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David Burns' "Daily Mood Log"
Step 1: The Event


          The Daily Mood Log (or “DML”) has five steps:

          On this page, we’ll focus on describing an event that you found difficult, challenging, or unpleasant.  If you’re already able to do that in a calm and objective way, you may be ready to go on to Step 2.  

          If, however, the event is still emotionally charged for you, then it's important that you go through this step in order to benefit from the rest of the process.

Basic Instructions

Keep it Short and Simple . . . and Very Specific

          Your description of the event should be short, simple, and highly specific. We’ll take these in reverse order.

Highly Specific

          Many people have trouble being specific about the event because the thing they’re reacting to seems more global or ongoing.  But in order to use CBT techniques in a way that can change your life, no matter how large or long-term the event may seem, you need to start somewhere very specific.  

          So try to think in terms of an event that took place within just a few minutes – not something that’s been going on for weeks, days, or even hours. From out of that larger stream of events, choose a specific moment that triggered a particular reaction.  It's kind of like taking a snapshot of one pivotal moment.
          To give you a better idea, one time when he was being interviewed, David Burns said that when people first come to therapy, he'll ask them what problem they'd like to work.  They often respond with something very vague like, "Life stinks."  So he said he might then go on to ask, “Where exactly were you when you first noticed the smell?"

         Here’s an example of taking a global event and zeroing in on a specific moment that you could use for the first step of the Daily Mood Log:

L  i  f  e    s  t  i  n  k  s.

Nobody loves me.

I left my friend two messages
(s)he hasn’t gotten back
to me in over a week.

Last night when I got home around ten,
I listened to my messages
and there was still no message from my friend.

          It’s not until the last entry that there’s a specific moment for which you could fill out a Daily Mood Log.

Short and Simple

          You might find it difficult to describe your event briefly because events often seem so complex.  They may have many inter-related threads, and/or they may develop over a period of time.  So you could easily feel that in order to do the event justice, you’d need to include lots of details – perhaps the entire transcript of a conversation.  

          But too many details will keep you from seeing your way clearly to the heart of what made you react.  The key to keeping your description of the event short and simple lies in making it highly specific.

Mindful CBT
Cultivating Emotional Neutrality

          Viewing an event from a stance of emotional neutrality – that is, observing it calmly and without judgment – is the essence of mindfulness practice.  Many people have found that bringing a mindful awareness to the use of cognitive behaviorial therapy techniques makes them much more effective.

What is Emotional Neutrality?

          The Greek philosopher, Epictetus, said, “It is not things themselves that disturb us, but our judgments about those things.  When, therefore, we are disturbed or grieved, let us never blame anyone but . . . our own judgments.”  

          William Shakespeare, in the play Hamlet, put it even more simply: “Things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

          This is basically what we were trying to illustrate in the story of Tony on the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy page. You may remember that he got very angry when Don announced to the class that “nothing can make you angry.”  But then he understood what Don meant and it turned out to have a major transformative effect on his life.

          This notion goes against a lot of our cultural conditioning, so let’s take a closer look.

          Neuroscience tells us that when our mid-prefrontal cortex and heart brain are well-developed, we can experience what’s been described as a quiet, serene “core” at the center of our awareness. But even before they’re well-developed, it’s always potentially possible to access that core enough to be able to calmly observe whatever’s going on in and around us (on the rim of our wheel of awareness).

          Let’s think about this for a moment. If we always potentially have access to an experience of calm neutrality, no matter what’s going on, then the we feel  depressed, anxious, angry, or terrified, the ultimate cause of our suffering can’t lie in whatever’s happening.

          So, then, where is it?

          Well, if this “core” experience is always potentially available, then ultimately, the only reason we ever experience suffering is that we’re in some way cut off from it. What CBT tells us is that - as Epictetus suggests - our suffering lies in our own judgments, our own story about what’s happening – and it's those judgments or that story which cuts us off from our core.

          This is radically different from the way we normally look at things, and you may not find it very believable. But if there’s a part of our brain that is always calmly observing what’s going on in and around us – at least, while we’re awake – then it stands to reason we would be able to “connect” to that experience of neutral awareness.

      Here are two descriptions of a simple event - the event is you're about to take a test.  The first description is not neutral, the second one is neutral.  As you read the first one, see if you can tell where it's not neutral.

It’s one o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. I’m about to take this awful test that I’m not prepared for.  Everyone else is calm and they’re all going to do well.  I feel terrible. The teacher is looking at me like she knows I haven’t prepared and is thinking that I’m a bad student. I’m so anxious I’m not even going to be able to focus on the test.

        Here’s the second version:

It’s one o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. I’m sitting at my desk, about to take a test.  Memories of studying for the test are arising in my mind.  There are other people sitting around me.  Everyone is quite still. The teacher is looking at me.

        Notice that first version included descriptions of emotion (which are the second step of the Mood Log) and a lot of judgments and interpretations.  The second version was just a description of what was happening without judgments, emotions, or interpretations.

So How Do We Get to Emotional Neutrality?
Remember to Breathe

          How can we reconnect to the core and see the event more neutrally?  

          Sometimes, it helps to just remember that the experience of the core is always possible.  But if that doesn’t do it, then try taking some slow deep breaths to help you relax.  You may want to experiment with a number of the breathing and relaxation techniques on this site to see which ones work best to help calm you when you’re feeling reactive.

