It’s probably no surprise to you that mental health, like physical health, exists on a spectrum. Struggles of all types can show up in ways that aren’t talked about as much—or diagnosable. Unfortunately, mental health assessments can feel very black-and-white—you’re either depressed or you’re not, per most online quizzes and questionnaires, even though mental health is rarely that cut and dry.
So how do you detect a subtle shift in your day-to-day baseline mood that indicates you're sliding the wrong way and could use some support? Knowing and looking out for these little-known mental health red flags can help you spot a potential challenge early so you can intervene quickly, before your health takes a more serious turn.
Note: It can be easier to spot a decline if you journal regularly and look back every few weeks to look for sudden changes or patterns in your mood (like those listed below). It's also wise to check in on your mental state by “reaching out to a loved one and asking how they feel you're doing, because you value their opinion,” says Ayana Jordan, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist at Yale University. And stay alert for these signs of mental health woes on the horizon. Remember, no reason is too small to seek help.
You feel like you have a broken record in your head.
If you can’t finish your work because you’re constantly thinking about the last conversation between you and your ex or the fight you had with your mom three weeks ago, that could be a sign you’re ruminating and developing negative thought patterns. This could surface as repetitive self-criticism, too, like thinking, I have the worst luck in the world; nothing good ever happens to me; I am such a screw-up and failure, on a loop.
In these instances, it’s worth exploring with a professional why you’re hung up on one negative interaction or thought, and learning how to process it in a healthy way so you can let it go and move on. “One-time or sporadic thoughts don’t indicate a need for therapy,” says Daksha Arora, PhD, a therapist at Serene Therapy Center in Maryland. “But thoughts that are persistent or frequent, create stress, or interfere with your functioning indicate a need for therapy.”
You’re stuck in the past or constantly worried about the future.
If you find yourself frequently reminiscing on your past and trying to re-create or revise it in the present, this could be a sign that you’re unhappy with your current day-to-day and not confident in a better, brighter future—all signs of a budding mental health challenge. If you’re trying to relive a particular moment, unpack what it is you feel is missing from your life now, says Dr. Arora, and make a plan to accept your present situation and reach future goals so you’re more content with where you are and where you’re going.
You feel guilt about things you can't control.
Can’t shake the fact that you benefited from the pandemic or found positive aspects in it? That’s worth examining with a therapist, says Dr. Jordan. Getting this feeling off your chest, whether that’s through writing about it, telling a counselor, or opening up about it in a group therapy setting, can help you release it and realize you’re not alone, or bad or wrong, for feeling this way.
You never feel good enough.
Questioning one’s worth is common—but not a positive sign in terms of mental wellness, and most people don’t have the tools to challenge those thoughts. If you’re constantly striving for perfection, talking with someone to figure out why you feel you need to be perfect, and actively trying to unlearn that, can help stave off anxiety and depression. Positive, compassionate self-talk, like telling yourself that no one is perfect and prioritizing and valuing progress over results, can help you let go of that vibe.
This story is part of Women's Health’s coverage of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which takes place from October 3rd through October 9th. If you feel like you're struggling with your mental health, don't hesitate to reach out for help. You can get support and information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) by calling 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). Volunteers are available to speak with you Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST. If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, where help is available 24/7.