I’ve had multiple conversations with people during which I realized they don’t know what a lot of symptoms of mental illness looks like. And if I hadn’t both witnessed as well as experienced them myself, I wouldn’t have known either. For the longest time, I thought these behaviors were unique to me, or worse, character flaws.
I wanted to create a list that describes some examples of symptoms I’ve had myself because I think one of the most annoying things about seeking help is 1) mental health professionals not knowing where to look, especially in high-functioning people, for symptoms as well as 2) those annoying surveys that ask questions I don’t identify with because I don’t know what they look like in real life situations.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen depression or anxiety or a combo of both manifest itself in the behavior of my friends and family members, but they were unaware of it. I think people can tell when they’re not feeling well, but recognizing and identifying symptoms of mental illness is hard when you don’t have the vocabulary or background knowledge to do so. I’m not a doctor and shouldn’t be viewed as one, but perhaps I can share some things that might be validating to those who need it.
Below are some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression that I’m familiar with. Please keep in mind that because this list was made for identifying symptoms, it does not include the various ways in which I cope with them. (There is hope, yet.)
Tiredness– Call it emotional exhaustion, excessive sleepiness, fatigue, or lethargy, it’s all under the umbrella of constant tiredness. On my bad days, I’d sleep for more than 12 hours. I used to think it was a winter hibernation type of thing, (and darker weather is definitely a contributing factor,) but there are very few excuses I can make up for sleeping through entire summer days.
Also under this category is energy, or lack thereof. I think about my life in terms of energy, because that’s a limited resource for me. Energy also means motivation, and together, I measure my life via what I can feasibly do in a day. It’s not so much what I want to achieve, but what I can manage before I’m depleted of mental and emotional resources. It doesn’t matter if you’re more introverted or extraverted, when you’re depressed, you’re zapped of the stuff that normally keeps you going.
Other things related to sleep and tiredness:
- immense difficulty getting out of bed
- skipping obligations when you fail to make it out of bed
- feeling “heavier” and moving more slowly
- insomnia, restless sleep, or sleeping too little
- using other people for energy and stimulation- you find that others can be a much better source of energy and motivation than yourself. You’d be much more inclined to do tasks for them than for yourself.
Dread– So much dread. Sure, everyone feels dread in the face of difficult tasks, but if I am dreading taking a shower, something that is good for me, then this may be a different class of avoidance. It’s very illogical; less rational thinking and more emotional thinking. The dread is like a physical-emotional gravity of a feeling, and a force I’m constantly fighting. Sometimes I win, and sometimes it does. On my bad days, my mood paints everything gray. I dread plans to have fun with friends because I anticipate inaccurately that things will go wrong or I won’t have a good time or it will be exhausting instead of enjoyable. Or, even smaller and more ridiculous, I dread washing that single spoon I left in the sink after eating ice cream. Related to this sense of dread, is my next point:
Procrastination– This one is kinda difficult to explain, since procrastination is also a really common thing people do. I’ve procrastinated for most of my life. The pressure helps me produce good work, and in a shorter amount of time. I process things slowly- thorough and deeply, but slowly- because of my anxiety. It takes me forever to read, much longer than most people. Therefore, it also takes me longer to write, solve problems, and complete tasks. But if I have an impending deadline, then the anxiety over possibly missing the deadline overrides the processing/anxiety that causes me to do things slowly. So whereas starting earlier means I take longer to do the task, starting when I’m left with the least amount of time necessary to realistically complete the task (under pressure) is one of the ways I know how to motivate myself.
- This also means I tend to improvise a lot. For example, after numerous horrible public speaking experiences, I realized that the more I have in my notes, the worse my speaking is. Preparation lets me dwell and overthink, but doing things in the moment feels a lot more natural and focused.
