Locate and log your joy: How tracking positivity can help with depression

June 27 | Guest post by LC
written in slumber
By: kharlamovaaCC BY 2.0

I've struggled with the debilitating effects of depression since I was 12. Even on days that it's not running the show, it lays in wait just below the surface, bubbling. Days that it decides to emerge at the start of my day, it builds up enough steam to manifest a thick fog in my mind that turns the simplest of tasks into momentous chores. Perhaps the most difficult truth for me to come to terms with (and equally confounding for others to understand), is that even on seemingly perfect, stress-free days (or weeks), it can cloud my view of the world and can make it a dark, isolating place.

After years of trying to ignore what was happening inside of me, I finally started to take the steps I needed to in order to get healthier. I cultivated a support system: a network of incredibly patient people comprised of loving family and understanding friends. I found intelligent health care professionals who wouldn't just throw medication at me and push me out the door, but instead listened to me and helped me work through my anxieties and triggers. While I made great strides, after making a big move post-grad school, I started spiraling again.

Each morning I lay in bed, my anxiety causing negative cyclical thoughts to race through my mind. Each night, I was kept up by the same thoughts and would chastise myself for wasting the day. I began to feel hopeless.

After a few weeks of this pattern, I took an inventory of what I was doing to combat the cycle, and I realized I wasn't taking care of myself on a daily basis. I was ruminating on the negative thoughts, therefore allowing them to fester and develop, rather than combating them with positivity.

I changed the way I journaled:

From therapy I learned how powerful positive self-talk and mantras can be, but only if they are a constant part of your self-care routine. I already kept a journal to help let go of my haphazard thoughts, so I decided to add a few sentences each day to document the positive parts of my day. Ultimately, finding the positive in every day wasn't as easy as I had anticipated, but I pushed through and gained both a powerful new perspective on my life and some solid coping mechanisms that I could put into place.

I noticed some patterns began to emerge:

Nights I went to bed happy were at the end of days during which I cared for myself. Days that I spent outdoors hiking, went to yoga, hit the gym, and prepared mindful meals, were days I felt most alive. Days I felt connected through meaningful conversations with loved ones, or even strangers, made me feel fulfilled. Writing, sketching, being creative — all of these activities came with a glorious side of inner peace.

On days when my anxiety told me to stay in bed, it was always pushing through to participate in these same activities that alleviated the heaviness in my chest and stilled my racing mind.

What wasn't recorded? The hours I spent binge watching TV. The decadent dessert after a equally massive meal. The mojito… or three… from happy hour. Everything I told myself "I deserved" after long days of work, that delivered instant gratification, didn't actually make me happy.

The benefits of this practice are two-fold:

First, it helps me see the beauty in each day of my life, even when my sadness distorts my perception. Second, it reminds me that there are people and activities that will bring me joy as long as I put in the effort to experience them.

Want to give it a try?

1. Decide where you will track your happiness.

Find a beautiful journal, use your blog, or keep a folder of random scraps of paper; these are your experiences — do whatever the hell you want. Just make sure you keep them in one place.

2. Dedicate at least five minutes to your reflections each night.

You deserve this time so take it! Write down a person, an interaction, an activity — anything that brought lightness to your soul. If you're out, scribble it on a napkin or put it into your phone and transfer it to your log later.

3. Don't chastise yourself.

If you are having a day where the happiness doesn't come naturally, don't be hard on yourself. Hateful self-talk only feeds the negativity. But at the same time, don't leave the day blank. Find something, no matter how seemingly insignificant and write it down. Did you walk by some beautiful street art? Did you smile receive a smile from a stranger? Did your legs look particularly fierce? Anything will do — just locate and log your joy.

4. Re-read and reflect.

Look back through your entries, highlight and annotate. Find patterns and cycles. Discover what truly makes you happy and saturate your life with those people, places, and activities.

5. Praise yourself.

You are a beautiful soul who deserves more than to just exist under a haze of anxiety and sadness. You've taken the time to really understand what makes you feel fulfilled and integrated that into your anti-sadness arsenal. Celebrate your hard work with those people and activities that truly bring you happiness.

Despite years of work and the stable life I have built, my anxiety still lingers and my moods still swing. I still wake up feeling like my world is collapsing and struggle to sleep because I fear nameless, faceless things. However, this journal helps me on those difficult days.

