Mood Mapping - For Better or For Worse!

Mood Mapping is when you chart your moods for at least one week - identifying good, bad and indifferent moods. Then the task is to identify what the triggers may and find solutions, or at least reasonable responses to these.


First of all we need to understand what a mood is before we can map it.

A mood is a relatively long lasting emotional state and has a positive or negative valence. In other words, people often speak of being in a good mood or a bad mood. Variants tend to be “really good mood” or “really bad mood.” When we aren’t experiencing one or the other we may describe ourselves as “ambi-valent” or ambivalent.

Levels and type of mood can vary from person to person. Optimistic people (learned or natural) tend to have better moods for longer periods of time. Pessimistic people (learned or natural) – bad moods for-seemingly-ever.

1. Symptoms of Bad or Sad Moods

• anger

• weepiness

• irritability

• lethargy

• sleep disturbance (insomnia or oversleeping)

• anxiety

• hopelessness

• negative self talk

• loss of energy and interest

• difficulty communication (slow thought processesing)

2. Mapping

Your map is a weekly schedule that lists every day of the week and breaks the day up into at least four sections – five is better. For example:

• 6 am to 9 am

• 9 am to 12 noon

• 12 noon to 3 pm

• 3pm to 6 pm

• 6 pm to 9 pm

• 9 pm to midnight

Granted you may not be awake during the early or late time slot – but this is a topic to be covered in holistic health. Suffice it to say, your mom was right – early to bed, early to rise …

3. Rating your Moods

For one week I want you to carry your weekly schedule sheet with you do some mood mapping - rate each section from one to five:

1 – very bad (or very sad)

2 – bad (or sad)

3 – ambivalent, neither good nor bad (happy or sad)

4 - good (happy)

5 – very good (or very happy)

If you prefer, you can use faces to do your mood mapping. For example:

Ideally you would map for a month – especially if you are a female. There is a day/month/year mood tracker at at the top right hand corner.

But you must map for at least a week. What we are looking for is a pattern.

4. Patterns

When are you happy? When are you sad? When are you ambivalent?

What were you doing just before or during that particular mood?

5. Identification of Trigger

Is there a mood trigger? Common triggers of low mood THAT CAN BE MODIFIED include:

• lack of sleep

• lack of exercise

• junk food or lack of food

• caffeine

• alcohol

• too much to do

• headache caused by dehydration

• loneliness

• major change in routine ie preparing for or returning from vacation

• cluttered house or office (out of control)

These too are common triggers of sadness or grouchiness, but are harder (though not impossible) to modify:

• financial worries

• workplace stress

• relationship problems

• school related stress

• hormonal swing

• poor health of self or other

• change in medication

• lack of control over work or home environment – ie noise, chemicals

And of course there are world events you and I have no control over:

• war or totalitarian regime

• natural disasters

Note: If you are consistently feeling bad or neutral, you need to see a health professional right now. You may have a physical or mental health condition that warrants immediate attention. Do not proceed until you have made the necessary appointments, or gone to a walk-in or emergency department. You can still benefit from the Self-Help section – but you need additional help right now!

6. Strategizing

It is not enough to say, after you have done a week or two of mood mapping, “Oh, I see why I may feel this way…” You also need to address the underlying problem. Don’t agonize – strategize. What might this look like? Rememember our client Mary in the Sample Sessions?

Her symptoms were:

• weepiness. She felt weepy “all the time.”

• loss of energy and interest. She was failing at school.

• negative self talk. She thought her boyfriend didn’t love her anymore.

• irritability and hopelessness. Her parents were driving her crazy with their phones calls and insistence she be a straight A student.

Mary did some mood mapping and discovered her triggers included:

• sleeping in and missing class

• being alone in the evening

• relationship issues with Andy and with her parents.

• her debt problem

• how to get a well-paying, meaningful job.

The first two challenges, plus her relationship with Andy, she could address right away by:

• going to bed and getting up with Andy

• going to classes

• getting tutoring

• sharing feelings with a friend more, so as to not overburden Andy

• identifying a time to do housework with Andy

• picking the time she would answer the phone when her parents called, or initiating a once a week check in for a limited amount of time.

But dealing with her parents, getting a good job and paying off her substantial debt required lots of planning and determination. Some folks call this “BAM” – Brains And Motivation!

Not immediately addressed with Mary were food and exercise. This is unfortunate because changing these two things makes an immediate and incredible difference. See the book “Calm Energy” by Robert Thayer listed at the bottom of this webpage.

Home Work

I encourage you to recruit a friend to act as an “accountability partner” and support person through this mood mapping exercise. It is too easy to quit or to get bogged down in negative emotions. OK, here we go…

1. Know what your symptoms are – especially for negative moods.

2. Design a weekly schedule for mood mapping or get one from the medhelp website. 3. Map and rate your moods for at least a week – ideally a month.

4. Identify a pattern. Are you happy when with people? Are you sad in the evenings?

5. Look for triggers. Note: If you are consistently depressed or feel numb, you need immediate medical and mental health attention.

6. Strategize. Involve your friend if you can. For example:

Short Term Problems and Strategies

• I cry in the evenings because I miss my partner... so – I will find a different person to call every night at around the time I normally get weepy.

• I get angry when I have to do groceries on a Saturday…so – I will pick them up after work on Friday. Then I relax better.

• I stay up too late on the internet…so – I will entice myself to bed with a good book.

Long Term Problems and Strategies

• My mom is going to be unhappy in the nursing home for a long time…so – I may need antidepressants (“natural” or pharmaceudical) for the next little while.

• I cannot get out of debt with my current job and I cannot afford to go to school … so – I am going to investigate apprenticeship opportunities with my local resource center.

• I am concerned about my 21 year old child. He/she won’t go to school or try to get a job. We’ve taken him/her for counseling and tried meds…so – I am going to have to give him an ultimatum.


Some problems, such as war and disaster - cannot be addressed individually, let alone solved – sometimes within our lifetimes. This is where developing an existential outlook becomes particularly crucial. By this I mean finding your purpose in any life situation. See "A Why to Bear a How."

Further Reading and Video

Mood Cure - google books


“Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise” by Robert E. Thayer, Oxford University Press US, 2003

“The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Rebalance Your Emotional Chemistry and Rediscover Your Natural Sense of Well-being” by Julia Ross, Penguin, 2002


Dr. David Burns on how our thoughts can shape our lives

In this whole series of studies that we've done, the more you walk in a day, the more energy you experience. That's a little counter-intuitive because you would think that when you expend energy, you would not feel as energetic afterwards. But, it turns out that it produces more energy. – Dr. R. Thayer

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