But What Do My Mental Health Symptoms Really Mean?
It's hard enough to navigate mental health diagnoses such as anxiety, depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but what happens when you can't tell them apart?
Having several mental health comorbidities—or the presence of simultaneous conditions—is surprisingly common. Epidemiological studies indicate people struggling with mental health symptoms frequently develop other types of mental health disorders throughout their life.
This could be due to so-called bridge symptoms shared by two different psychological disorders, which can eventually overlap and activate new symptoms or patterning (like a person whose depression blurs over into worry, thus leading to increased anxiety-like symptoms). Or, comorbidity might exist when the symptoms of one mental state eclipse another set of symptoms, such as a person's learning disability going unnoticed because they have ADHD.
In the world of gifted education, high-IQ students with learning disabilities are called twice-exceptional because they are navigating diverse mental and behavioral disorders. This is also described using the umbrella term "neuroatypical." People with comorbidities or multiple neuro atypicalities happening at once may feel like their cognitive abilities get overshadowed by their learning difference(s) and/or mental disorder(s). Perhaps most concerning is that one mental disorder could easily hide behind symptoms of another, making it hard to treat either properly.
Step by step
Of course, mental health comorbidity affects people broadly, no matter their IQ, personality type, learning style, temperament or disposition. When comorbidities remain undiscovered, the person experiencing them may feel shame and anxiety, and a feeling of missed potential.
"If your mind and emotions are starting to resemble 'feelings soup,' rendering your symptoms indistinguishable from one another, it's important to try and recognize the flavors and ingredients," said New York–based counselor Kaylee Dueber, LMHC.
Dueber shares her handy process to help filter through emotions and find patterns you can actually work with. The following three-step process can apply to anyone experiencing mental health distress, whether they have a formal diagnosis, multiple diagnoses or none at all.
Keep in mind, while journaling is an empowering way to track and manage your mental health symptoms, you'll probably find the most success when you pair this approach with routine therapy, counseling, spiritual mentorship, coaching and/or prescription treatments.
In this exclusive interview with Giddy, TV personality and breast cancer survivor Jillian Barberie discusses her battle with depression following cancer treatment. Watch the full interview here.
1. Notice general patterns—but don't get lost in the nitty-gritty.
"Awareness is the first step for anything," Dueber advises. "So we're not trying to get too meticulous before we even understand what we're looking at."
In the beginning, you want to start building your consciousness around when you feel good and when you feel bad. It may sound oversimplified, and that's kind of the point.
"Mental health can feel like a huge cloud that just kind of takes over your whole life," Dueber said. "It's actually these little moments."
In order to notice the smaller moments, you have to exercise awareness. And depending on how intense your symptoms are, awareness can be difficult to access when emotions are coloring everything gray.
In a journal, jot down moments in your day when you notice your state of being shifted. Simple, general indicators like "good" and "bad" are all you need to start tracking.
"In this stage, we're just beginning to build emotional intelligence," Dueber said. "This practice also helps manage people's expectations so they don't expect to always feel good. Even with progress and improvement, there are still shades of experience. And that's normal."
2. Add in some language you connect with.
When you were little, you may have started out playing with big blocks, giant cars and chunky plastic shapes. And after, you likely graduated to more refined toys, like legos, skinny pencils and beads.
The same goes for learning about mental health: After getting familiar with your general "highs" and "lows," your next step is to refine your emotional navigation skills, just like you refined your motor skills when you were younger.
"If you get too specific too quickly, it feels overwhelming, like you don't have a foundation to play with," Dueber says. "After building your foundation for a few months, or even years, start trying to describe your experience using specific words besides 'good' and 'bad.'"
To go back to the soup analogy, this phase is about isolating the "garlic" and "cumin," instead of just saying "savory." Since you can't taste mental health, Dueber offers four ways to start categorizing the many flavors of your experience.
Dueber tells her clients to go back to their journal and reflect on the moments they noticed were "good" or "bad." Hindsight is a great ally here. Try to relive the moments in your memory and go deeper into what was going on in the following categories:
- Cognition: Thought patterns, self-talk, beliefs
- Behavior: Actions, tendencies, habits
- Emotion: Feelings, mood, quality
- Energetics: Body-based, physical sensations
Practice this reflection routinely, and some patterns and symptoms will probably start to emerge. Those symptoms may align with a mental health diagnosis, but most importantly, you'll get familiar with just how your mind, body and emotions are "flavoring" your life.
To find examples of words and language you can use to describe your mental health experiences, try a simple Google search for a "feelings list," like this one from the Hoffman Institute. Or, if you don't like to follow other people's suggestions, trust yourself to make up your own words and phrases to describe what's going on.
3. Notice the who, what, when and where.
The final stage is about context. After you identify, in the most specific language possible, the thoughts, behaviors, emotions and physical sensations showing up, your next job is to look for environmental patterns, triggers and associations that might be worsening these symptoms.
Not only will contextual awareness help you feel more in control of your symptoms, but it can also help you and your counseling team uncover clues as to a proper diagnosis (especially if there is more than one symptom happening simultaneously).
In this stage, Dueber suggests noting these details in your journal, phone or wherever you like to track:
- Setting (where you are and/or who you are with)
- Circumstances (what you are doing)
- Frequency (how often you notice your symptoms)
- Duration (how long and severe your symptoms are)
Even here, you can go broad or you can be specific. For instance, you might notice that every time you're in a chemistry lab, you feel crummy and start experiencing negative self-talk. Then, one day you realize it's not the chemistry lab that's the problem, maybe it's because you sit next to a high-achieving classmate who completes the assignment faster than you and that's the trigger for your feelings.
But if you've noted down where the feelings start, what you were doing and who you were with, how often these feelings happen and how long they last, like Nancy Drew you'll have enough information to start investigating those feelings.
"This is important because mental health is not a vacuum," Dueber said. "We're social, contextual, alive people. It's going to take a little bit of time to really identify where these things show up."