What happens when doctors become patients? We take a look at the science of mental health, moods and happiness after World Mental Health Day, October 10, and the release of Dr Liz Miller's book Mood Mapping.

By Kate Hodal

What makes one person consistently moody, while another is usually quite content? Is it down to their lifestyle, their job, or their DNA?

These are the questions that psychologist Dr Liz Miller has spent the past decade investigating. And her research has found that moods aren't just the random throws of dice most of us tend to think they are - nor are they entirely dependent on our genes.

Instead, they are an internal measure of how we feel at any given time. And by identifying the physical and emotional factors that affect our moods, we can actually work on banishing the bad ones for good.

Moods are an integral part of our mental health, affecting our behaviour, thinking, emotions and physical health. With one in four of us suffering from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, according to the mental health charity Mind, gaining control over our moods is essential in helping us to maintain our own well-being.

"Mood is the most important and least considered part of our minds," says Dr Miller, whose book Mood Mapping: Plot Your Way to Emotional Health and Happiness, uses a new technique called 'mood mapping' to help people better control their moods.

"Your mood has more influence and impact on your day-to-day affairs than any other aspect of your psychology. Our lives and our successes are defined as much by our moods as they are by our personalities."

But is it really possible to turn that frown upside down for good? With a little work and some patience, it most definitely is, says Dr Miller.

What is 'mood'?

We often think of 'mood' as an inherent part of who we are as people. But that's only one part of a much larger picture, says Dr Miller.

"Mood is chemical in that it depends on how much serotonin and dopamine occur naturally within your body, but it is just as dependent on your surroundings, your physical health, your emotional health, your relationships, and your values. These are known as the five keys of mood."

By altering just one of those things, you can help alter your mood. For example, if you live in the city, Dr Miller suggests: "Get out into the countryside, or even just your local park or gardens. Studies have found that this has an immediate relaxing effect on the brain."

Mood is such an intrinsic part of our day-to-day existence, however, that we are often not aware of it until it becomes extreme, says Dr Miller.

"We often don't pay any attention to our moods until we're in a really anxious one, worried over an upcoming exam or presentation, or when we're really happy over something like a promotion.

"But by paying attention to how you feel every few hours, every day, you can change how you feel in the moment and how you feel overall."

While everyone experiences natural highs and lows, often throughout their day, 'mood disorders', such as bipolar disorder, are characterized by chemical imbalances of seratonin and dopamine within the body.

It was actually being diagnosed with bipolar disorder herself in 1997 that led Dr Miller to develop the concept of "mood mapping". Sectioned under the Mental Health Act after working for nearly a decade as a neurosurgeon, she spent 18 months in various psychiatric hospitals, where she began the practice of keeping a daily journal.

"There's a lot of prejudice against doctors with mental health problems because there's an attitude that, as a doctor, you should be able to survive anything," she says.

"So I tried to find my own cure by recording everything I did every day - what I ate, how much money I spent, if I did any exercise and how I was feeling.

"And I realized that only two things really mattered: how much energy I had and how well I felt. And that was how I came up with mood mapping."

What is 'mood mapping'?

Dr Miller plotted her energy and well-being on several occasions each day at the same time onto a graph. After a while, patterns emerged that allowed her to recognize which aspects of her life needed more focus and which events had led her to sulk for days on end.

"We generally think of moods as either 'good' or 'bad', but mood mapping actually puts your mental health into two dimensions, which makes it easier to handle," she says.

"So if you spend a lot of time being anxious or depressed, for example, then you know you should start looking at where the problems are, because moods don't come out of the blue."

Dr Miller's book is set out as a 14-point plan which requires the user to check in with himself every few hours, every day, for two weeks, to create a mood map that can be used to maintain his mental health.

Based on the premise that bad moods give rise to bad thoughts, unhelpful emotions and poor mental and physical health, the book is aimed at helping the user identify what needs to be changed "to give rise to positive thinking, enhanced creativity and intelligence", says Dr Miller.

"Once you know you can choose your moods, you can always perform at your best, and will always have at your fingertips the strategies you need to change your mood, when and where you want to, in the short and long term."

Dr Miller is hoping that the technique can be used not just by patients but by doctors as well. The book has been released ahead of World Mental Health Day, this Saturday October 10, which is themed this year as "Mental Health in Primary Care: Enhancing Treatment and Promoting Mental Health".

"Patients need to be able to learn how to manage their own moods better and determine what it is that's affecting their moods, but doctors can also benefit from mood mapping to help them manage their consultations better," she says.

Julia Lamb, of mental health charity Mind, believes that mood mapping can help people feel more positive and can change their overall well-being for good.

"Mood is an important part of mental well-being, and by mapping your mood, you can help to see any patterns that emerge and if your moods are connected to any particular stresses or events in your life," she says.

"You can then change those connections to make yourself feel more positive. But if you're feeling down for more than two weeks and can't trace your mood back to a particular cause, we recommend that you see your doctor to talk about it."

Mood mapping is a tool that can be used not just to alter one's own mood but can manage the moods of those around you, including your family and colleagues. And, used correctly, it could even be a useful tool for those suffering from long-term mental health problems, Dr Miller says.

"What my research and experience have proven is that mood and its associated chemicals respond more to the five keys of mood than they do to drugs," she says.

"By physically managing your mood, it is often possible to dispense with drugs entirely."