How do I know when my mental health isn’t as good as it could be?

Hello and welcome to my first ever blog post! I hope you find it useful and interesting. It was hard to decide what to focus on for my first blog post, I went backwards and forwards on topics many times. However in the end, it seemed best to start at the beginning, with how we might know when our mental health isn’t as good as it could be. 

As I said on my facebook post, the real key thing to look for is change. Change in how we think, feel, act, our sleeping patterns, our relationship with food and use of alcohol and/or drugs. Read on to get more of an idea what I mean…..

Thoughts

When a person is becoming mentally unwell, one of the first things to alter, but often one of the later things they notice, is that their thinking changes. To begin to notice, we need to pay attention to our internal monologue, that little voice in the back of our heads that chatters away nearly constantly. What that voice is saying really matters. To demonstrate how much this matters; a recent study by Tseng and Poppenk completed in 2020 suggested that we think more than 6000 thoughts per day (here’s a link to the study in the journal Nature Communications – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17255-9 )

Imagine if you could remember every last one of those thoughts. What would the general “feel” of those thoughts sound like to you? Do they sound inquisitive? Angry? Enthused? Sad? Worried? Happy? Excited? Or something else? We might not be able to remember all those thoughts, or even really be aware of them all as they occur, but we are left with how they make us feel, that bit we are usually aware of. Once we are aware of the feeling the thought is leaving behind, we can start to listen a little closer to become aware of the thoughts behind that feeling. 

The next step then, is to get an idea of how our individual thought processes change. For instance; when you’re struggling at work, home or college, do you daydream about a different life or do you think angry thoughts towards your boss, family member or teacher? Maybe you become really distractible and find it hard to focus your mind, or perhaps you do the opposite and bury your head in work because that feels more manageable? This is why it is important to do this piece of work for yourself, because only you know what’s going on inside, only you have access to this information. So let’s try to listen to that internal chatter a little more often, because if we catch a change early, we can try to work with it before it becomes a serious problem. 

Feelings

Let’s talk about feelings/emotions next. Again, this is an area where only you can really know what is going on. You are the only person who can feel your feelings and know when they are changing so let’s look at how you might begin to tune in to your emotions if you struggle with this. 

Something we have on our side when it comes to trying to recognise our emotions is our bodies. The more research is done the more clearly we see that our bodies and minds are connected and respond to one another. A really good book that demonstrates some of what I’m talking about is; The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk, though I must add a trigger warning as this book focuses on trauma.

How do our bodies help us to identify emotions? Well, again the first thing to do is pay attention to how your body reacts in different situations. When you are in a stressful situation for instance; where do you feel tension – your back, shoulders, stomach, arms? Do you get a headache maybe? When you are heading into a nerve wracking situation do you feel – butterflies in your stomach, sweat on your hands or forehead, jittery legs, do you start to stammer perhaps? When something happens that really winds you up does your body tell you by – causing tightness in your hands, arms, legs or jaw? What is your facial expression? How does your voice change – are you louder or quieter, higher or lower pitched, do you talk faster or slower?  All of these questions could be applied to any emotion you want to investigate further so you can gain a better understanding of how that feeling presents itself to you. 

Right then, you’ve looked at how your body is reacting to different emotions, how can we use that information to identify early warning signs that our mental health is deteriorating? Well, for a start we compare what we are seeing now to what is normal for us when we are in a good place mentally. We pay attention to what emotions we are feeling, how often and what is triggering those emotional responses and we ask ourselves; is this normal for me, or am I feeling more negative emotions or stronger negative responses than is usual for me? If you are, it might be time to look inward and figure out why, or maybe find some support. 

Behaviour

Now let’s look at behaviour. You might be glad to hear, this is an area where other people might be able to help us. If you are lucky enough to have someone, or multiple someone’s in your life who; 

  • Know you well enough to notice a change in your behaviour
  • Are able, feel safe enough to and are willing to share what they see with you
  • And I cannot stress this enough – who you feel safe to ask for this information from, someone who won’t use it against you, someone who respects and values you, someone who cares about your feelings but can be safely honest with you, someone who can tell you the truth, without being hurtful

Then they might be able to tell you what behaviour they see from you normally and when something is different. That’s some great info right there if you are able to get it and absolutely we can use this to help us to see when our mental health is deteriorating.

