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Charts, Beliefs & Tunnel-Vision

Updated: Mar 30

Photograph by Michael Odelberth

Earlier this year, I was exposed to it. Or at least, that’s what I thought. You know those experiences that feel existentially familiar yet nominally new? Like a newborn puppy instinctively circumambulating prior to a torrential downpour, or the immediate confidence that comes with learning how to ride a bike? The apprehension still exists, but you know you can do it.

Mind Over Mood is a renowned Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) manual and workbook. The most pervasive exercise in it is the Thought Record, which includes the following: a record of one’s situation during a given instance of an extreme mood or moods, a percentage rating of its severity, questions pertaining to the mood to identify a hot thought, evidence for and against the validity of said thought, a culmination of more balanced statements and a re-evaluation of mood intensity. Upon first glance and usage, this method seems quite reliable and intuitive. There is flow, coherence and from a subjective assessment, efficacy. The questions particularly help to identify your biases and some of the radical implications of severe moods. There is even some multi-dimensionality to it, given that there are two standard questions indiscriminately asked, regardless of your mood. They are more contextual and address your thoughts and actions before your mood had intensified.

However, there are some evident flaws. Most prominently, the demand to numerically measure one’s mood. Is there a reliable method for quantifying one’s feelings? Would someone be capable of doing so in an emboldened state? My guess would be no. This is crucial, given that the highest rated mood will be the one to be examined. Misidentification here could render the exercise useless and exacerbate the user’s state of mind; if they’ve accurately defined it, that is.

Mind Over Mood reduces the human experience to five basic moods: anger, anxiety, depression, guilt and shame. For the purposes of self-inquiry and information management, this is rather effective. It doesn’t overwhelm the reader with a slog of questions and localizes the problem so that the exercise becomes more manageable. This makes one’s entire condition seem less daunting. In terms of efficiency and load organization, this is commendable, more digestible and simpler. But that’s just it — is simplicity always superior?

When I experience a series of negative emotions, descriptive nouns inundate my mind: frustration, confusion, consternation, bewilderment, disappointment, embarrassment, lamentation and humiliation — none of which are indistinguishable from each other. Convenience may dictate it better to shoehorn these emotions into the existing categories provided by the authors, but are the questions truly suitable for more nuanced temperaments? It’s not just a matter of semantics when I say that my anger doesn’t equate to my frustration, or that my disappointment isn’t identical to depression or generic sadness. I don’t want to rage, yell or aggressively defend myself when I’m frustrated. I’m simply annoyed by struggling to achieve a goal that’s repeatedly been denied to me. Even the latter two moods, guilt and shame, share diagnostic questions in the Automatic Thought inventory. That seems rather reductive and sheds more opacity than light, making the reader additionally confused. Without the addition of more precise and distinct queries, there’s a lack of nuance that can completely undermine one’s project.

While Mind Over Mood is best used in conjunction with the assistance of a mental health professional, it should still provide enough insight without the need for constant clinical consultation. I have occasionally felt short-changed and disappointed when analyzing my moods, as though more content would help me deconstruct my feelings. Patterns, triggers and core beliefs emerge with each exercise, simultaneously facilitating and belaboring the process of self-awareness. With each subsequent record comes more transparency about recurring issues, but more curiosity about how to address them and mitigate their implications on everyday life.

It’s bold to claim to accurately pinpoint someone’s basic presuppositions and insecurities through casual records. If we want to improve our comprehension of the human condition, a more sophisticated assessment of emotion is required; maybe one that involves a sixth category.


Adrian is a writer and editor with a passion for language, philosophy and psychology. He is returning to academia to pursue a career in neuropsychology, investigating the relationship between stress, anxiety, and the provocation of various neurological disorders. His professional contributions include personal essays for the online publication “The Mindful Word" and editorial work for LetsStopAIDS.

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