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  1. Yes!!! I've been keeping a daily log since the beginning of last year (2015) and it's had a *huge* impact on my depression and anxiety. Kind of like a reverse to-do list, I record everything I accomplished that day, as well as any positive interactions or compliments I had. I have a separate journal where I can rant and rave about all my emotions (though I rarely use it now), but in my daily log I only put good things. Even on my worst day, I can reflect and have proof that I did *something*, even if it was just some simple act of self-care like take a nap or sit outside for 10 minutes. Depression feeds on tricking yourself (I'm worthless, I can't do anything, nothing good happens in my life), so anything where you get outside your mind to a more objective perspective can really help a lot, especially over time as you see the patterns for what they actually are. Giving myself credit for everything positive I do, however big or small, has really helped my self-compassion and increased my confidence a lot!

    And as a more practical side note, it's also VERY useful for remembering when certain things happened!

    1 agrees
  2. I haven't yet tried it myself, but I've also seen the suggestion to take pictures of positive things in the moment, so if your brain is trying to tell you that everything about your life sucks and there's nothing good in the world, you have proof that it's wrong.

    1 agrees
  3. I love this so much — thanks for a beautiful post! Like the author, I've been dealing with depression since about the age of 12, and while things are mostly under control these days, recent stressors have made it really hard to maintain that equilibrium. I'm going to give this a try.

    Once again, thank you.

    3 agree
  4. I've never been able to stick to journaling, but I try to follow the sage advice of Kurt Vonnegut: “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.” It made me more aware of the positive moments and that they do happen even on my worst days.

    1 agrees
  5. So much this! I have an on-again-off-again relationship with depression and during times when I feel like I'm frittering my life away it has really helped to make a list of everything that I accomplish each day. It can be something as simple as taking a shower of making a home-cooked meal. So at the end of each day I could look at the list and see proof that I had done at least one thing to make my life better.

  6. Yes absolutely, so much this.

    I am a life-long anxiety sufferer and after a few very challenging years including the loss of my beloved dad, my levels are higher than I’d like right now as I try and finish my P.h.D. I recently started something like this and it’s been so so so very helpful!

    What I do is each Monday morning is sit down and do an entry on Penzu which is an online private journal thing. I write out my writing goal for the week (plan and begin writing section b, etc), my “admin" goals for the week (post parcel to niece/nephew with upcoming birthday, banking, get quote for repair to window, whatever) and my self-care goals (ride bike to library where I do my writing once a week rather than get a bus, go to pilates class).

    Then I also reflect on how I did with the goals set in the last week. If I didn’t meet them I try and think about why, was there a problem with the goals itself or was it one of those things that you just don’t know how long it will take until you are in it or whatever? Or did life just get in the way? Basically proving to myself that if I didn’t meet the goals the reason why is never “because I’m just crap”. For those thinking “well If I could do all that then I wouldn’t have an anxiety problem in the first place” bear with me….

    I also reflect on anything else not covered that gave me joy in the week, and it’s this bit that is like what the OP is writing about here. I started this thing to mainly plan my PhD work but it’s become so much more than that, it’s absolutely become a positivity log as well.

    I am frequently anxious when I sit down to do my Monday evaluation (the fear that this one time I won’t be able to do it and feel worse then ever is still very much present) but I almost always feel better once I’ve done it. Actually I have always felt better each time dagnammit!! See how I put that almost in before so as not to jinx it? Classic anxiety behaviour but calling myself on it just took enough of the power out the fear, to allow me to finish it off on my own, KABOOM!

    Intentionally reflecting seems to almost automatically give me a layer of protection when I think about any challenges in the week, that I don’t have when thoughts about those challenges pop up uninvited in my head. That’s not to say that I never get a bit lost in the reflecting and re-triggered but most times that doesn’t happen and when it does the getting out again is much much much quicker than when I get lost in uninvited negative thoughts.

    The main huge benefit is that I get a written record of me getting myself out of anxiety and depression holes which is hugely helpful to look back on. It can be very anxiety provoking to even start a project like this, especially if your anxiety is around goals setting and failure (I had to give myself and keep having to give myself, a talking to about realistic and structured goals) so for me the once a week thing really works. As does the private online journal aspect, I can access it anywhere I am writing (and I really don't need another physical book to add to the load I am already hauling around) and have it open as I work in case I need to check back in, but whatever works for you.

    I honestly had no idea just how useful it would be when I started it and if I’m honest I was very scared that it would either makes things worse because it might stop working or because I would not keep it up or fail to meet goals but I’ve been doing it two months now and highly recommend it!

    2 agree
  7. Recently, I try to blog more positive and self-affirming posts, and amazingly enough, it does help! Especially on days when I feel down – I read them and feel better about myself, and realize I can love myself more.

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