Mood journaling isn’t your typical record of daily activities. Rather, it’s a way to identify and take action around your feelings. If you can record how you are feeling and what you are thinking, you are better able to track your emotions, notice people or places that are triggers, and recognize warning signs of your strong emotions.

Journaling your thoughts, emotions, and challenges has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. One reason: Putting down our problems on paper often helps us see the causes — and therefore solutions — more clearly.

A mood journal is similar, but since it’s focused on your emotions, it’ll bring clarity to how to improve your mental health. An emotion journal allows you to record your feelings over several days or weeks and then notice patterns or trends. When you can recognize these trends, you can work to eliminate or avoid certain triggers — or focus your energy on how best to respond next time.

How to keep a mood journal
All you need is a blank notebook and a pen. At bedtime, or whenever you have a few quiet moments, outline the following columns to help you reflect on a few of your biggest emotions from the day:

Emotion name
In the first column name the emotion.

What caused this emotion?
When we pause for a bit of self-reflection, we can usually identify the situation fuelling an emotion. Maybe it wasn’t really the mess your kids left in the kitchen that prompted that after-dinner blow up, for example, but the stressors you experienced at work that day. Take a moment to get honest and write down the real cause of what you’re feeling.

Behaviours or actions this emotion caused me to take
It’s human nature to act in response to emotion. Sometimes this leads to beautiful expressions of love, gratitude or joy. But other times, it means giving in to road rage or spending an hour locked in the bathroom crying.

Is this emotion appropriate to the situation?
Do your emotional responses match with the circumstances that caused them? Consider the scale of your response, too. It may help to consider what you’d tell a friend if they were in your situation.

Is this situation a distress to be tolerated or a problem to solve? And how?
If today’s emotion wasn’t such a positive one, you have a decision to make: What are you going to do about it?

For situations you can change, make an action plan. Have an honest conversation with a friend who said something hurtful, for example, or set an appointment to get a troublesome health problem checked out.

Some circumstances, however, are simply outside our control. In this case, it’s wise to embrace the concept of “distress tolerance.” This is our capacity to withstand difficult emotions. Consider what healthy coping mechanisms you have at your disposal (better self-care, perhaps, or time with good friends), and take care to implement them.

If you react to your triggers fairly immediately, perhaps on a scale that doesn’t align with the trigger (like a delay during your commute sending you into a rage that ruins your entire day), it can help to practice self-care in the moment. If you feel yourself experiencing a distressing emotion, consider taking a short walk, taking 10 slow breaths, or listening to your favourite song.

Working on improving your mental health with a mood journal doesn’t necessarily mean that identifying your triggers or behaviour patterns will lead to immediate solutions. Seeing results may take a while. Don’t be discouraged, though. Continue journaling and fine-tuning your action plan to find what works best for you.