          When you're able to see the event with some degree of calm and objectivity, then you can go on to describing the event.  If, however, you need something more, here are a few additional suggestions.

Describe the Event in Purely Sensory Terms

          One way to get to a neutral description of an event is to simply pay attention to what your senses were telling you when the event took place. 

          The reason this is helpful relates to how our brain functions.  Initially, our senses deliver a totally neutral impression of whatever just happened to our brain.  Just microseconds later, our brain adds our habitual judgments and reactions, and creates "a story" about what happened.  This takes place so quickly that we easily miss the first neutral impression.  But focusing on what were our pure sensory impressions at the time, can help us recover that initial neutrality.

          Let’s return to the event we described above in the Introduction and let’s make up a setting for the event.  Imagine you’re part of a group working on a project (you can fill in whether it’s at school, work, or some other setting).  There’s someone in the group with whom you’ve been having minor conflicts, but you had no idea they had strong feelings about you one way or the other.  In the midst of a group discussion, you make a suggestion, and this person says, “That’s ridiculous – it doesn’t make any sense.  You must be a total idiot!”

          As you go through the exercise below, keep in mind that these are all purely sensory experiences which, in themselves, have no power to force you to react one way or another.  Not even the sound of the voice of the person who’s calling you an idiot can force you to react emotionally, even though it may feel like that’s what was causing your emotional reaction.


          What did you see?  Probably tables, chairs, people sitting around the table.  What color were the walls, the carpet? Where were the doors or windows?  What were people wearing?
          Now breathe deeply, try to relax, and, in your mind’s eye, look at the person who called you an idiot.  What was (s)he wearing, how was (s)he sitting?  Notice his or her facial expression.


         What sounds were you aware of?  Were people restless, fidgeting in their chairs?  Could you hear people walking or talking outside the room?  What did their voices sound like? How loud was the sound in the room? 

          Now breathe deeply and recall the sound of the voice of the person calling you an idiot.


          What did you feel in your body?  Where were you tense? What did you body feel like against the chair?  How about your feet against the floor?  Was the room warm or cool?

          If you were able to get even a glimpse of neutrality with regard to your sensory impressions of the person who called you an idiot, then you can begin to see that it was your judgment of what happened that caused you to react.  You may also have an inkling of how profoundly liberating this could be.

          But if this neutral sensory approach doesn’t work for you, here’s another approach you can try.  (We recommend, however, that you keep the sensory approach in the back of your mind as it can be very powerful and you might find it helpful at some point in the future.)

Become a News Reporter

          This is a more cognitive approach to neutrality. Even if it doesn’t decrease the charge of your emotional reaction, it might at least help you to write the event in a neutral way.

          For this exercise, instead of imagining you’re the person who was called an idiot, imagine you’re a news reporter who’s been invited to attend the meeting where someone called someone else an idiot.  As the reporter, you’re there to observe and deliver an accurate, unbiased report of what happens.

          It might help to ask yourself the classic reporter questions:

  • Who was at the meeting?

  • What was going on? What were people doing or saying?

  • When did this take place?  What day was it? At what point in the conversation did someone call someone else an idiot?

  • Where did the event take place? Where were people situated in relationship to each other?

(The “why” and “how” questions that are usually considered part of the reporter’s job will most likely take you out of neutral territory, so we'll skip them for now. The example below shows how even they can be answered neutrally.)

                                      The Three Little Pigs
                An Example of Who, What, When, Where, How

In case it’s not obvious what information you would be looking to gather from each of the six questions, let’s look at what information you might want to gather with the Five Ws and One H if you were reporting on The Three Little Pigs:

Who was involved?

The three little pigs (the first pig, the second pig and the third pig) and The Big Bad Wolf (a.k.a. Wolf).

What happened?

Each pig constructed a house out of different materials (straw, sticks and bricks). Wolf (allegedly) threatened to blow over their houses and is believed to have destroyed both the straw and stick homes at this time. Pigs one and two were able to flee to the brick house, where they remain at the moment. We’re still waiting to hear from local authorities, but it looks like the Wolf may have been injured while attempting to enter the brick house.

Where did it take place?

Outside a straw house, a stick house and a brick house.

When did it take place?

At various times throughout the day.

Why did it happen?

Apparently the Big Bad Wolf was trying to eat the pigs. Several eyewitnesses recall the Wolf taunting the pigs before he destroyed the straw and stick homes by chanting, “Little pigs, little pigs, let me in.” The pigs apparently scoffed at the Wolf’s idle threats, saying “Not by the hair of our chinny, chin chins.” It’s believed this angered the Wolf and led to him blowing the houses down.

How did it happen?

It would appear the first two homes were not built to withstand the Wolf’s powerful breath. The incident inside the brick house is still being investigated, but early indications suggest the Wolf fell into a pot of boiling water when trying to enter the house through the chimney.

     Source: http://blog.journalistics.com/2010/five-ws-one-h/
                      by Jeremy Porter on August 5, 2010

          Try each of these approaches, or develop one of your own. After you've written a simple, very specific, neutral description of your event, continue on to Step 2: Identifying Your Emotional Reaction.

         If you feel really “stuck” in your emotional reactivity, you might want to consider enlisting the help of a supportive person – someone who can empathize, remain calm, and serve as a “hub” of tranquility for you.