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How to Notice the ‘Warning Signs’ Your Mental Health Is Getting Worse

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Anxiety kind of took the wheel last night. I’m accustomed to it being a permanent passenger, and I’m able to live (and enjoy) my life accordingly, but every once in a while it tries to snatch the steering wheel from me.

Last night just sucked. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like my airway was closing up. I couldn’t focus on anything. I was dizzy. I was discouraged. I was irritable and wanted to be alone. I was scared to be alone. I was angry. I was having an internal battle and no one knew. I had been doing so good. How did this happen?

Although at times it seems to come out of nowhere, intense anxiety doesn’t just happen. Intense anything mental health-related doesn’t just happen. We don’t just go from fine to crisis in one breath. There are always warning signs.

Usually, I’m pretty good at noticing them, but this time I wasn’t as aware. I left myself vulnerable to The Beast, and it tried to take over last night. I’m pretty well-versed at shutting that shit down at this point, but last night it took me by surprise. And it took me by surprise because I wasn’t paying attention.

It’s so important to notice those early warning signs — to be aware of when things are getting worse. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of practice and self-reflection to notice them. Ask yourself these questions. Ask someone you trust — someone who knows you well and intimately — what they’ve noticed before your mental health took a turn for the worse.

How do I feel when I feel “off?” When I’m not feeling quite right? How did I feel right before my anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder or eating disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or addiction or whatever got really bad the last time? 

And then make a list. Write it all down. Keep it somewhere you can get to easily, and, if you’re comfortable, share it with someone you trust. A lot of times, the people who know us well and love us are able to spot changes and patterns quicker and more easily than we can spot them in ourselves.

My list looks like this:

  • Catastrophic thinking.
  • Extra-emotional, sensitive or irritable.
  • Jumpy.
  • Biting nails more often.
  • Nausea/gastritis.
  • Dizziness.
  • Depersonalization.
  • Overall malaise.
  • Feeling restless but having no motivation.
  • Increased negativity.

photo of contributor's early warning signs list

It’s taken years of examining my anxiety to make my list, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t think of much right off the bat. Just write down a couple of things and as you continue to examine your mental health struggles, more will come to you. Other examples I have seen in the mental health field are:

  • Sleeping too much or not at all.
  • Appetite change (eating too much or not enough).
  • Chain-smoking or increase in substance use.
  • Isolating yourself.
  • Nightmares.
  • Increased physical issues — getting sick a lot, joint pain, headaches, stomach issues, etc.
  • Forgetfulness.

Early warning signs are your mind’s way of letting you know something is off. Something is not quite right. These signs shouldn’t be looked at as an ominous forecasting of an upcoming mental health crisis; rather, they should be an invitation for you to come in close to yourself — to sit and be still with your thoughts and your soul and to examine everything going on. Are you getting enough sleep? Have you been working too hard and neglecting yourself or those you love? Are you just tired?

Many times, warning signs are your mind and body’s way of saying, “Hey! Remember us? We’re here. You’re wearing yourself out and if you don’t stop, we’re gonna stop for you.” Warning signs are your friend. They keep you here and healthy and present and alive.

So. You have your list of early warning signs. You feel like you have more insight. You feel more self-aware. You feel in tune with your mind and your body. But what do you do when the warning signs start happening? When you notice the increased nail-biting or chain-smoking or isolating?

Here is where your action plan comes in. Your action plan is a list of concrete things you can do to actively respond to those warning signs. They should be verbs and should be specific. Nothing vague or generalized.

My action plan looks like this:

  • Talk to husband about how I feel.
  • Paint for 30 minutes.
  • Read for 30 minutes.
  • Write in my journal, blog or book for 15 minutes.
  • Turn my phone off for an hour.
  • Tend to plants or garden for 15 minutes.
  • Watch any of the “Harry Potter” movies.
  • Doodle uplifting lyrics for 30 minutes.
  • Drink 16 oz of water.
  • Pet my dogs.
  • Pray for 15 minutes.
  • Snuggle with my son for 30 minutes.
  • Let myself cry.

If I would have been more aware the last few days, I would have noticed I had been having irrational thoughts about my health. I would have noticed that thinking my friend got in a wreck and died just because she was late was probably not the most rational reaction. I would have noticed I had been crying more than usual. I would have noticed my fingernails looked awful and I had been nauseous pretty often lately and I have had more of a negative thought pattern the past week or so. And maybe, I could have prevented The Beast from trying to snatch the wheel last night.

Today is a new day, though, and I’m feeling more positive and peaceful. I snuggled with my son for an extra 30 minutes this morning. I’m writing. I’ll finish the book I’m currently reading. I’ll re-pot some of my plants and swing by Hobby Lobby for a stroll. I’ll drink extra water today. I’ll love on my dogs. We have to know when things are getting worse so we can do the things we know will make it better. Today is a new day. I’m in the driver’s seat and I have full control of the steering wheel.

A version of this story originally appeared on

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash. List images via contributor.

Originally published: September 22, 2019
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