A few honest answers about yourself can help you find out what’s going on inside – and provide an early warning of problems in the future
The symptoms of mental illness are no joke. If you’ve never experienced them before, the effects can feel earth-shattering. After a bout of anxiety, I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus. I’ve also dealt with dissociation, panic attacks, palpitations, and complete exhaustion, to name a few. But I always ask myself the same thing when I’m at my absolute lowest: how didn’t I see this coming?
Spotting the precursors to mental illness may not stop the inevitable, but it can encourage you to ask for help sooner, and implement some damage control. Being aware of the red flags takes practice, but self-reflective questions can help you unearth what’s really going on. Catherine Asta Labbett, award-winning female-focused psychotherapist at bringingsparkleback.co.uk, helped me pull this list together, and has shared her expert insights, with us.
Before you start
Try not to judge your answers, or feel bad about what you uncover, just be honest. You could try using these as journal prompts. Psychotherapists say that expressive writing is helpful for those who do not typically express emotions, or have a past trauma. You could also try picking one question, and use it as part of a meditation practice to help block out external noise and think clearly.
1. What am I avoiding and why?
If you’re pushing one aspect of your life into a box, then try to figure out why this might be the case. ‘Avoidance coping’ can typically lead to increased anxiety, so if you’re unable to do the thing that’s worrying you, it could be the start of a slippery slope.
2. Have I done something today that makes me feel happy?
Not getting enjoyment out of life is a key indicator of poor mental health, so try to schedule in activities that have made you happy in the past. Catherine says: “There is a growing body of scientific research out there which has found that happiness can make our hearts healthier, our immune system stronger, and our lives longer. Focus on the things that bring you joy.” I personally prioritise things that involve socialising with friends, moving my body, and experiencing nature.
3. Am I making time for self-nourishment?
According to Catherine, self-nourishment is the deeper layer of self-care. “It’s doing the things that nourish your mind, body, and soul, and it’s a daily practice.” Maybe your exercise and healthy eating is on top form, but how are you feeding your soul? This could be belly-laughing with your best mate, or expressing yourself creatively through dancing, writing, or painting. “It’s about recognising and believing and being mindful that you matter, and your needs matter,” says Catherine.
4. How do I feel about the future?
Taking stock of the future is a helpful way to gauge how you’re doing, because feelings of hopelessness go hand-in-hand with depression. Try to plan something in the next few days that you can look forward to, such as starting a new book, visiting family, or a day trip to the beach.
Low self-esteem can be a cause, and a symptom, of mental illness, so be kind to yourself
5. How is my personal care?
Try not to be too hard on yourself here, but look at your physical self and analyse if you’ve truly been taking care of yourself. Are you showering daily? Are you eating a balanced diet? How about exercise? It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to be nailing every aspect of your personal care 100% of the time, and as Catherine says: “Only you know what personal care looks and feels like to you.” Imagine your personal care is a barometer. “If it’s creeping into the red, then it’s a good opportunity to explore why.” Low self-esteem can be a cause, and a symptom, of mental illness, so be kind to yourself here, no matter what conclusion you arrive at.
6. Do problems overwhelm me?
Burnout can make you feel like you’re on a never-ending treadmill, constantly fighting fires and getting nowhere. As this escalates, you might feel completely overwhelmed by even the smallest of tasks. “Stress, without a doubt, lowers your ability to cope with life,” says Catherine. “Feeling overwhelmed is a sign of overload. Each and every one of us has our own tipping point.” Try not to compare your current abilities to that of your past self, as this leads to a negative thought cycle that could make you feel worse. If you feel like you can’t regain control of life on your own, ask for help.
7. What are my closest relationships like at the moment?
We often expose our vulnerabilities to our friends and family without even realising it. Are you holding it together at work, but letting out your frustrations at home? Be aware of signs of irritability or tearfulness, as this can be a sign of burnout. Who are your sparkly people? The ones who make you feel validated? Keep them close, to fill up your cup.
8. How are my decision-making abilities?
This is something that crops up for me quite regularly. My husband asks what I want for dinner and I can’t answer. My brain draws a blank, and I’m filled with a sense of dread when I’m asked to vocalise a choice. Does this sound familiar? Indecisiveness is a symptom of burnout, anxiety, and depression. Catherine says when our heads are full, our ability to make decisions can become impaired. “Rest, as in restorative rest – sleep, disconnecting from technology and social media and work – enables our minds to recalibrate. Rest is soul food.”
Write down a few key bullet points based on your answers. Is there any remedial action you can take right now to ease any negative feelings? For example, if your personal care is a glaring issue, can you set aside the evening to have a shower, wash your hair, and change your bedsheets?
Talk to someone you trust. Explain how you’re feeling to a friend or family member who understands, and consider talking to your employer or HR representative if you have work-related issues.
Get professional advice. If one or more of these questions is giving you cause for concern, don’t hesitate to talk to your GP. Make a few notes based on your answers and take these into your appointment. Having your symptoms written down will give you the confidence to open up, and give your doctor a clear indication of your current mental state.