- In a nutshell:
- anxiety -> trouble focusing on task because too busy freaking out about it -> finds a way to distract from freaking out -> does not start task -> procrastination
- depression -> has neither the motivation nor energy to do survival-related things like eat, much less other tasks -> dread, shame, self-blame, anxiety, negative thoughts deterring me from getting up, paralysis -> procrastination
- In other words, there are multiple and interwoven ways my mental health prevents me from getting stuff done
- When I’m depressed or anxious, every task becomes overwhelming. Instead of viewing things as simple, manageable, and able to be completed, even the smallest responsibility turns into a mountain of “I can’t’s.” And just so we’re clear, it’s not because I am weak-willed. The “I can’t’s” are more like the combination of my body, mind, and mood coming together to weigh me down. I imagine it like trying to get out of quicksand, or being sat on by an elephant. It’s a physical challenge to overcome, caused by… my own body.
- So, it’s not so much the regular “I don’t want to do this, I’ll do it later” procrastination, but a multilayered and exaggerated “I can’t do this, I’m unable to.” As I’ve mentioned before in a previous post, this is why it’s called a disability. For people without the mental health challenges I have, procrastination probably does not extend to the simplest of tasks.
- For example, it’s been days and I still haven’t put on my recently washed sheets. They’re chillin on top of the mattress instead of covering it. I know I can get that done within minutes. But does it feel that way? No. It feels huge. Furthermore, I have other fires to put out, other tasks with deadlines and consequences. I know this isn’t a healthy way to live. But when I dread all my tasks and lack the motivation to do them because I’m overwhelmed, I work on a need-based basis. Whatever gets done is whatever needs to be done first before time runs out. Because the way my brain construes it, when everything needs to be done, nothing needs to be done.
Self-destructive behaviors– It’s like knowing something is a horrible idea and yet still wanting to do it. For me, it’s almost like punishing myself. What? You’re already down in the dumps? Why don’t we go stalk your ex-friends on social media?
I can also relate this back to procrastination. I put off scheduling important health-related appointments. I put off car maintenance. I put off brushing my teeth. I put off texting people back, even people I care about. I don’t do laundry until I’ve run out of underwear. I’m currently putting off preparing for graduation because important things make me anxious. I even put off finding a mental health professional. Is it a lack of foresight? Nope, I know exactly what I should be doing. But this whole “I feel like trash, therefore I deserve trash,” in addition to a general aversion to tackle (perceived) overwhelming tasks is a very powerful combination.
I described some of the more subtle forms of self-destructive behaviors because those are the kind I allow myself to engage in, but you can also imagine a number of ways that people explicitly exhibit self-destructive behaviors. And it often starts out as innocently as, “What have I got to lose?”
Suicidal thoughts– This is the big one. I’ve mentioned in my very first post that I myself have not had suicidal thoughts, so I can’t speak about that experience. But this doesn’t mean that I should shy away from this topic either- talking about it is a huge part of prevention, along with paying attention to and checking in with those who we’re concerned about.
I can look up helpful guides and point to a number of suicide and crisis hotlines (1-800-273-8255) all I want, but I’ll be honest- when it comes down to it, like most people, I really don’t know how to go about this either. And that’s a problem.
“Harmless addictions”– Netflix, video games, dating apps, “talking” to people, tumblr, reddit, other social media platforms, youtube, pornography, reading one interesting yet ultimately useless clickbaity article after another, etc. Whatever form it takes, these are mindless things to occupy your time. And they sure suck up a huge number of continuous hours. As my partner says, it’s like junkfood, but for your mind. Depending on the activity, it can even give you a sense of purpose or accomplishment. That assignment may not be done, but look at how far you’ve progressed in this game, or that tv show.
- Sometimes, we can choose productive things to latch onto, such as work, sports/physical activities/working out, creative outlets, what have you. These are normal things, don’t get me wrong. So are the things in the bullet below. I only include them here in the context of excessive reliance on these activities. Because sometimes they can be used as crutches to distract from other things in life we really should be addressing.
- And, of course, the more obvious and risky ways to distract/numb one’s self: drinking, smoking, using, casual dating or hooking up, excessively going out, etc.
Feeling distant from people– A lot of people describe this as feeling like there’s a wall between them and everyone else. It’s a sense of disconnect that can feel cold and isolating. At times, it makes me feel like I won’t ever be understood by anyone, not completely. And thus, I don’t often feel incredibly close or tied to people. (I’ll probably write in a later post how awful this is for maintaining relationships.)
