Big Picture Mood Charting

I’m sure those of you that have been reading a while know that I am a big mood-charting enthusiast and for those of you who haven’t, well, I get a real thrill from any kind of chart or graph in general. Don’t even get me started on those that can convey something as mysterious as the inner workings of living with bipolar disorder… that’s my jam.

I’ve spent a lot of time messing around with different charts and graphs as a result and ultimately I’ve found that there is one type of mood chart in particular that has been very helpful in providing a big-picture look at how my symptoms operate. I call it the “color band mood chart” and it is a way to visualize what types of episodes I have and when they have taken place over a period of time.

I’ve spent some time sharing about this type of charting before (here) but I wanted to revisit the topic because with nearly five years of data now on my chart it becomes very easy to see the comings and goings of my episodes. I live with mood swings that can occur over a long period of time (months) but also swings that can happen several times in a day so this method of charting is really useful for seeing my episode length and severity of symptoms in a single glance.

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This type of charting is done on graph paper and the key above denotes how the element of time is displayed in the chart. I have opted to leave out any mood swings taking up less than 3 hours in a day (even though they are often present) to chart the moods that encompass the longest period of time each day. I also limit the mood swings represented in a single block to 3, any more than that and I typically just consider it a “mixed episode” day.

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The key above shows what each colored box represents. Green areas are periods of stability. Blue represents depression, but darker blue signifies more severe depression (generally with some symptoms of suicidality). Yellow denotes hypomania with red representing full mania. Brown represents mixed symptoms and black represents more severe mixed symptoms (usually with psychosis or suicidality).

The chart below begins in 2011 and I’ve been compiling data every day (with the exception of a short period in June, 2011) since. Looking back and looking at the chart below I can certainly say that 2011 and 2014 were both pretty hard years for me and both required psychiatric hospitalizations. There have been other times I may have benefitted from hospitalization that I only really recognize by looking back at the chart as well.

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Sarah’s Color-Band Mood Chart showing bipolar episode length and severity  from 2011-2016

 

If you have been reading the past few months you might remember I had a pretty severe mixed episode in June and part of July and if you look here at the bottom of the chart you can see the dark shapes that represent that period as I fluttered between depressive, mixed, and elevated symptoms.

The information on these two pieces of graph paper have been huge in helping me convey my symptoms to my doctor and also to avoid undergoing treatment that isn’t potentially helpful to my own personal brand of bipolar disorder (as not all types of treatment are useful for all types of bipolar symptoms). I began the chart because I really wanted to find the patterns in how my episodes work, but as you can see there is really much more to my illness than experiencing symptoms at a specific time of year or alternating back and forth between depression and mania specifically. The chart has also been great for seeing how the medications I have tried have effected me and since my symptoms are treatment resistant it has been really important to have this tool to convey the way many medications have triggered (or worsened) episodes for me (like during the past few months) instead of quelled them.

It has been encouraging too to see episodes that were initially big chunks of depression or hypomania become smaller fractured chunks. Even without a medication to stabilize me everything I’ve learned about how to cope with the mood swings themselves has helped me bounce back out of them at times instead of staying locked in. Even though there are times I find there is little I can do to shake my way out of an episode, the smaller daily mood swings are something I’ve learned to cope with somewhat more effectively.

Just something fun to share and maybe some inspiration for those of you living with mood swings (bipolar or unipolar too). Being able to quantify the periods I am having problems has made living with my illness much easier to accept and try to treat.

For more information on mood charting (including other charting methods and tips) you can read “why chart?” as well as a number of other posts from Chart Week like “Personalizing Mood Chart Rating Scales or  “What else can I chart?”

 

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8 responses to “Big Picture Mood Charting

  1. Wow! That chart is impressive. The colors appeal to the artist in me. I might just give it a try.
    Frankly, I am a good, okay, or bad kind of analytic. I find it difficult to fine tune my analysis of each mood. My psychiatrist prefers one that is much more complicated than the one I use. Maybe I will go with a few less colors than you, but still, it is worth a go.
    I do have a question. When does a person quit charting? When does charting outlive its usefulness? I have been doing it for a long time now. It seemed important when I had regular visits with the psychiatrist but now that I don’t I sort of wonder what the point is.
    Comments welcome.

    • Since my mood swings are pretty sporadic charting is helpful for predicting how intense an episode will be (though accurate prediction can be tough at times). Otherwise I’ve really just been keeping up with charting because I like having a record of my symptoms (again, I’m treatment resistant so I haven’t hit any sort of stable plateau), I like those moments of introspection charting forces me to take to keep me accountable, and I’ve used the information more than once for artistic purposes.

      I expect continuing charting might also be useful if you’re on medications, keeping track of the effectiveness of those medications might be worthwhile to help gauge if you might want to increase or reduce a dose. There really isn’t a definitive answer on when to quit charting but if you don’t feel like you are getting anything out of it I could see how one might want to quit. I’d love to imagine a life where I felt stable enough to go without expecting any big mood surprises, if that were the case I would certainly consider stopping the charting.

  2. My doctor has asked me to track my moods right now to see how a medication is doing in my system. I’ve been writing ridiculous notes about the day and my energy level or moments of deep sadness. So, in terms of tracking, do you do this at the end of the day and just give a general summation? Do you list anywhere what you did that day? I used to track for DBT, and on a day I didn’t do well my therapist would always ask me what happened that day, so I had to start keeping track of what I did that day to understand any triggers. Any room for that? Does that matter for you?

    • That’s a good question, and what you see here on this post is only a fraction of the information I take down each day. I actually keep a little notebook where I write down information on my mood, energy level, anxiety level, physical pain (among other things) several times a day, and I also write what I did that day (and sometimes the hours I did them) so that I can use that information to figure out things like my triggers and what DBT skills I am using that are helpful in reducing my mood swings.

      Personally I find it easiest to check in with my little mood notebook several times a day, but again I can have several mood swings in a day so it is often more complicated than just giving myself a daily mood rating. I realize it might seem like I take more notes than I need to, but writing down things like what I ate that day and what time has helped me understand how my diet plays into my mental health too. Ultimately my goal is to understand what I can do in every aspect of my life that will help keep me more stable, and since I am treatment resistant it has been helpful to look at my body as a whole instead of just the emotional aspects on their own.

  3. That’s amazing! I’m debating how lazy I am ‘cuz it just sounds like a fantastic system you got going on. I think I am getting to a place where we are going to have to accept I am treatment resistant, and while I try to do everything I can, I think tracking all of the components will probably be the next step. Thanks!

  4. The Gender Hippo

    This is great. I thought it was one of those cool “studyblr” journal things where you have to be really talented and dedicated to journal aesthetically when I was scrolling by. I might give it a go. My moods change throughout the day — I haven’t had long episodes in a few years. Very impressive the you’ve been charting for all these years!!
    Can I share this on my blog?

  5. Pingback: Mood Charting, inspired by Sarah’s bi[polar] curious blog – Just Another Rebel

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