Ever feel worked up, depressed, or just plain bad without knowing exactly why?

Many of us can wander under a cloud of vague, undefined gloom or anxiety for days — if not longer.

It can make us feel like we’re living at the mercy of our emotions, instead of in control of them.

In this fog, we often forget to ask some key questions that might bring relief, like “What are these emotions?” and “Why am I experiencing them?”

One useful exercise to get to the root of lingering negative feelings (and increase positive ones) is keeping a mood journal, or emotion journal.

What’s a mood journal?

This type of journaling isn’t your typical record of daily activities. Rather, it’s a way to identify and take action around your feelings.

“If you can record how you are feeling and what you are thinking, you are better able to track your emotions, notice people or places that are triggers, and recognize warning signs of your strong emotions,” says therapist Amanda Ruiz, MS, LPC.

Journaling your thoughts, emotions, and challenges has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. One reason: Putting down our problems on paper often helps us see the causes — and therefore solutions — more clearly.

A mood journal is similar, but since it’s focused on your emotions, it’ll bring clarity to how to improve your mental health.

“An emotion journal allows you to record your feelings over several days or weeks and then notice patterns or trends,” Ruiz says.

When you can recognize these trends, you can work to eliminate or avoid certain triggers — or focus your energy on how best to respond next time.

How to keep a mood journal

While premade emotion journals are available for purchase, there’s no need for any special products or materials to get started. All you really need is a blank notebook and a pen.

At bedtime, or whenever you have a few quiet moments, outline the following columns to help you reflect on a few of your biggest emotions from the day:

Emotion nameWhat caused this emotion?Behaviors or actions this emotion caused me to takeIs this emotion appropriate to the situation?Is this situation a distress to be tolerated or a problem to solve? And how?
 

Here’s more on the questions to consider in each column when you’re writing:

Emotion name

Underneath a web of surface-level responses usually lies one of a handful of basic emotions. In fact, many psychologists believe there are only six to eight “primary emotions.”

If you struggle to pin down your feelings (and need a few more shades of nuance beyond six options), keep a list handy to help you name yours. You can print one out here.

What caused this emotion?

When we pause for a bit of self-reflection, we can usually identify the situation fueling an emotion.

Maybe it wasn’t really the mess your kids left in the kitchen that prompted that after-dinner blow up, for example, but the stressors you experienced at work that day.

Take a moment to get honest and write down the real cause of what you’re feeling.

Behaviors or actions this emotion caused me to take

It’s human nature to act in response to emotion. Sometimes this leads to beautiful expressions of love, gratitude, or joy. But other times, it means giving in to road rage or spending an hour locked in the bathroom crying. What did it look like for you today?

Is this emotion appropriate to the situation?

Many therapists call this step “checking the facts.” Do your emotional responses match with the circumstances that caused them? Consider the scale of your response, too. It may help to consider what you’d tell a friend if they were in your situation.

Is this situation a distress to be tolerated or a problem to solve? And how?

If today’s emotion wasn’t such a positive one, you have a decision to make: What are you going to do about it?

For situations you can change, make an action plan. Have an honest conversation with a friend who said something hurtful, for example, or set an appointment to get a troublesome health problem checked out.

Some circumstances, however, are simply outside our control. In this case, it’s wise to embrace the concept of “distress tolerance.” This is our capacity to withstand difficult emotions.

Consider what healthy coping mechanisms you have at your disposal (better self-care, perhaps, or time with good friends), and take care to implement them.

If you react to your triggers fairly immediately, perhaps on a scale that doesn’t align with the trigger (like a delay during your commute sending you into a rage that ruins your entire day), it can help to practice self-care in the moment.

If you feel yourself experiencing a distressing emotion, consider taking a short walk, taking 10 slow breaths, or listening to your favorite song. Write down your in-the-moment game plan in your mood journal.

Working on improving your mental health with a mood journal doesn’t necessarily mean that identifying your triggers or behavior patterns will lead to immediate solutions. Seeing results may take a while.

Don’t be discouraged, though. Continue journaling and fine-tuning your action plan to find what works best for you.


Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.