10 Signs It’s More Than Just Stress

Nobody’s perfect. And the stressors we all face on a regular basis can bring out the worst in pretty much everyone. But some people’s emotional turmoil runs a bit deeper than your average, everyday angst.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 1 in 5 Americans lives with a mental health issue that can make their relationships, careers, and physical health feel a lot harder to handle. These issues include depression, anxiety, mood or personality disorders, as well as obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders, and addictions. Many of these problems crop up by age 24 and can affect people throughout adulthood. But the sooner you pick up on their symptoms, the better shot you have at managing them so they don’t steer the course of your life.

Worried you’re struggling with something more serious than stress? Here are 10 vital signs you may need to reach out for help.

1. Your sleep is out of whack. Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleeping way more than you usually, do are prime signs your mental health may need a bit more attention, psychiatrist and trauma specialist Sudhir Gadh, M.D., tells Cosmopolitan.com. Sleep is one of our body’s most basic — and necessary — functions. So it makes sense that its soundness is a barometer of how OK our minds and bodies are.

Occasional restlessness is to be expected. But if you’ve felt for more than a week that you can’t wind down without prescription drugs, alcohol, or OTC sleep aids like melatonin, or you consistently struggle to get out of bed in the morning, Dr. Gadh points out your body is trying to tell you something.

2. Your interest in things you used to enjoy is totally flagging. “If you’re starting to not enjoy what you usually do, that may be a sign you’re dipping into depression or that your anxiety is getting the best of you,” Dr. Gadh says. Same goes for when you just aren’t feeling present or thrilled to be around people.

3. Your bar tab’s gone (way) up. Drinking more than you used to or reaching for other substances to quell the chaos in your mind are key signs something inside you is begging to be cared for, says Dr. Gadh. The downside of this approach to facing our problems, he adds, is that many substances can exacerbate mental disarray while doing nothing to resolve the initial problem.

4. Literally everything makes you ragey. If you’re over-focused on all the negative aspects of most people you know; lashing out at your partner, friends, family members, or coworkers more than usual; or if you’ve decided humanity is 100 percent horrible, there’s likely a deeper reason for this than the fact that everybody sucks. 

Sure, increases in irritability, aggression, or swings in mood can be normal responses to some substances, a significant loss of adequate sleep, or a serious bout of low blood sugar (read: hanger). And yes, there are some people who are straight up annoying AF. But if you’ve eaten, slept enough, and aren’t otherwise intoxicated (or over-caffeinated) yet still find yourself regularly freaking out at almost everyone around you, this could indicate you’re struggling with a personality or mood disorder, says Dr. Gadh.

A heightened reactivity to minor frustrations combined with a history of volatile friendships and romances, for instance, is a hallmark of borderline personality disorder, while major shifts in excitability, energy levels, and aggressiveness toward others could be red flags for bipolar disorder.

5. You’re engulfed by shame and guilt. Still hung up on a nasty comment someone made about you months ago? Fretting that you’re the source of everyone else’s sadness or frustration? Convinced you’re a failure in some significant area of your life? If thoughts like these are a regular part of your inner life, this may mean, according to Dr. Gadh, that something more serious needs to be addressed.

“Excessive rumination — that coulda shoulda woulda thought process — or a preoccupation with everything you’re doing wrong in your life,” he adds, “indicates you’ve hit some kind of breaking point and need more support.”

6. Your energy’s zapped. Feeling run down, fatigued, and unable to think or move as quickly as you used to are connected to mood issues like depression, generalized anxiety disorder, as well as emotional burnout.

7. You can’t concentrate. Forgetting things lately? Finding it tricky to focus during conversations or a meeting at work? Zoning out more than you used to? Dr. Gadh says that noticeable changes in your ability to pay attention or be present also indicate your mind’s not in its best place.

8. Your appetite has disappeared or you’re scarfing more food than you’re used to. A hallmark of depression is loss of appetite, says Dr. Gadh. Much of this, he explains, has to do with a depressed person’s difficulties deriving pleasure from pastimes like eating. As a result, they (not surprisingly) can lose noticeable weight. Hence why looser-fitting clothes can be occasional red flags for emotional issues.

Too much psychological turmoil may also make some of us load up on comfort foods, eat far more than we mean to, or engage in compulsive behaviors surrounding eating — including bingeing, purging, over-exercising, or obsessing over how much (or what) we’re consuming. So consider any extreme deviations in your normal eating habits your psyche’s way of screaming for help.

9. You just can’t sit still. From anxiously signing up for back-to-back spin classes to occupying every inch of your free time with busy work, urges to engage in constant activity can also indicate you’re avoiding something far more emotionally pressing, says Dr. Gadh.

10. You’ve considered some variation of the question, “What’s the point anymore?” Starting to wonder if life’s really worth it, feeling like you lack a purpose in the world or that your relationships and interests aren’t meaningful are unmistakable signs something’s wrong, says Dr. Gadh. “Ideally,” he adds, “you really want to get help before you get to this point.”

What to Do If the Above Rings True

Step one: Don’t panic. Just because you experience any of the above signs of a deeper issue doesn’t mean you’re “crazy” nor does it indicate all hope is lost. Only a clinician can assess whether you actually meet the criteria for mental illness. And if this does turn out to be the case, rest assured: There is a range of research-backed treatments to help.

Step two: Reach out to people you trust will not judge you. Hugely important in the maintenance of your mental health, he adds, is to strengthen those social ties that help buffer you from life’s inevitable setbacks. The sturdier your relationships, Dr. Gadh notes, the better able you are to bounce back from hardships. Ditto for accumulating more positive experiences with other people and involving yourself in endeavors that give your life more meaning.

Also consider connecting with a support group or mental health professional, says Dr. Gadh. There’s no shame in seeking assistance to better your mental well-being, he reminds us. And though more serious mental health issues can by no means be solved in a snap, the quicker you seek support to identify and manage whatever you’re grappling with, the sooner you’ll take back control over the course of your life from any underlying issues. (Consulting with a qualified professional can help connect you to the approach that works best for you.)

Step three: “Make sure your life habits are engineered so you’re not weakening yourself, overall” advises Dr. Gadh. Smoking; going overboard on sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and other substances; cheating on sleep; or not making time to sneak in some daily exercise can all wreck your mood, he says. See also: Skimping on vegetables or tucking away too many processed foods on a regular basis.

“Stress is like a force on a table,” Dr. Gadh says. “We all feel it. But the stronger we make ourselves through self-care, social connectedness, and personal meaning, the more of it we’ll be able to bear.”

For more information on where to go and how to get help, check out the following resources:

National Eating Disorders Association
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association
The American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator
PsychCentral.com’s Therapist Finder

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