5 Bullet Journal Spreads for Mental Health (+ beginner’s guide)
I started a bullet journal in early-March 2017. At the time, I was a wreck. I had been trying to orient myself in a swirling mess of thoughts, emotions, and tasks. Following my hospital discharge, I was researching positive habits and ways to confront my perfectionism. Grand dreams were brewing about how I should lead my life and take charge of my well-being. I dumped my then-boyfriend. I was running around going to psychiatrist and psychotherapist appointments, trying to surf the transition from inpatient to outpatient care. My student accessibility services counselor and I were busy trying to get my academics sorted. See, I am a very organized individual. But when all these things were happening at once, it became overwhelming. I started out just wanting a method of organizing my crazy life, but ended up with an indispensable tool for improving my mental health.
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What is a bullet journal anyway?
Bullet journalling, at its core, is an organizational tool. It helps you plan tasks, events and appointments through its rapid logging system. However, the bullet journalling community has taken that simple premise and made something beautiful. You may have seen those picturesque, artsy “spreads” (a term for either a page or two-page setup for content). I also find these spreads beautiful and all of these bullet journallers are incredibly talented. But I’m not referring to that in particular. The ‘something beautiful’ is the perpetuation of self-love, self-care, goal-setting, and practicing self-awareness that came about alongside and perhaps even as a result of the trend.
If you already have a bullet journal and know all the basics, you can skip ahead to “Spreads for Mental Health”. If not, tag along with me and learn about the bullet journal system!
Bullet Journal Basics
What do I need to get started?
A notebook and a pen. Really. That’s all you need to bullet journal. It doesn’t have to be one of the fancy ones you see on Pinterest. You can use any notebook to bullet journal, but many bullet journallers prefer to use a notebook with dotted paper. I highly recommend that you try the system out for a couple weeks before you commit to buying a dotted paper notebook as they can get rather pricey. Don’t get discouraged if you find it is not helpful for you. Bullet journalling isn’t for everyone, and that’s completely okay!
I’ve got my notebook and a pen. What now?
Now you learn the basic bullet system. Don’t worry, you can adapt it to your needs as you go along.
Below is the basic bullet system’s key and an example of the ways each of the bullets can be used in one “daily log” (one day’s worth of bullets).
The bullets are meant to be written rapidly – as this is a ‘rapid logging system’ that aims to make task logging and tracking quick and objective. While this is a completely workable key, I’ve found that it doesn’t work for my needs.
This is the key that I use now:
These bullets are much more intuitive for me. I think I have something against the Xs. It must be a remnant of the old days in high school when I thought any X on a paper meant ‘failure’. I digress – the important part is that there’s a selection of bullets that mean something to you and can help you classify, track, move around, and categorize.
Now, I am not currently aiming to show you my basic spreads (the yearly overview, monthly spreads, daily logs, etc.). If you would like these, please shoot me a message and I’ll write another post on it. Instead, I would like to show you the different ways your bullet journal can be used to bolster your mental health outside of these basics. Take a look at some of the spreads in my bullet journal that have been helpful for me and may be helpful for you.
Note: My first notebook in 2017 was a Leuchtturm1917 (Dotted, A5) – Berry, which was 26 x 38 squares. As of 2018, I use a Leuchtturm1917 (Dotted, A5) – Gold Limited Edition – it is 27 x 38 squares.
Spreads for Mental Health
1. Year in Perspective
This is a one-page spread that you can use to track your daily moods throughout the year. Each colour signifies a different overall mood. You may choose to use words instead of smileys/frownies like I used here! To the top right, I include a space to mark the quantity of each mood throughout each month. I plot these on the line graph on the right side of the page. For simplicity’s sake, I chose to add up the two higher moods and the two lower moods and leave the neutral mood on its own.
Benefits for Mental Health
The spread is especially useful for seeing that although some days will be tougher to get through, there are other days where I am feeling better. Sometimes, I fall into the cognitive distortions of fortune telling and overgeneralizing when thinking about my mood. On days I am feeling quite low, I may think, “I feel terrible today…like always…like it always will be”. I certainly felt this way during Jan 19-22nd. However, clearly there were days in the past that were better. I had brighter days after this period as well. It is a way to show yourself direct, visual evidence that we do not go through life in one sustained overall mood.
2. Habit Tracker
I have used two different variations of the habit tracker over the past year. The first was a detailed habit tracker with three major sections (from top to bottom): mental health, physical health, and activities/to-dos.
This iteration was useful when I was recording info for my mental health professionals. In mental health, I included factors that I thought might be affecting the magnitude of my symptoms (depression & anxiety). At the time, I tracked days when I was extremely lethargic, my period, any panic attacks/anxiety attacks, if I woke up during the night (because I would usually stay awake for quite some time), and my bed/wake time.
