Mapping Recovery-2: Tracking Your Symptoms

Ptolemaic Map of the Universe

Tracking your symptoms as part of mapping recovery might sound like one of those good ideas you’ll do for a while but eventually drop. It could be like all those computer programs for organizing your work into projects, goals and actions. The method itself becomes a big project and takes so much time that you can’t get anything else done.

Or it feels like another of those pointless prescriptions for getting well that you hear all the time. Like the Otis Redding song: so many people telling me what to do, that I think I’ll remain the same. You know how rotten you feel so what’s the point of jotting it down?

I used to think that way, and you may have the same impatience with the whole idea. But there are a lot of good reasons to do it.

1. Why Track?

Shift Awareness:

Tracking is only a tool for learning more about your illness. And learning is a form of change, a waking up to awareness of the habits of depression. You’re learning to turn off the auto-pilot of living.

It’s like feeling lost when you’re driving in an unfamiliar place. The first thing you do is turn down the volume of the radio or CD because you need to concentrate all your attention and awareness on your surroundings. You look more closely to find some marker to guide you.

As you start recovery, your attention shifts from the voice of depression to your close observation of where you are. You’re turning down the volume of a voice that wants all your awareness all the time. That voice is your guide to staying lost.

Tracking takes back the power of awareness to tell you where you are. You’re listening to your own voice instead of depression’s droning.

Get Specific:

Learning in general about the scope of depression symptoms is important. New knowledge helps you connect depression with dimensions of your life you may have thought were unaffected by the illness. That sharpens your awareness of what to look for but doesn’t fill in the details of your version of depression.

That’s what tracking is for. It helps you see more clearly each of the problems you have to deal with. You can compare the effects of the symptoms you follow: how severe each one is, how long it lasts, how badly it damages your life.

Take Action:

Getting active in your own treatment is itself a big step toward recovery. Depression is all about inaction, inability to move, to make decisions or use your brain for much of anything. Whatever you can do, however small a step it seems, can help break that spell of paralysis.

Improve your Treatment:

Tracking gives you something to share with a therapist. It’s more reliable than your memory and provides a good starting point for discussion.

2. What to Track

There’s a lot more to learn about your depression than you might think. You can track a huge amount of information if you’re up for it. But if you’re like me, you might want to start more slowly and get used to tracking a few key things rather than take on everything at once.

Getting Started

The first form of tracking I tried, at the suggestion of a therapist, was simply to jot down each day what sort of mood I was in. I used a scale of 1-10 so all I put down was a number. That was good start because I got in the habit of paying attention to the ups and downs of my moods from week to week and month to month.

Before long, I added mood levels for morning, afternoon and night. The tracking gave me – and the therapist – more detail to help explore what I was going through.

That’s about as far as I got with tracking at that time, but it helped make therapy sessions more meaningful. Now I had a lot more specifics to work with.

Going Deeper

His questions about specific events and feelings opened my thinking to other possibilities for tracking. During each session, he’d ask me to be clear about what I was feeling as I recalled some incident, whether my body was tensing up, what thoughts were going through my mind, what I had done and said as that event had unfolded.

Those were the details that brought the mood numbers to life. Not surprisingly, his questions centered on feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, behavior and relationships – the five broad categories of symptoms that are so commonly referred to in discussions of depression.

Although I didn’t consistently track all these dimensions, I started writing down a few phrases about them alongside the mood numbers.

Before then, I’d often arrive at a therapist’s office and wonder what I was going to talk about. I couldn’t remember very clearly what had happened – unless it was something earthshaking – and tended to act as if I felt better than I really did. Now I was beginning to feel more like a partner in treatment. I went to the therapist actively thinking about what had happened the week before. I was no longer depending on him to wake me up to my own experience.

Tracking All Your Symptoms

Building on the kind of tracking I did, you could get into following the specific symptoms of your depression profile, such as sleep disturbance, pain, loss of energy; level of concentration, memory, negative thinking – whichever problems are causing the most trouble.

You could also add notes about triggering events and memories and how you reacted to each one.

You don’t have to limit yourself to what’s wrong. If you try to take care of yourself each day, you can track the wellness activities and compare the timing of those with the ups and downs of depression. You decide exactly what to follow and how much detail to record.

3. Next Steps.

By doing this, you’re becoming much more active in your own healing process, and I believe that makes a big difference in how effective treatment can be. Whether you use a simple system with pen and paper or an elaborate computer program, you’re taking a step back from depression.

How you go about tracking is an important decision because the wrong choice can turn you off to the whole idea. Since it’s essential to find the tools you’re most comfortable with, I’ll review several in the next post.

Image by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at Flickr

2 Responses to “Mapping Recovery-2: Tracking Your Symptoms”

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  1. Donna-1 says:

    On May 21, I started tracking my moods and some startling truths have already emerged. For instance, I knew I usually felt better in the morning. But every single day since I’ve been tracking, I have felt alert and calm and in a fairly good mood early, then as the day progresses I feel worse and worse till at night I am a basket case. I still haven’t gotten far enough to figure out if there is something I can do about this, or if it is just my own body’s emotional rhythm. But I’ve been writing down what I ate before a big mood shift, too, and it appears that a lot of carbs at once lifts my mood. I guess that is not such a stretch seeing as how carbs provide almost instant energy. But as this progresses I may find that I am able to stretch carbs out over the course of the day to my advantage. Nutrition seems to be a big key for my recovery.

    • Hi, Donna –

      That’s the sort of discovery that has led me to start tracking again. I’ve decided to pay most attention to the problems I haven’t focused on in detail in the past. As you’re finding with nutrition, I’ve been linking anxiety and stress to depression for some time now, but I haven’t looked at how those two play off each other in day to day living. I had one of those no-duh moments when I realized that.

      As far as simple carbs go, I’ve always thought of them as comfort food. I’ve read that depressed folks do reach for those foods exactly for the mood boost. Years ago, when I was dealing with cancer, I made big changes in diet so it’s been whole grains and complex carbs for me. Anything with much sugar tends to drag me down, strangely enough, but food is definitely my drug of choice. Now there are exceptions to the sugar drag effect (intensified by lots of oils and fats) and guess what that is.

      I’m not giving up my daily 3 oz dose of bittersweet chocolate – which has obvious health benefits, especially with almonds.

      Keep on tracking – I’ll report on my findings soon.


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