Recognize and manage the signs of mental health struggles

a mature man looks out a window


In this article:

  • May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to highlight the increased mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic and ways to cope.

  • During the pandemic, demand for mental health care rose significantly.

  • Swedish mental health expert and clinical social worker Kelly Barton, MPH, LICSW, discusses some of the signs of mental health challenges, as well as various coping strategies.

When you think back over the past two years, one thing is clear: life is definitely not the same as it once was. COVID-19 largely re-wrote the playbook for how you live, work, and socialize. As a result, you could be feeling sad, anxious, lonely or even angry.

If that’s the case, you’re one of the millions of Americans who have faced mental health struggles either before or during the pandemic, leading to a significant increase in visits to mental health care providers. With more people making appointments, there is a push for a better understanding of mental health needs. May is Mental Health Awareness month, a time to highlight how important it is for everyone to monitor their mental health and seek help when they need it.

“The pandemic has irrefutably been a challenging couple of years,” says Kelly Barton, MPH, LICSW, a clinical social worker with Swedish Primary Care – Snoqualmie. “Many challenges have surfaced that people may not have experienced before, and for others, these challenges have exacerbated existing problems. Even in the face of these obstacles, though, people are being resilient and learning to cope.”

Knowing how to recognize the signs of stress and anxiety — and having some self-care tools at your fingertips — can go a long way to protecting your mental health, she says.

The pandemic’s silver lining

It can be difficult to think that the pandemic, which has caused millions of deaths worldwide, might have any positive impact. When it comes to mental health, however, Barton says, it’s true.

The stresses of quarantining and social distancing have opened the door for people to talk about how they’re feeling. These discussions are helping to reduce the long-standing stigma attached to mental health struggles. Instead, more people now view mental health just like physical health. They’re seeking medical care for mental and emotional distress the same way they would for a broken bone.

“With so many more people seeking mental health services, it’s normalized asking for help. People are beginning to understand that it’s OK to ask. It’s not a weakness to reach out. It’s a strength,” she says. “From the very beginning of our human existence, we have done better when we have a village. It doesn’t have to be a big village — socializing in small groups or one-on-one counts.”

Recognizing the warning signs

Although everyone’s pandemic experience has been unique, the biggest mental health response, she says, has been the adjustment to chronic stress. It can feel like anxiety and produce some of the same signs. But it stems from a specific event and isn’t as severe. If you’re feeling increasingly stressed out, you could be experiencing these warning signs linked to anxiety:  

  • Not sleeping well
  • Changes in appetite (eat too much or too little)
  • Lack of joy from things you once liked
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Mental fog (not thinking clearly)
  • Memory problems

There are a couple of key differences that indicate you’re dealing with adjustment to chronic stress, though. You may experience:

  • Difficulty “turning off” your brain, but you will eventually sleep
  • Feeling tired in the morning, but you’re still able to get up for work

It’s important to recognize these signs of chronic stress and understand it’s normal for your body to respond this way.

“We need to acknowledge the adjustment to chronic stress because this is what’s affecting most people, and it’s a natural response," she says. "We’re going through normal fatigue. Our brains just aren’t stopping because there’s so much worth thinking about right now. That’s why we’re having a hard time with memory — there’s so much coming in and there are only so many places it can go in our brain before we start losing track of things.”

The starter kit for addressing mental health

Talking with your health care provider is always a good idea when you’re facing increased stress and anxiety, Barton says. You don’t have to wait for an appointment to start managing the effects, however.

“I always share a great ‘starter kit’ of techniques with my patients,” she says. “You don’t need textbooks or boot camps or anything like that. These are simple steps you can do on your own.”

If you feel yourself becoming anxious or overwhelmed, she says, try these strategies:

  • Identify and focus on the things you can control in a situation: Don’t dwell on what you can’t change.  
  • Maintain valued activities: Don’t let go of things that matter to you. Instead, find a different way to enjoy them. For example, if coffee dates with a friend aren’t possible, schedule regular phone calls to catch up.
  • Pause: Hit the pause button when you’re overwhelmed or overstimulated. Find a quiet place where you can be still and collect your thoughts.
  • “THINK”: This cognitive therapy strategy gives you five questions to ask yourself before you invest energy in the information or an activity that causes you stress.
    • True: Is it true?
    • Helpful: Can it help you?
    • Inspirational: Does it inspire you and give you strength for the day?
    • Necessary: Is it necessary to address it now?
    • Kind: Is it kind to you?
  • Manage your expectations: Resist holding yourself to your pre-pandemic standards. It’s OK to take more time to accomplish tasks.

These tactics can help you manage the anxiety and stress you feel, she says, but it’s important to remember that episodes of trauma in life can have long-term impacts that may change how you function daily.

“We’re working with a new normal. We must determine what’s realistic now. Allow yourself to adjust to what your new capacity is,” Barton says. “In general, we may just not have the same amount of energy in the tank right now.”

Find a doctor

If you have questions about mental health, contact Behavioral Health and Wellbeing at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Understanding mental health counseling

How to help someone in the midst of a mental health crisis

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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