Apathy– Similar to the above, it’s this constant lack of feeling. Sometimes I’d feel really angry (see below) or frustrated or sad, but for the most part, I feel nothing. Please see #14 of this link for an animated visual representation. Save for writing, which I do more out of need than anything, I don’t find things I used to enjoy fun anymore. For example, photography was something I used to find great joy in, and now it’s an awful reminder that I can no longer see things for more than what they are.
This may be a leap, but I would venture to say that this persistent dullness could be a reason why people seek out riskier experiences, just to feel something again.
Feeling or thinking too much– On the flip side, I could also feel too deeply. Sometimes, I have more feelings than I can understand, and they’re all jumbled up together. Or maybe it feels like they’re overflowing (cue the numbing process). And along with this, are the thoughts. The pervasive, difficult-to-control, albeit creative and deep/thorough thoughts. Dwelling, ruminating, over-actively imagining, etc. is so entangled in my experiences of feeling that, at times, it feels like my thoughts and feelings are no different from each other.
Irritability– I mean, could you experience the points above and not feel frustrated? That, along with some small but upsetting occurrence, can really set me off sometimes. Alternatively, I can also internalize what’s bothering me and that could end in tears, hidden/repressed negative feelings, self-destructive behaviors, attempts to numb things, unpredictability/risky behaviors, etc., all the while externally maintaining the illusion of normalcy.
To make matters worse, sometimes friends and family might want to approach me about my other symptoms and they go about it the wrong way. Most of the time, they don’t know what’s going on, or if they do, often don’t know how to respond to it. Frustration on both sides can definitely feed this irritability, and turn it outward into anger or inward into sadness and hopelessness.
In some cases, picking fights and getting angry, although unpleasant, is another way of breaking from the constant apathy.
Eating too much or too little– Some days, I eat a lot because I am anxious. Other days, I eat little because I am too depressed to care about feeding myself.
Panic attacks– I still don’t know what these are. It looks different for everyone. But for me, it’s overwhelming anxiety and dread + being paralyzed in bed + rapid heart beating + racing thoughts about negative things + catastrophizing. It usually just looks like being late to a meeting. For me, the emotional preparation and anticipation involved in starting a new task or engaging in a new activity can get often overwhelming, which leads to me being frozen in fear, and taking longer to start.
Frequent absences or tardiness– It’s not poor time management, it’s not laziness, and it’s not inconsideration of others. By now, I think you could piece together the ways that people with anxiety or depression find it difficult to show up on time, if at all. It can have little to do with the nature of the activity or who’s involved. When you’re frozen in anxiety or apathy, you’re frozen.
Ironically, for some loved ones, this tardiness can be anxiety-inducing for them. My partner and I would get into disputes because going to something would make me anxious and slow and in turn, my slowness and the possibility of us being late makes him anxious.
Don’t get me started on how destructive this can be when you work or are in school. If other people don’t know what’s going on, it looks really bad. From work ethic to personality traits, mental illness can misconstrue other people’s impressions of who we are. And the consequences are not fun.
Self-loathing and shame– This naturally follows all of the above. Especially when you think it’s something wrong with yourself rather than your mental health. But really, even if you know it’s not you, the feelings are still there:
Difficulty paying attention– lack of focus/concentration. I personally have not experienced this one that much but wanted to include it in case it rings true to someone who’s reading
Memory/recall problems– forgetfulness, confusion, short-term memory loss. The internet may be of more help than I am with this one.
Not easily amused (also under self-loathing & apathy)– This may be the least legitimate and scientifically ungrounded point, but I’m including it anyway. I haven’t genuinely laughed in a long time. Sure, I’ll snort or chuckle or scream-laugh or burst into a decent giggle at funny things occasionally, but I think it’s been at least 5 years since I’ve deeply, wholeheartedly laughed at something. And not out of dark, doom-related, extremely exaggerated, or self-deprecating humor. I can make other people laugh, I can be entertaining or interesting or enthusiastic if I want, but is it the other way around? Rarely.
And on that note, I leave you with a comic by Skye Ali, who also created the image at the very top and has incredible works, both mental health and non-mental health related.