As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on and on (and on), many men are feeling the negative effects on their mental health. Life satisfaction ratings have gone down for Canadians, while rates of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and substance use have gone up. Many of us are feeling tired, if not exhausted.
Early intervention can help reduce the severity of mental health problems and even prevent them altogether. It is important to be able to spot the beginnings of mental health problems in yourself.
How do we do that? The pandemic has unprecedented impacts on key aspects of life such as health, social connections, mobility, employment, and income.
Even for a mental health professional such as myself, it can be hard to know what is an appropriate, proportional reaction to hard times that needs compassion and time versus mental health changes that require intervention.
My rule of thumb is: when in doubt, check it out. If you notice changes in your thinking, emotions, and behaviour that are intense, excessive, ongoing and/or very unusual, it might be worth talking to someone. If you notice changes in your mental health that are causing distress or interfering and disrupting your life, talking to someone might be in order.
Seeking help when you need it is a power move
Think of it this way. If you are driving your car and it keeps making a ticking sound, you won’t ignore it. You will try to figure out whether it’s a serious problem or not.
While I currently work as a clinical psychologist at a stress and anxiety clinic, my first job was at an automotive service station.
Getting the best performance out of your car or truck is not so different from taking good care of your mental health.
In the same way, as you need to charge your battery or put gas in your tank, you need to recharge and refuel yourself. Self-care and healthy habits such as regular exercise, nutritious eating, getting good quality sleep, connecting with people, having time to yourself, spending time in nature, and engaging in fun activities are good ways to fill up your tank.
In addition to the basics to keep your motor running, regular inspections and tune-ups are also recommended. If you have clocked a lot of kilometres or have been driving in harsh climate conditions, then your vehicle may need more upkeep. Maybe it’s things you can do on your own, such as top up your oil, but other times, you need a professional to help. Professionals have access to specialized tools, not to mention the know-how based on training and experience.
If you’re experiencing a nagging feeling that something is not quite right about your thinking, feelings or behaviour, here are some specific signs it’s time to consider speaking to a therapist:
Sleep, appetite, and hygiene changes
Working from home may have done a number on Canadian grooming habits—there’s been a sharp decline in demand for razors, shampoo and deodorant—but losing all interest in your appearance can be a sign of trouble. The same goes for feeling apathetic about sex or meals, even when your favourite dishes are on the menu, getting less or more sleep than you normally would, and feeling tired more often or more acutely than usual.
You don’t feel like yourself
If you don’t feel quite like yourself or other people are telling you that you don’t seem like yourself, it might be time to reach out for help. It can be difficult to notice changes in our patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Changes can sneak up on us. That’s why it’s important to consider the feedback of others.
If people note that you don’t seem like yourself, express concern over your unhealthy behaviour—drinking too much alcohol is a good example—or notice that you’re missing work or withdrawing from social contact, treat their observations as opportunities to take stock of how you are acting. Ask yourself: Am I feeling down, angry or anxious more often than not? Have most of my comments to others become negative? Do I still find things fun or interesting? These are all warning signs.
Intense or persistent negative feelings
It is perfectly normal to feel negative emotions. In fact, it is healthy to feel negative emotions that fit the facts of the situation. However, if you feel excessive, persistent or very intense negative feelings such as anxiety, sadness, anger, irritability, guilt, or shame, it can be a sign of a problem.
If you feel like you are “stuck” in one or more negative emotions, if they are happening all of the time, if they come out in outbursts, or are more intense than makes sense for the situation, then it may be time to talk to someone about it.
Nothing seems interesting anymore
When you lose interest in activities you previously enjoyed—hobbies, sports and even sex—or spending time with friends or family, this may be a sign that you are struggling. Some things ARE less fun in COVID times, but there’s a difference between wanting to skip an activity if dancing is not allowed and not being able to find anything at all that engages you.
Have a hard time with daily functioning
It’s normal to struggle during hard times. But if you’re finding it difficult to do things you used to be able to do and can’t figure out any reason why this is the case, mental health problems could be the culprit. Anxiety can creep in and make every situation seem dangerous. Navigating with depression on board can be like driving in a white-out. It’s hard to see clearly. Take notice if you’re having difficulties performing or starting familiar tasks at home, at work, or at school. Also, notice if you are finding your personal relationships more challenging than usual.
It’s normal to worry a little bit about the week ahead or feel regret for things in the past. But excessive negative thinking—including worrying about the future or ruminating on the past—can start to dominate everything else. When your thoughts cause you a lot of distress or start to interfere with your day-to-day functioning (like work and sleeping), that is a sign you should talk it out with somebody.
Our thought processes can also be clues. Inexplicable difficulties paying attention, concentrating or remembering things are not only frustrating, but they can be yellow flags too. Anxiety and depression can disrupt cognitive processes, as can sleep disruption.
Using substances to manage stress
We usually don’t seek out to engage in behaviours that make our problems or health worse. But, sometimes, we find ourselves using substances or avoidance to manage stress rather than engaging in more science-backed strategies such as problem-solving, emotion regulation, acceptance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Healthy habits can either go out the window or start becoming something you do compulsively. If your solutions or coping strategies have become a problem, it’s time to seek help.
COVID times are hard. It’s difficult to know whether you need a service stop or whether you have run out of road. Spotting one or more of the signs mentioned in this article doesn’t necessarily mean your mental health is in jeopardy. It simply means it’s time to find ways to support and improve it. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to make this happen, from arranging a consultation with your doctor or a mental health specialist to taking the free MindFit Toolkit for a spin.
Designed with the help of psychologists and elite athletes, the MindFit Toolkit is a simple way to start improving your mental health. From inspiring blogs to stress-busting audio exercises to soothing soundscapes, the MindFit Toolkit will help you cope with stress and anxiety.
Keep your motor running smoothly. For those who like to do their own maintenance and repairs, Give the MindFit Toolkit a try right now!
If you think you could benefit from a professional’s point of view and expertise, reach out to Wellness Together Canada to get free support 24/7.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at +1 (833) 456-4566 any time day or night or chat online. In Quebec, you can call 1-866-277-3553.
Build the skills to cope with stress and anxiety with these free online tools and resources. Start improving your mental health to help you handle whatever life throws at you.