Knowing The Difference: Symptoms Versus Everyday Stress

Many clients who come to counseling come to deal with things like depression, anxiety, panic, or trauma. The evidence is clear at this point that these conditions have physical and mental symptoms that accompany them. The old saying of. “it is all in your head” is false as the mind-body connection shows us that our brain influences our body and our body our brain. Depression for instance commonly comes with sleepy dysregulation, appetite disruption, even lowered pain tolerance. Anxiety, which we all know the physical symptoms of like racing heart and being fidgety, comes with mental symptoms like irritability and low mood. There is no doubt anymore that mental issues cause physical symptoms and these physical symptoms can in turn impact the mind. What many clients struggle with is differentiating between what is a symptom of whatever issue they are dealing with in counseling versus everyday discomforts. The problem with not being aware of what is a symptom and what is not is that it clouds the image of how a client is doing. How can you know you are improving if you don’t know what symptoms are getting better? When do you know that you are handling everyday stressors and should be looking to end treatment, instead of still suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety? This is not an easy task but there are some strategies to help the differentiation process and keep a clear image of one’s progress.

Magnification Of Everyday Stress
Before looking at ways to help sort out symptoms versus non-symptoms of mental conditions it is important to note that when dealing with any kind of anxiety or mood related issue, the daily stresses we all encounter are going to be magnified. When a person is depressed, a bad luck situation like having a flat tire goes from inconvenient and annoying to crushing and debilitating. A person suffering from anxiety disorders will see news stories about COVID-19 cases rising and become petrified while those without anxiety disorders will integrate that info into their plans and expectations for their futures. If you are struggling with any kind of mental condition it is necessary to be aware that the inconveniences and bad things in life are going to look much bigger and scarier than they actually are.

It is helpful to reduce one’s risk to exposure to some stressors while recovering from a troubled mental state, but some things will simply be unavoidable. That is where it is good to practice things like Mindfulness to keep oneself in the present moment and avoid catastrophizing or magnifying stressors. Using the flat tire example, imagine the deflated tire as a negative stimulus that we receive. Getting a new tire or a repair is costly and time consuming. But is it a severe negative impact on one’s life? Looking at the actual consequences to an event instead of expanding them into larger symbolic representations of one’s life helps keep them from being magnified. A depressed person may have self-talk like, “nothing goes right for me, or, “this ruins everything”. Mindfulness keeps the event grounded in what the actual consequences are and keeps our self-talk more likely to be solution focused like, “this is annoying, but takes less than a day to fix”. Know that if you have struggles in your mental state that little things are going to appear much more burdensome than they are and the best way to combat this is to stay focused on the actual consequences instead of looking at it from a macro level.

Is It A Symptom Or Is It A Bad Moment?
You are currently struggling with managing anxiety. At times you have anxiety attacks, and in general your body is more tense and reactive. At the end of the day you look back and realize today was particularly tough. You had three separate bouts of anxiety bad enough that you had to use your coping skills to calm down, and you are extra exhausted from the increased tension all day. Clearly you are getting worse or at least not improving right? Well, what if I added to this story that today you got a call that your sibling lost their job and may lose their home. How can you tell whether today’s struggles were a result of the bad news or a sign your disorder is getting worse? The best way is to, as stated in a previous blog, track the trend. Today might be an outlier that is particularly bad because of life circumstances and have no bearing on your progress towards healing. Another way to differentiate symptom increases versus impacts of regular stress is to note how able you are to do your daily tasks. For example, people suffering with depression often struggle to do things like keep up with daily hygiene, eat regularly, and sleep. While external stress can impact these things as well, it is typically not nearly as severe an impact on our daily tasks. If you are able to accomplish your normal daily tasks, it is a good sign that your mental state is not declining but instead some bad news just knocked you off balance for the day.

An important thing to keep in mind is that sometimes it is not important to spend a lot of energy trying to sort out exactly what is being caused by disorders versus what is not. If you can trust the process of recovery and know that the strategies you are implementing will begin to help you improve, it is perfectly fine to move forward without parsing out what is causing some days to be worse than others. Some key factors to keep in mind regarding recovery from troubles of the mind:

• The recovery is not linear, you will bounce up and down with an overall trend towards recovery.
• Life doesn’t stop because we are in a place of suffering. The world will still throw its usual problems your way, and these are not necessarily related to whether things are going well or poorly for you.
• Catastrophizing should be avoided as much as possible. Dealing with something like anxiety will amplify the impact of minor inconveniences in your life. Stay mindful and focused on actual impacts of inconveniences and not blowing them out of proportion.
• Even when you are in a fully recovered mental state, ups and downs of life are normal. Once you feel your depression or anxiety is controlled, don’t mistake a bad day for a return of depression. Life is supposed to be inconsistent!

Trust Others’ When Evaluating How You Are Doing
If your process of recovery is too cloudy for you to know for sure whether you are getting better or not, turn to those around you. Your counselor, friends, and family can often give you a clearer perspective of how you are doing. If you have had a good week, but an unfortunate incident ruined one day, your family may notice that you have been better overall and can give you encouragement about the change they are seeing. Your counselor can help you track your progress by giving assessments, or simply pointing out changes they have noticed since working with you. Our minds can trick us into thinking we are worse off than we really are, and that is when outside perspectives can be the most powerful.

If are struggling with depression, anxiety, or other issues and are having a hard time knowing what are symptoms versus what is normal life stress, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


LECS Counselor