.
Knocked Up: My favorite of the Judd Apatow comedies, in which a beautiful young woman decides to have a baby with a loser she connects with on a one-night stand.
AND, for adults with or without the kids:
The Princess Bride: Just see it, and you’ll be glad-—accents, one-liners, and recurring jokes that will enter your repertoire forever after.
Toy Story I & II: Better writing and plotting than almost anything Hollywood has produced with live actors.
FINALLY, as a special BONUS, here is Dr. Pat Allen’s prescription about what she watches to boost her spirits:
“When I am feeling worn out or down in the dumps, I love putting on pajamas and getting into bed with my favorite movies. I adore the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. These films, made in the 1930s, combine comedy and classic whodunit plots. The Husband and I fancy that we are somewhat like Nick and Nora Charles and chose to name our Airedale after the brilliant terrier in these films, Asta. Unfortunately, the Charles duo can swill the martinis far better than we can, and have pots of money since Nora is a wealthy heiress. Otherwise, we feel that we are capable of the same smart talk and one-upmanship in our relationship that Nick and Nora exhibit. The clothes are divine as are the sets, the chauffeured cars and the fragrance of fun and just a bit of sex. Happily, I find after a Thin Man movie or two that I am ready to jet off in a propeller plane to get into just enough trouble to make life interesting again. I don’t need to eat junk food or shop till I drop to feel better. I just have a staycation without medication in my very own bed.”
It will be spring before you know it.