Here are my top five reasons I might hand you a mood diary at the end of a CBT session.
5. You’re not sure what you’re feeling.
4. I’m not sure you know what you’re feeling.
3. You think your feelings don’t make sense.
2. You think your feelings are stupid.
1. I ran out of time for us to properly plan a task for you to try between sessions and I thought this would probably be helpful and I couldn’t see how it could possibly go wrong.
Roughly twenty percent of the time, my patients report back that they forgot to fill it in. Sometimes they tried and failed, or tried and found it to be less than revelatory. It just doesn’t make sense that someone coming to me for problems with motivation couldn’t complete a poorly planned, hastily described and fully self-directed task multiple times a day for an entire week. It doesn’t make sense why someone who wants to feel less miserable wouldn’t want to focus on how they are feeling (miserable). It doesn’t make sense why someone would leave the sheet completely blank, or mostly blank except for the word “miserable” scrawled across the page like a watermark.
And what’s more, I can’t see why they don’t seem to experience any increased motivation as the weeks pass, when I have been kind enough to avoid the awkwardness of actually discussing it with them, given them the gift of undermining the potential value of it, and sometimes even forgotten to mention it again. It’s impossible to say.
I guess it’s time for me to try it for myself.
The concept is simple: write down what you are feeling. Some people prefer to write it down at the time they are feeling it and others take some time at the end of the day to document any particularly strong feelings they had that day. Some set a reminder to check in with their emotions at planned intervals and document whatever they’re experiencing in that moment. You can’t go wrong with good old fashioned pen and paper, unless you don’t carry a bag with you all the time, your dresses don’t all have pockets, or you prefer doing things electronically. Or you simply don’t feel like carrying a hard copy of your most vulnerable moments with you at all times.
I decided not to set myself myself any specific rules for the task, to replicate the haphazard manner in which I often throw the task at people at the end of a session. I presumed once I got going it would feel so enlightening that I’d be spurred on to continue. I believe that paying attention to and labelling your emotions is a really healthy and validating thing to do, and I couldn’t wait to see how healthy and validated I would feel after actually documenting all that attention-paying and labelling I was pretty much doing already.
Attempt No. 1
I had no idea my attempts would need to be numbered. My plan was to record my mood at regular intervals on a spreadsheet, based on what I know about building habits (minimise the number of steps between you and the task; add elements that are meaningful or enjoyable) and what I know about myself (I usually return to my computer every 50 minutes throughout the day; I freaking love spreadsheets), and got ready to absolutely nail this experiment.
I really wanted to do this. But in the precious 10 minutes at the end of a Freudian hour, there were many, many things more important to do than fill in a mood diary. Making notes. Preparing for the next appointment. Checking in on various projects. Coffee. Daydreaming, mostly about dresses with pockets.
Even when I left only the spreadsheet open on my desktop so that it would be the first thing I saw when I went back to my computer, it took about three occasions of feeling guilty and skipping past it to do something more important/enjoyable before I stopped even noticing the spreadsheet was there, and then stopped leaving it open, and then stopped thinking about it at all. I’d have returned to it later but I was not particularly inspired to fill it in retrospectively with 8 repetitions of “Guilty – didn’t do mood diary again”.
Attempt No. 2
I tried to do it at the start of each of my three pre-planned breaks for the day. Pairing it with a break would help remind me to do it and build it into a habit faster, and I figured that I’d feel more motivated to do this task if I knew I was going to get a break immediately after.
Attempt No. 3
I tried to do it at the end of each of my three pre-planned breaks for the day. I figured I’d feel more motivated to do this task if I’d just had a little rest and it would be a nice transition when getting back to work.
Attempt No. 4
Maybe if I do it as soon as I wake up, I’ll feel motivated by starting my day with something constructive that would leave me feeling productive for the rest of the day.
Attempt No. 5
Maybe if I do it at the end of the day, I’ll feel more motivated because it won’t be like it’s taking time from other things I need to get started on for that day, and I won’t be distracted by the lure of breakfast.
Okay. Finally I had an effective time slot. Now to the task itself. I reflected back over the day and picked out the key emotions I’d had, making a note of roughly what was happening, where I was or what I was thinking about at the time.
Annoyed – someone pushed past me to get on the tube before letting me off
Hopeless – the political news
Frustrated – at work
Restless – couldn’t sleep
Angry – argument
Resentful – thinking about argument
Guilty – thinking about argument
Embarrassed – made a mistake at work
Disbelief – remembering that dickhead on the tube
Frustrated – couldn’t work out what I knew Billy Zane from
Dread – filling in mood diary
After a week or so I found I was delaying filling in the diary. Looking back over the week’s entries, it was immediately obvious that it was all negative. I hadn’t set out to record only negative emotions, and I was almost certain the entire week hadn’t been completely shit. But the negative experiences came to my mind quickest, and once I’d spent time thinking about those, the positive things were all but inaccessible. I was dredging up emotions that would have largely been forgotten, giving them an importance they (mostly) didn’t deserve.
Filling in the diary was making me feel depressed.
Attempt No. 6
I discovered Mood Meter, a handy little app for recording your emotions. You could find the word to describe your mood by searching in quadrants set by positive and negative feelings on one axis, and high or low energy on the other. For example, you could find “serene” under more positive and low energy, and “furious” would be under more negative and high energy. I loved the simplicity of just labelling the feeling, and being able to go looking for the word based on those two qualities.
I wanted to record positive and negative feelings, but my tired, end-of-the-day recollection was more geared towards the negative. I set Mood Meter to remind me to record my mood three times a day and would log whatever emotion I was feeling in that moment, and if I had felt anything particularly significant in between, I would put that in there too.
Delighted – love this app!
Bored – on the bus
Guilty – forgot my nephew’s birthday
Cheerful – on my way to see a friend
Content – productive morning at work
Irritated – app crashed
Nervous – tricky conversation coming up at work
Annoyed – app crashed
Peeved – app crashed
Disgusted – someone chewing loudly
Fuming – app crashed
Frustrated – app crashed
Humble – insight into mood diaries
Like many CBT strategies, this was a simple exercise that was incredibly difficult to make happen. After a month, the mood diaries had not enlightened me on anything other than my feelings about the process of doing the task itself.
If I were reporting back to a therapist on this experiment, I’d be feeling nervous, embarrassed, exasperated, ashamed, dismayed, annoyed, confused, fed up, uneasy and foolish about it.
I might just tell her I forgot to fill it in.
Thank you for the enlightenment. I am a therapeutic writer and substance abuse counselor that uses CBT. this was helpful for me to understand. I love writing so it is not a task for me.
This was such a great thing to do. As a therapist I also struggle trying to encourage clients to ‘do homework’…it does seem like work to many. Might check out app. But does this mean you stop giving task to complete?