How writing a daily journal changes my mood
‘I can see that my experience of life depends on how I look on things’
‘The act of writing it, though, does a good job of turning bad moods into good moods or at least into neutral ones.’ Photograph: iStock
Looking recently over a journal I write each morning I was struck by the way my moods differ, depending on how I view a day that’s essentially the same as any other day.
On some mornings it’s all gloom: the things I have failed to do loom large as do the things I need to do today, especially if I don’t like doing them. My life is a failure and everything is meaningless and disheartening.
On other mornings the things I have failed to do are interesting challenges, as are the tasks I have to perform today. The ones I don’t really want to do seem less off-putting. My life is full of things I am grateful for. I am enough of an existentialist to still think life is meaningless. However, when I’m in a good mood I see this meaninglessness as full of creativity and possibility.
It’s a jumble of reflections, sometimes on nothing more than my to-do list
In other words, my experience of life depends on how I look on things. The fancy term for this in the therapy world is “appraisal”; and changing how you look on things is “reappraisal”.
According to Dr Emma Seppala, of Stanford and Yale universities, who has done valuable research on stress, reappraisal may be the least harmful way to think about life’s upsets.
You could see being confined to home at the moment as an outrageous example of the nanny state gleefully seizing the opportunity to ruin your life. This ridiculous viewpoint will put up your blood pressure as you chew over your resentments. You could also take out your anger on other people in the house, thereby making everybody miserable and the whole experience far worse.
Or you could reappraise it by looking at it differently. For instance, “I’m here because this represents the best guess by the authorities as to how to keep myself and others safe for now. It’s probably not a conspiracy by anybody.”
You can also reappraise stresses and strains with other people: “He/she is probably in a bad mood because we’re all cooped up here. It probably has nothing to do with me.”This might sound like an overly simple approach but how many lives could have been saved if US president Donald Trump had been capable of reappraising the coronavirus threat? Simple as it sounds, the right appraisal can save lives; the wrong one can cost them. Dr Seppala has a good article on this and other stress-related topics on her blog at emmaseppala.com.
I mentioned a journal I keep. This isn’t an account of my days or of what’s happening in the world. It’s a jumble of reflections, sometimes on nothing more than my to-do list and sometimes on my mood. It’s another way of talking to myself. I usually delete it after a few days if it refers to specific people, because how any of us sees people can change with our moods.
The act of writing it, though, does a good job of turning bad moods into good moods or at least into neutral ones. It helps me to see things from a different point of view. It’s a sort of reappraisal engine.
Why? Probably because it takes me out of the emotional part of the brain and into the neocortex which gives me a little distance from my mood. It creates another perspective in the same way that writing a letter or a considered email creates another perspective – because you have to slow down, figure out what you mean, match it with the right words and so on.
Whatever the reason, it gives me another angle on my concerns, and almost always lifts me out of a dark mood.
I strongly recommend it as a daily practice; author Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, describes such a journal as “morning pages”. Try it now while you’re sitting at home. Don’t leave it lying around for people to read, though, and consider destroying it after a few days when it mentions other people.
It’s all about what happens in the writing of it, not about keeping it.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.