Tracking is a tool we can use to gather and analyze information about our mental health. Behaviors, thoughts and feelings can be written down daily, like sleep, mood, diet, triggers, and exercise. Tracking alone won’t help us feel better, but it can provide some valuable awareness.
It is rare that someone jumps for joy at the idea of tracking however.
So, how can tracking help and why is it worth the effort?
1. Identifying Triggers
We can learn what might be contributing to our fluctuating moods. Sometimes these contributors are called triggers.
Does your anxiety increase when you drink more caffeine? If you are a woman, does your depression increase before your menstrual cycle? Does your irritability increase when you sleep less than 7 hours per night? It can be hard to think back to two weeks ago and remember how many hours you slept that night, let alone two months ago.
By keeping daily records, we can notice what factors contribute to or are associated with changes in the way we feel. This tool has been used with weight loss efforts to help people notice how they feel when when they overeat, for example. Increasing awareness and understanding how our behavior is linked to our feelings can be extremely helpful in knowing where we can put some attention.
2. Understanding Intensity and Frequency
We can understand more accurately how long our moods last and how frequently they fluctuate. We don’t all of a sudden feel better and stay that way. Often, progress means less frequent and less intense episodes of depression and anxiety gradually over time. When we are in an episode, it can feel like it lasts forever. Tracking the frequency and intensity can help us understand if we are improving in a way that is hard to determine when you are “in” it.
We can provide more accurate information to our health care providers. Sometimes our mental health is like taking your car into the shop. The car was making noises for weeks but when you take the car to a mechanic, the car makes no sound. We might be having an upbeat optimistic day when it is time for our doctor’s appointment and be forgetting the three months prior of feeling miserable.
Providing your doctor with a mood chart can help the health care provider understand your mental health more completely, instead of just evaluating a snapshot of you as you appear on the day of your appointment. This information can help you and your health care provider collaborate to come up with best course of treatment.
It can keep you accountable. You can add to your chart information that you want to track that is important for you. If you track taking your medication, it can help you remember to take it each day. If you track exercise, looking at the chart may help you realize you haven’t exercised yet this week and help motivate you to fit it in. Writing down what you eat each day may help you be more mindful of what you are eating and motivate more healthy choices.
What would be most helpful to track?
You can make your tracking sheet as detailed or general as you like to suit your needs. Some examples of items to track are anxiety, depression, gratitude, exercise, sleep, triggers, and diet. Each factor you track could be noted as a presence/absence or yes/no. More detail might be helpful, like giving the item a score from 1-10, with 1 being the least and 10 being the highest.
So, you might say your irritability was a 7 and your sleep quality was a 3. Sleep and exercise could be noted as minutes or hours of the activity, like 9 hours of sleep or 30 minutes of exercise. You can also write general notes, like what triggered upset feelings that day. I recommend adding notes about what was positive that day as well. You can integrate a gratitude journal right into your mood/behavior tracking.
Let this be a tool that works to help and inform you and customize this idea to fit your situation.
How can I best track this stuff?
1. Good ol’ Excel
Do you have a love for spreadsheets? It’s okay, I won’t tell. Excel is already on your computer and can easily track whatever you choose. If you quantify your mood, like rating your depression from 1-10, then you can have Excel create a graph for you. That is a bit of an advanced move, and it is not necessary to gain benefits from using a spreadsheet to track your moods. I like how this tool is usually already built into your computer and most people are already familiar with the program. Excel will also allow you to track exactly what you want, since there is no preset interface, but you have to create the spreadsheet from scratch.
You can find this tool for free at www.findingoptimism.com. This application can be downloaded to your iphone/ipad, downloaded straight to your computer or you can use the program through the web-based version. There is not an app for Android yet. Optimism is user-friendly and can be customized for your needs. I wish you could rate items like “anxiety” as low, medium or high, but the quick setup is an attractive quality and it can be accessed in a variety of ways. Graphs and reports can be created from the data entered and printed out for your use.
3. T2 Mood Tracker
This is a mobile app available on iphone and on Android. T2 Mood Tracker was first developed for the military with ptsd, but is now being widely used by civilians as well. The app comes preloaded with feelings and behaviors to track and can be customized for your needs. Customization can take some time, but may be worth it if you like this interface. Graphs can be emailed or printed out for your use.
You can open up a word document and create a chart. Fill in what you want to track in one side of the chart and then print a bunch out.
If all that seems like too much, then start off just using your calendar. Add a note to each day with the information you are watching. For example, you could write 5 for your depression on a scale of 1-10, 6.5 for hours of sleep, 0 for number or alcoholic drinks and a check mark for exercising that day. Some information is better than no information. It does not have to be a perfect system!
Talking with a therapist can help identify what you might keep track of and assist you in analyzing this information. Sometime we just need someone outside of ourselves to see the trends more clearly.