In physical health, I included factors that I figured would play a role in my general energy levels – because physical health is the foundation for mental health. Back then, I was taking sertraline (Zoloft) and Abilify, and I made sure to take these everyday. I tracked my hours of sleep along with my actual amount of sleep (found through Sleep Cycle, an app). I also wrote down how much time I spent a day napping (I personally struggled a lot with sleep quality on Abilify). Caffeine intake, alcohol intake, and exercise were intuitive additions to this section.
The activities/to-dos section was either miscellaneous necessary activities or any habits that I wanted to work on building/re-introducing over the month. In this section, you’ll see the reality of bullet journalling – your spreads will likely not turn out satisfyingly filled out. For myself, I’m not even sure if I just kept forgetting to fill out some of the habits or if I filled my days with other activities. Probably the latter. Hey, it’s completely okay. Your bullet journal is most useful to you when you are real about it! Use the information to reflect and rehash new goals for the next month.
Habit Tracker Version 2.0
The second iteration that I switched to around November is much simpler. I am now significantly more in control of my symptoms and thus I am focusing on building up activity-based habits. I also stopped taking medications back in September, so there was no more need to track my compliance.
Note: “Slow morning” refers to a practice where you try to go through your morning routine more slowly and mindfully. For me, this included washing up, putting on face products, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, taking care of dental hygiene, choosing my clothes, etc. Another important addition I made is on the right-hand side. The gratitude log.
3. Gratitude Log & Gratitude Word Cloud
In the past, I tried spreads where I wrote down 2-3 things I was grateful for every night. I found that sticking to it was incredibly difficult. In December, I made a special two-page spread just to give thanks for 2 things every night. This was when I finally began to be able to stick to this habit:
I spent (almost) all of December writing 2 things a night that I was grateful for, and around Christmastime, I put the key words into a word cloud generator and printed it out (you don’t have to do this part – I just thought it’d be a fun exercise for the spirit of Christmas). The idea with the squares under the tree was for me to try and summarize my December gratitude experience in some sentences. In the end there wasn’t really a way to package (heh) all the gratitude I had in the present (hah). Clearly I spent a lot of time gaming in December! I appreciated this because I had completely lost touch with my love for gaming for a very long time before the winter break.
Benefits for Mental Health
Oftentimes, with depression and anxiety, falling asleep is difficult because we tend to ruminate on the day’s proceedings in a prolonged and unhealthy manner. I found that recording 1 or 2 things I was grateful for each night set me up for a good night’s sleep. The mind can only really focus on one thing at a time, so I made a habit of writing these gratitude notes right before I was about to close my eyes, and then made an effort to continue thinking about this gratitude as I drifted off to sleep. Of course, some nights were worse than others, but trust me – it helped to practice.
4. Venting Pages (aka “Fuck This, Fuck That”)
Benefits for Mental Health
This is a rather fun one. Instead of suppressing anger, it is better to let yourself feel it out in a healthy manner, like through writing. Emotional suppression, or ‘bottling things up’, often do not bode well for your mental health. Also, by limiting the space in which you can vent, you can reduce the likelihood of falling into a negative thought spiral. Once you are caught in that spiral, it can make the emotion linger or worsen. For myself, I only really used the spread one time over a few months because I do not tend to become angry easily. It was actually more of a pep talk, because at the time, I was frustrated that I was holding myself back from trying to get closer to a crush of mine at school. (It worked too!)
5. Self-Care Spinner
Benefits for Mental Health
I made this spread after reading the first few chapters of The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook. In DBT, one effective strategy of dealing with negative thought spirals or unwanted intense emotions is distraction. Distraction is not the same as avoidance. The aim here is to distract yourself until the emotion becomes less intense, or the thoughts become less dire. You will then have the headspace to control them through other DBT techniques. The workbook offers many types of strategies for how to distract yourself. I found a few that were more personal to me and created a spinner. I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling horrendous, my decision-making ability goes out the window. So with this spinner, I can have fate decide what I will do to distract myself. I just need a pencil and a paperclip I keep in the back pocket of the notebook. Just as with a crisis plan, the more automated you can make your decision-making process when you are feeling intensely low, the better. I also kept a tab on this page so that it was easier to access when I needed it.
Remember: The Bullet Journal is for YOU.
One trap I fell into when I started my BuJo was comparing it to others. There were beautiful ones I saw on Pinterest, Youtube, and on other blogs. Now, I’m a decently artsy person, but these people seemed to be on a whole ‘nother level. I got frustrated with my own spreads. It took a couple of months for me to drop the comparing and be real with myself. A bullet journal is for you and only you. If you want to make it simple and minimalistic because that is your style, go for it! If you like the washi tapes, the brush calligraphy, and all the bells and whistles, by all means, go ahead! You can use watercolour paints, multiple pens, markers, pencil crayons, and/or pencils. In the end, the BuJo is meant to serve your needs. There are those in the BuJo community who prefer to stick with the basic system and don’t like additional spreads – this is fine! Even the basic activity tracking is beneficial for mental health. So do what feels right for you, and don’t be afraid to try things out. There is absolutely no one holding you to a spread but yourself.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),