10 Signs of an Ailing Mind

Experts describe the physical and mental signs that may indicate emotional distress.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 31, 2005
6 min read

Maybe you're having that proverbial "bad day" - or perhaps a rough few weeks: Feeling down, anxious, overstressed, as if you're one breath away from the "last straw."

If so, you may be surprised to learn it's quite common; doctors say it's part of the human condition.

"The presence of anxiety, of a depressive mood or of a conflict within the mind, does not stamp any individual as having a psychological problem because, as a matter of fact, these qualities are indigenous to the species," says Charles Goodstein, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical Center in New York City.

But if living on the "last straw" has more or less become your way of life, experts say there's something on your mind that is crying out for your attention.

"The key is how often you are feeling this sense of distress, how bad it gets, and how long it lasts; that is what can help determine the seriousness of your situation," says Abby Aronowitz, PhD, the director of SelfHelpDirectives.com.

To help you gain some important perspective on the problems in your life, three experts helped WebMD put together this list of symptoms you should not ignore. If any of these signs seem true for you, speak to your family doctor and request a complete physical. If everything checks out OK, ask your doctor if you might benefit from professional counseling.

1. Sleep disturbances. If you're sleeping more than usual or less than usual, if you can't fall asleep or wake up after only a few hours and can't go back to sleep, experts say emotional distress may be looming large in your life.

"If you have recurring disturbances of sleep more than once or twice a week, and there are no physical reasons your doctor can identify, your problem may be linked to a psychological problem -- most commonly, anxiety or depression," says Goodstein.

2. Dramatic weight fluctuations/changes in eating patterns. Have you gained or lost a significant amount of weight without any changes in your diet or exercise regime? Do you find yourself constantly thinking about food -- or repulsed by the thought of eating? If so, experts say it could be a sign of emotional distress.

"Constant preoccupation with food, weight, and body image is a sign that an eating disorder is sapping energy from other areas of life," says Aronowitz. In women and young girls a loss of menstruation in conjunction with changes in appetite can also be a sign of trouble.

Also look out for a lack of appetite. Goodstein says it can sometimes be a sign of depression.

3. Unexplained physical symptoms. If, despite a complete physical workout and even a visit to a specialist or two, no one can find a reason behind your physical complaints, it may be your body's way of letting you know that your mind is in distress.

"Unusual symptoms that resist the million-dollar workup can be a sign that your body is expressing some kind of emotional upset," says Goodstein. Problems commonly linked to emotional distress can include headaches, a rumbling stomach, diarrhea, constipation, and chronic pain -- especially backaches.

4. Difficulty managing anger or controlling your temper. Are you fine when you're by yourself but frequently get provoked to an explosion by your spouse, children, friends, or co-workers? If so, you may be on stress overload, a situation that is dangerous to your physical and mental health -- and unhealthy for those around you.

"Not being able to control your anger is a sign of inability to manage feelings. And this is the one symptom that has the biggest impact on other people; children and women especially are affected," says Anie Kalayjian, EdD, RN, adjunct professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York City.

Generally, she says, folks who have anger-management problems do not recognize the symptoms because they feel fine when they are by themselves. "This is something that only comes into play in relation to another person -- so it's easy to blame the other person for what is really your symptom," Kalayjian tells WebMD.

Even if you don't see the signs in yourself, Kalayjian says consider counseling if your boss, co- workers, spouse, family, or friends are frequently telling you to calm down and watch your temper.

5. Compulsive/obsessive behaviors. Are you washing your hands -- or feel a compulsion to do so -- even though there's no logical reason? Has the fun gone out of life because you are constantly worrying that something bad is going to happen? Does it take you an hour or more to leave your home because you're bogged down with a series of "rituals" -- like touching things or rechecking locks, the stove, the iron? If so, you may have more anxiety in your life than you can handle alone.

"Obsessions are repetitive thoughts which resemble worry and are accompanied by anxiety. Compulsions are behavioral acts designed to eliminate the obsessions. And sometimes if your mind becomes so cluttered with obsessions, and your day so filled with compulsions, life as you know becomes completely taken over by anxiety and counterproductive rituals," says Aronowitz.

6. Chronicfatigue, tiredness, and lack of energy. "When the body cannot handle emotional overload, it simply begins to shut down. And that is often manifested by a sense of extreme tiredness and fatigue," says Kalayjian.

Goodstein adds that feeling too "beat" to do the things you used to love -- even when a physical checkup shows everything is alright -- can be a sign of emotional distress and depression.

7. Memory problems. Lots of things can temporarily interfere with your memory, from the hormonal changes of menopause, to a preoccupation with a work problem, to a lack of sleep. But it can also be caused by stress, a reaction to a traumatic event, or sometimes an illness such as Alzheimer's disease. How do you know the difference?

"You need a physical examination first and foremost," says Kalayjian. If everything checks out OK, she says, then anxiety, depression, or sometimes an unrecognized reaction to a traumatic event you have yet to deal with may be behind your forgetfulness.

8. Shunning social activity. Did you love to go the movies with friends and now you don't? Do you seem fine at work but the minute you're home you jump into bed and just "veg out"? Are you turning down invitations because you simply feel better when you stay at home? Experts say all can be signs that your emotions may be getting the best of you.

"Any significant change in social behavior for a significant amount of time could indicate a stress overload or other emotional issues are at work," says Kalayjian.

Aronowitz adds that if phobias or fears of certain places or events are keeping you from doing what you want, then anxiety may be looming large in your life.

9. Sex is no longer fun. Are you going through the motions and not feeling the pleasure that sex once brought to your life? Do you love your partner, but just don't want to make love? If a physical checkup reveals everything is fine, then Kalayjian says an underlying depression, or an anxiety disorder, may be behind your slump.

"Diminished sexual desire and inability to feel joy in the sexual act itself can be a sign of emotional distress," she says. While that distress may be linked to your relationship with your partner, experts say just as often it could be linked to anxiety stemming from a totally different area of your life.

10. Mood swings and erratic behavior noticed by more than one person. While life may seem like "business as usual" to you, if friends or family members are commenting on your "moody" behavior, experts say pay attention.

"You have to listen to not only your own inner voice, but also listen to what you hear from your best friends, your neighbors, your spouse, your family. Others can have an observation of you that you cannot see," says Kalayjian. "The greater number of people telling you that something is wrong, the more you need to pay attention."