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You know when a cold is coming on thanks to telltale symptoms like a sore throat, cough, or a stuffy nose. But you may not be quite so attuned to the signs of oncoming mental unwellness.

Burgeoning depression, mounting anxiety, and unresolved trauma all manifest in physical and behavioral symptoms that can be missed or dismissed if we don’t know what to look for.

Knowledge is power: When we understand the warning signs, we can prepare for rather than react to psychological issues. Not all of these are certain indicators of a mental health crisis, but they may be something to keep an eye on.

1) You’re Sleeping Poorly

More, less, or bad sleep is both a symptom and cause of mental health issues. When we’re depressed, anxious, or reeling from stress, our sleep often suffers. Conversely, inadequate rest impairs a range of cognitive and physiological processes essential to mental well-being, including attention, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Excessive sleep can also be cause for concern. Hypersomnia characterizes roughly half of major depressive episodes. Especially if you remain unrested even after sleeping in, consider this a red flag.

Persistent nightmares are another sleep-related warning sign. If they involve images or sensations reminiscent of a traumatic experience and leave you feeling distressed throughout the day, nightmares may be a sign of posttraumatic stress disorder.

2) Your Stomach Feels Off

Like sleep, gastrointestinal issues can both cause and result from psychological distress. That’s because the GI system and the brain are closely connected, each sending and receiving messages related to emotions (I just can’t seem to digest anything, says the gut, which the brain interprets as The things I used to enjoy don’t feel good anymore) and perceived threats (That doesn’t seem safe! says the brain; I’d better clench up, replies the gut).

The gut–brain connection can be acutely obvious, as when we feel nauseous before a big event, but chronic distress may fly under the radar. It’s crucial not to dismiss cramps, indigestion, bowel issues, and other GI concerns as purely physiological, especially if you can’t identify an obvious trigger such as a change in diet or medication.

3) Your Eating Habits Change

Thanks in part to the gut–brain connection, psychological distress can also impact appetite. Roughly half of those who suffer from major depressive disorder experience decreased appetite; about a third notice their appetite increase.

Depression can also influence which foods we crave. Because carbohydrates trigger serotonin release, we are more likely to reach for carb-heavy comfort foods like pasta, cookies, or potato chips when we’re depressed.

Poor eating habits can also be a sign that you aren’t addressing stress in a healthy way. Most of us have engaged in stress eating, and studies have shown it’s a real thing.

4) You Can’t Get Motivated

Amotivation is a hallmark of several mood disorders — two weeks of this condition meets the clinical threshold for a symptom of major depressive disorder. Lack of motivation seems to stem from difficulties honing attention and shaking off rigid or critical self-talk (I’m just going to fail, so why bother trying?).

Procrastination in response to activities you genuinely dislike — scheduling a dentist appointment, filing taxes — should be little cause for worry. But struggling to keep up with the daily responsibilities of life for several weeks may be a sign of mounting mental unwellness.

5) You Don’t Enjoy Things That Usually Matter to You

Depression saps the joy from life, which is why anhedonia, a term that translates to “without pleasure,” is considered one of the most reliable symptoms of depression.

It’s not entirely clear what causes anhedonia, but some studies have linked depression with reduced reward sensitivity. This means that things that would normally make us feel good, such as time with loved ones or a favorite hobby, don’t release as much dopamine when we’re feeling depressed.

The inability to enjoy life’s pleasures for more than a week or two should be considered a warning of depression.

6) You Don’t Feel Like Leaving the House

Isolation can signify a variety of mental health issues, depending on the context. Staying home due to lack of motivation or the sense that you won’t enjoy yourself may be a sign of depression, especially if it’s accompanied by negative beliefs about yourself (No one would want to hang out with me anyway).

Isolating out of fear that something bad might happen is a feature of certain anxiety disorders including social anxiety disorder, which involves fear of judgment or ridicule from others, and agoraphobia, which involves fear of being unable to escape from or get help in a dangerous situation. (For more information on this disorder, see “What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?“)

Isolation can also be a response to trauma. We’re prone to avoiding situations that remind us of a traumatic experience, even if we don’t always consciously recognize it.

7) You’ve Been Snappy Lately

It’s easy to blame a short temper on external factors — a bad boss, traffic, bills. But finding yourself constantly on edge, frustrated, or angry may be a sign of underlying psychological concerns.

Studies suggest that chronic stress and worry can impair functioning in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for crucial executive functions, including attention and emotion regulation. Hence our tendency to feel edgy when we’re anxious.

Irritability may also signify depression. Anger is more emotionally accessible than sadness for some of us — adolescents are particularly prone to acting irritated when they’re actually depressed — which is why persistent irritability merits a closer look.

These signs need not always be a cause for alarm, since emotions such as grief can also cause sleep problems, appetite changes, and lack of motivation. But these signs are an opportunity to consider whether all your needs are being met. Are you getting enough exercise, rest, or connection? When was the last time you took a day off?

If you notice these signs and feel like you may need help, invest in self-care: a cup of tea, a long walk, saying no to something you don’t really have time for — whatever it means to you. Think of self-care as the chicken soup for your emotional well-being. And reach out to people you love and trust: Connection is one of the most powerful protective measures we can take.

Warning Signs of Something More Serious

Symptoms that suggest someone is losing touch with reality, like hearing or seeing things that aren’t really there, or losing control over their basic faculties, such as struggling to form coherent sentences, may be signs of what’s known as psychosis.

These symptoms are common in disorders such as schizophrenia but can also manifest following a brain injury or other medical condition, or after acute or prolonged substance use.

In these instances, it’s important to seek professional medical support as soon as possible.

Alexandra Smith, MA, LPCC

Alexandra Smith, MA, LPCC, is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Minneapolis and an Experience Life contributing editor.

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