However if this is not available to you for whatever reason, we can still monitor our own behaviour and figure this out for ourselves. There are several ways you can do this, one good place to start is to look at what a normal day/week is like for you. What do you get up to, what is your routine if you have one? Do you still want to do the things that you normally do, especially the fun stuff? Has your motivation to do things you used to enjoy disappeared? 

Another question to ask that shows us how our behaviour might be changing is; what does my environment look like and what is going on around me? For instance; Am I normally a very house proud person whose home now feels like a tip to me? Have all my bits and pieces related to my hobby got dust on them because I haven’t touched them in ages? Has my dog brought his lead to me multiple times and sat there looking sad because our walk should have been an hour ago? Are my lovely houseplants looking neglected when they were once blooming? All these things, and I’m sure you can come up with many more examples that you relate to better, demonstrate to us that our behaviour is changing. The next question to ask is – why? Is it that I’ve been focused on work or the kids and just need a bit of me-time to recharge or am I becoming unwell and need help? Only you know the answer to that one but the more closely we monitor these things the earlier we notice a change and we can respond more quickly and fix it more easily as a result. 

Sleep

Sleep is another, sometimes more obvious change that can show us when we are starting to struggle. Conventional wisdom suggests that most adults need around 8 hours of sleep per night. How about you? Do you get the right amount of sleep for you? Do you tend to go to bed and get up around the same time each day? If you work shifts or have less routine around sleep for whatever reason, do you manage to get enough shut eye over the course of a week if not every day/night? 

If you are struggling to get to sleep, or waking up a lot in the night, that can be a sign of stress or that you are becoming unwell. One good piece of news here is that although lack of sleep can cause us some upsetting symptoms, even temporary psychosis in some very unlucky circumstances, they are generally exactly that – temporary. If you get enough sleep, they vanish.

Equally, some people when they become depressed, stressed or anxious go the opposite way; all they want is to sleep and getting up or staying awake can become difficult for them. It is unclear at the moment why people go one way over the other, but it is worth noting if you can what your response tends to be. Do you find you need more sleep or do you struggle to get enough sleep when you aren’t as well as you could be? 

Relationship with food

Another more external and therefore easier to spot change can be your relationship with food. If you are like me, then when you get stressed, anxious, upset, then food becomes a comfort. The problem is, when we rely on food for comfort we often eat things that aren’t too great for us, things with too much sugar or fat and that have very few nutrients in them and therefore it doesn’t really help beyond that initial comfort. 

However just like with the sleep example, some people react in the opposite way and find that their appetites disappear, they just don’t want to eat. This can be very dangerous as it can lead into an eating disorder, which as we know can lead to death. I am not an eating disorder specialist so I don’t want to say too much here other than, if this is you – please, please, please get help. Speak to your GP or an eating disorder specialist in the first instance. We don’t want to lose you, every person is precious. That includes you person reading this right now, you too.

But if your change is short term and simply in response to how you are feeling, then it is a good indication that something isn’t quite right and it is always worth looking a little deeper to figure out why. You might just need a hug from someone who loves you and a bit of self-care, but you might need more help than that too and that is okay.

Alcohol and drug use 

The final area I would suggest we look at is alcohol and/or drug use. Are you someone who uses alcohol or drugs normally? There is no judgement in that question, as with everything else we’ve discussed we can only identify change if we know where we are starting from. 

If you don’t drink or use drugs, but suddenly find that you want to, or are using more often this can be a sign that you are trying to push something away mentally if that makes sense. Often when a person uses alcohol/drugs they are doing so because it helps them to forget, if only for a while, the thing they don’t want to think about. That can be something as awful as a traumatic experience but it can also be; stress at work, relationship problems, loneliness or sometimes they use alcohol/drugs to get to sleep. Is that you? Did you previously only drink in social settings to have fun but now you need it to be able to relax? Are you starting to get withdrawal symptoms from what you are drinking/taking? Does it feel too difficult to cope with work/home/life without it? Do you want to stop or cut down, but it feels impossible? All of these may be signs that you are in need of help, not just to stop/cut down but also with your mental health.

Phew that was long eh? 

So what do you think? Have I missed anything? Has some of this resonated with you (if you feel safe to share, no pressure)? I hope this guide will help you to assess your own mental health and help you to realise as quickly as possible if something isn’t right, so that you can sort it out and not end up seriously unwell in future. 

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