Depression. A miserable experience. When mild, it steals your dreams. When severe, it runs you over with stagnancy, painful thoughts, guilt, and shutdown.
It’s also not just a single emotion. Depression comes in dozens of flavors and intensities, if not hundreds, and can vary from day to day, if not throughout the day. One minute things are mildly uncomfortable, then suddenly there’s intense hurt or anxiety or irritability — without knowing why. It feels that way. Shifting moods can be tied to internal or external events, even though people aren’t always aware of the specific trigger. It feels like the mood just happens.
Uh… so a mood diary can make sense out of such a mess?
The short version: a mood identifies emotions and things that affect them. Some of these things are in your control, giving you a chance to change what’s causing or worsening the depression.
Identifying emotions: moods can be described in different ways. Some people prefer descriptive words like “happy,” “very depressed,” “irritable,” or “anxious and down.” Others prefer a rating scale, like 0 to 10, where 0 means “mood stable, right where I should be” and 10 means “more depressed than ever.” For those with bipolar disorder, consider using a scale from -10 (most depressed) to +10 (most manic), with 0 being “mood stable, right where I should be.”
Identifying triggers: keep an eye on anything that jumpstarts or worsens your depression. That is, when you notice your mood worsen, pay attention to what’s happening, both internally and externally. These cues are called triggers and can include a myriad of things like:
- Painful thoughts or memories
- A difficult event/stress
- Skipping meals or taking in too much [sugar, caffeine, etc]
- Being in pain
- Missing or taking the wrong medications
- Drugs or alcohol
- No social contact, or negative social contact
Identifying things that help: figuring out what’s making things worse is key, but identifying what helps is even more important. This list is infinite. It can range from exercise, focusing on the positive, spending time with people who care about you, and practicing meditation to taking medications on time, cuddling with your dog, or going for a walk in the forest. See below for more ideas.
How do you set up this [infamous] journal?
There’s no single recipe that works for everyone. If this is your first mood diary, you probably want to start simple and monitor your mood alone. Once you’ve got that going, consider recording different aspects of your life, like the triggers and types of relief mentioned above. Here are a few types of journal-keeping.
1-Calendar. The simplest form is a calendar. This is particularly good for beginners. Find a month-to-month version and, at the end of the day, simply document your mood in each day’s slot. If you have extreme mood swings throughout the day, document both highest and lowest mood.
2-Chart. A second type of mood journal is a chart. You can use a pre-made chart off the internet (just do a search for “printable mood diaries”) or buy a notebook and draw out your own. Here’s an example:
At the end of each day, fill out one line, including the date, average mood, other moods, problem thoughts or situations, and anything that brought relief. This chart monitors mood a week at a time.
3-Diary style. Sometimes free-style is the way to go, especially when you’re not sure what’s triggering the mood changes. Next time your feelings suddenly go south, grab a notebook and write. (1) How do you feel? (2) Was there a stressor that triggered the emotion? (3) Was there a thought that brought on the emotion? (4) Was there an action or behavior that acted as a trigger? (5) is there anything else that made you vulnerable to feeling bad, like too little sleep, having cravings, forgetting your meds, or being in pain? (6) What helped you feel better? Jot down the answers to the questions. Over time you’ll likely find important patterns.
4-Programs and online mood monitoring sites. Take your pick: there are probably thousands of online and downloadable mood-monitoring applications. They range from simple to complex. Basically, enter the data you wish to monitor, and when there’s enough information (usually a few weeks later), the app crunches all the numbers and gives you feedback. Many programs will graph it out you, correlating mood with hours of sleep, gluten intake, thought record, cat-cuddling time, etc.
So I have a hundred thousand pages of info. What do I do with it all?
You’ve painstakingly kept a mood journal for months. Or years. You probably have a lot of data. You’ve identified a few triggers in your life (the negative), as well as a thing or two that offer at least partial relief (the positive). What do you do with all this information?
The simple answer: Decrease the negative, increase the positive.
The more realistic answer: Decrease the negative, increase the positive. Really. Sort of. Truth is there’s nothing that works for everyone all the time and certainly no simple equation to finding happiness. But if you’re willing to TRY to minimize the negative and maximize the positive, that’s enough. It’s a two-step approach.
Yeah, yeah, the first step is minimizing triggers. If you can’t decrease them, figure out how to deal with them. Here’s a quick run-down. This list isn’t all-inclusive, and what works for some won’t necessarily work for others.
- If it’s a painful thought, change your perspective.
- If it’s a painful memory, write about it repeatedly until it stops bothering you.
- If it’s pessimism, counter every negative with a positive.
- If it’s a problem, brain-storm solutions and do something about it.
- If it’s a behavior that’s causing problems, act differently.
- If you aren’t happy unless things are a certain way, practice flexibility.
- If it’s boredom or lack of activity, get busy.
- If it’s a nasty person, change how you react to them
- If it’s a toxic relationship, cut the other person out of your life completely.
- If it’s pain or an illness, pursue treatment.
- Too little or too much sleep? Change your sleep habits.
- Drugs and alcohol? Get treatment.
- Other mental health problems? Get treatment.
- Can’t do anything about the trigger? Change the way you react. Consider radical acceptance: adapt, let it go, and focus on something you can change.
- At a loss and don’t know what to do? Get help.
Now the second step is the best part: hopefully by now you’ve got a list of good stuff, things that relieve or dampen the depression. Puppies, brilliant sunsets, and the beach, sure, but there’s a lot more.
- Exercise (like playing soccer)
- Distraction (feeling warm water run over your hands)
- Humor (reading a joke book)
- Having fun (reading comics)
- Doing things that help you feel successful (completing a math assignment)
- Contact with others (joining a lion-taming club)
- Self-soothing activities (meditation)
- Dealing with distorted thoughts (cognitive behavioral therapy)
- Increased structure (keeping a schedule)
- Increased meaning (spirituality)
- Self-image & confidence (wearing cool boots)
- Creativity (writing poetry)
- Travel (visit the Redwood Forest in northern California)
- Practicing coping skills (listing pro’s and con’s to important decisions)
- Seizing the NOW (watching milk twirl in coffee when poured slowly)
- And the thousand other behaviors we should all be doing more of.
So if I do all this, life should be perfect?
Of course dealing with triggers and enhancing the positive & healthy in our lives is easier said than done. Depression robs a person of motivation and energy. But now you know what’s causing the depression, plus what brings about relief (if only partial and temporary), and that’s important information. You have enough data to grant direction, and that direction is the road to recovery.
Perfection? Hmn. We’ll have to write another post some time about depression and perfectionism. But for now, let’s leave it at this: a mood journal offers valuable information, a precious gift, and in time it can be profoundly healing.
Note: if you’re too depressed to keep a mood diary, or don’t know what to do with all the info you’ve collected, touch bases with a friend, minister, therapist, or doctor.