Part of mental health self-care involves identifying potential triggers and avoiding them or, at the very least, preparing for the impact they may have on your life. Those of us who have a mental illness have a harder time adjusting to life changes: relationships, starting a new job or losing an existing one, changing locations, the loss of a loved one. It is ironic, but positive life changes can also have an adverse influence on mood. It’s hard to find balance among all of the different cards that life deals us, but it’s crucial to be able to distinguish circumstantial stress from signs and symptoms of relapse.
Reactions to Life Stress Can Resemble Relapse
I initially wrote this title as “Normal Reactions to Life Stress” but quickly realized that there is not a normal reaction, just a healthy one, rather, one that does not grind your life to a complete halt. Let’s use the example of the end of a long-term relationship. This is, in my experience, one of the most difficult changes we all face at some point in our lives.
If you struggle with a mental illness, sudden changes can cause symptoms that resemble those of relapse. Anxiety can make you believe you are becoming sick. Depression, despite the circumstance, can instill fear of relapse. This fear causes more stress and the cycle is damaging. When you experience a life change, such as the end of a relationship, it is necessary to understand that the symptoms you are experience are not always related to relapse. They are human and they hurt.
Recognizing the Signs of Mental Health Relapse
Much of the difference between a relapse and a reaction to stress involves the amount of time you feel different from your normal. Usually, a good rule of thumb is feeling a certain way for 2 weeks or more, but if it’s been a week and you’re worried, see your doctor.
- Constant anxiety: Anxiety is a feeling everyone experiences, but if it is consistent and disturbing your life, it’s time to check in with your doctor.
- Sleep disturbance: Sleep disturbances that last more than a few nights.
- Changes in appetite: Increased appetite or decreased appetite over several days can signal that something is out of whack.
- Difficulty communicating with others: a desire to spend more time alone or the feeling that you just don’t want to talk.
- Agitation: When anxiety comes out through my body, I know it’s time to check in with my mental health care team.
A proper list would be more extensive, but if you can understand what symptoms are signs of mood change and which are reactions to a negative or positive life change, the symptoms are not so scary. Educate yourself on your illness and pay attention to your mood even when you feel good.
Positive and Negative Life Stress Creates Anxiety
It is vital to distinguish healthy reactions to stress and those that indicate a possible mental health relapse.
Let’s look at a couple examples:
The stress of moving: I moved a few months ago. It was stress-free at first, packing boxes and thinking of my new home, exciting. But closer to the date, my anxiety kicked in. I started thinking about living in an unfamiliar area, living in an unfamiliar home. I found myself crying a few times. Ridiculous, perhaps, but the stress of a significant change always affects me.
I feared I was relapsing and constantly asked my partner if I was acting “weird” (this being my word for possible relapse) and he assured me that no, I was just experiencing stress. Four months later, I can recognize that it was just stress. But I did check in with my doctor, and you should too, if you experience anxiety surrounding changes.
Positive changes can generate as much stress as negative life changes. Most people are nervous when starting a new job because this involves learning new skills and meeting new people. Apprehension is a healthy reaction and usually abates once you have become comfortable in the new position and become confident that you can do the job effectively.
A negative reaction, something to watch out for, might include consistent anxiety, depression, and a feeling of worthlessness. This is when you make an appointment with your doctor. Ask those closest to you to give you feedback on your mood.
Life involves stress. No secret there. There is not a person on this earth who can tell you they have never felt some sort of stress. If they do, they are certainly lying. But it is important to educate yourself on a healthy response to stress and one that might indicate you need to check in with your doctor and support team.