How I Track Mental Health Symptoms

My therapist has been encouraging me to track my depression and various contributing factors for years. I’ve tried several apps, journals, and charts, but I always drop the practice after a little while. Eventually, I identified why those tools never worked for me and used that information to make my own system.

Why Motivational Journals and Apps Don’t Work for Me

I understand why a system with lots of elements appeals to some people, but I tend to find them discouraging – the opposite of their intended effect.

My Depression vs. Positivity

Whenever I tried an inspirational/motivational journal, I quickly lost interest. I’d open it up to mark down that I felt like a person-shaped vat of cold, unsalted mashed potatoes. The list of weekly goals I hadn’t met would be staring up at me. Some inspirational quotes would arrive in my brain through the filter of my depression, limp and meaningless. Over time, I began to avoid them, knowing that the initial excitement of setting up a shiny new tracking system would sour.

Apps Aren’t It, Either

Apps have the advantage of offering daily reminders, but if the app is structured like the previously discussed journals, a cheery notification that it’s time to check in only distances me further. I really wanted apps to work for me, and I’ve been consistent with them for two or three weeks at a time, but I always abandon them eventually. They’re too complex, they ask me too many questions, or they document more than what I want to track.

Mood Scales and My Problem with Numbers

Number-based tracking scales usually include too much choice for me and don’t allow for flexible indecisiveness. A 1-to-5 scale just paralyzes me. What if I say “3,” but I’m really a “2?” That would be catastrophic, obviously.

Perfectionism

Maybe it’s a vestige of perfectionistic test anxiety, like I have to choose the “right” answer and be consistent in my interpretation of the scale or else anyone who looks at my data will get an inaccurate sense of my mental health. So instead, I just stop using them. When there’s no data to look at, I didn’t do it wrong!

So in the end, I decided to go with what my therapist suggested in the first place (I must be exasperating when it comes to tracking), and just made my own system to track my mental health.

My Method for Tracking Mental Health Symptoms

I wanted something straightforward, easy to use, and without the frills of a motivational journal. I got a completely blank, unruled journal and a set of stencils. I found these stencils online by searching something like “bullet journal stencils.”

The Mood Tracker

Each hexagon represents a day, which I’ve drawn a line through to depict AM on the top and PM on the bottom. I chose three colors to be “good,” “blah,” and “bad.” This way, I only need to pick a color and fill in the shape. If I can’t decide on a color, I can mix two of them together or shade the shape according to how the day progressed.

I also write small notes every now and then for medication changes, ketamine appointments, and other factors. I like that the bare minimum for this system feels doable for me but isn’t so scant that it’s uninformative.

The Medication Tracker

The medication tracker is similar to the mood tracker in that each section represents a day of a month. The inner row is morning and the outer circle is night. I picked a color for “Yes, I took my meds” and a color for “No, I didn’t take them.” It does help me to see how frequently I’ve missed doses, partly because the perfectionist in me hates to see too much orange.

I keep the journal and the colored pencils in my nightstand so they’re easy to get to and I don’t have the excuse of already being in bed when I remember to track.

How It’s Going

I’ve been consistent with this method for a little over two months, which is probably the longest stretch I’ve ever gone with tracking mental health symptoms. I can’t say that anything groundbreaking has come of it yet, but it is interesting to confirm some of my expectations.

I’ve tried and abandoned so many methods that I don’t think I showed my therapist my journal until I had been using it for a month. I didn’t want it to be yet another dud in a long line of tracking tools. So, I kept it to myself for a little while and am only just starting to assess its usefulness.

Just like with any mental health-tracking method, there are gaps in the data that become evident over time. I’ve been adding symbols to my mood tracker for things like self harm and my period. It’s becoming more complex, but I think the fact that I decide when to add those symbols rather than having a dedicated section for them works well for me.

That said, I’m considering adding a way to track more factors, such as appetite, sleep, and exercise. I don’t want to make it too complex, but I might have the habit established enough to expand my system without abandoning it.

There are tons of ways to track mental health symptoms and factors, and you can find many of them detailed online. What way works best for you?

6 thoughts on “How I Track Mental Health Symptoms

  1. The system I’ve settled on for mood tracking is a number from -3 to +3, with 0 being neutral. I’m horrible at rating in an absolute sense, but I’m better at recognizing if I’m up or down from the day before. I break the numbers down into quarters sometimes, so I might be a -2 one day, and the next day a -2 1/4 because I’m ever so slightly worse. I find the whole number is pretty reliable as an absolute, and any fractions are only relevant in comparison to other days close by. I also make note of the most prominent emotions in a given day.

    I have a grid system for tracking more factors, like showering, physical activity, my period, suicidal ideation, concentration, appetite, and sleep. It’s really compact, and I can fit a month of about 20 factors into a 2-page spread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the negative number idea! I’ve definitely had some experiences where clinicians interpret my answer differently than how I meant it, and confusion ensues. Having zero be neutral seems like the most intuitive way to avoid that.

      Part of what gets me when I start adding more factors is that I apparently like to live my life in denial and don’t want to confront that stuff for five short minutes a day. Maybe I’ll work my way up to 20 factors someday, lol. I’m impressed by your efficiency!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this method! And it’s pretty, that would make me use it more.
    I have the hardest time finding a migraine journal that is right for me.
    Just like you, I start them with the greatest intention, but they don’t last long.
    Right now I’m tracking the bare minimal. It would be better if I could combine my mental health tracking and my migraine tracking so see if there is a correlation.
    Right now my migraine has been going on for so long, I can’t even think well enough to do more than what my highest number was for the day, and what meds I took. That doesn’t tell much, but at least it’s something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Seeing the page fill in with colors is pretty motivating!
      I’m sorry your migraine isn’t letting up. I can only imagine that trying to track things while dealing with that would be incredibly hard!

      Like

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