When is it "Normal" and When is it a Problem?
Emotionally healthy human beings never have feelings of self-doubt, worry, or fears about their ability to accomplish their goals. All emotionally healthy human being never ever, definitely neeeever have even a droplet of feeling sadness, anger, resentment nor do they ever lose motivation or have intense moments of anxiety or self-doubt. Certainly not in social situations.
Does this sound ridiculous? Good. Because it is, and yet we think these things all. the. time. These are some of the bizarrely unrealistic expectations we, other people, and society puts on us for our mental health and emotional functioning. Those are not simply high expectations, those are not wanting the best in your life and for others- expecting not to ever have any unpleasant or difficult feelings is unreal, unfair, and wholly ignorant about how human beings work. It's like expecting gravity to not exist or the sun to not rise.
When is it “Normal?”
My favorite response to this question is, "'normal' is a setting on your washing machine." Why? Because the "normal" or neurotypical human being's emotional and mental health widely differs from person to person. Yes, even among folks with no mental health disorders, there is a huuuuuge range of what is considered normal, healthy emotional functioning. Some people cry easily, some people are often excited or happy, some are pretty "even keeled." It's all okay and normal.
The one thing that is always a normal part of human mental health? Emotions.
Almost everyone has gone through periods where they felt sad or even might have described their feelings as depressed. Everyone feels anxiety at times. People go through painful experiences that stick with them in some ways for a long time. People get frustrated, angry, have difficulties with trust, self-doubt, body image, motivation, or self-esteem - so what is the difference between when people experience those very typical difficult emotional experiences vs someone who has a mental disorder?
When is it a Problem?
The magical official phrasing used in the mental health field in the U.S. (other countries can use different definitions) is when someone’s mental health problems create “significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
What is Significant Distress?
Significant distress is obviously a really personal term. What might be “significant distress” to one person might seem alright to another. Situations and experiences might cause one person to feel significant distress and another person would be less affected. This is just because human beings are a very complex organism made up of many different memories, experiences, coping strategies, social supports, and countless neurobiological and genetic factors. So whatever significant distress is for you, that is valid and worth getting help for.
Another thing to note is that some disorders might leave people feeling more numb, apathetic, feeling dulled, removed, detached, or not really feeling much of anything about life, their problems, and any possible mental disorders. It can be hard to feel like you are in significant distress when you don’t feel much of anything about anything. It is really important to know that this too is a sign of needing to get help. People with depressive disorders, trauma histories, and other experiences and conditions may experience a persistent and profound apathy or numbness or detachment about life and deserve to get help for managing their symptoms.
“But is feeling numb really that bad?” If you have no complaints about it- you do you boo. But if you ever wished you could enjoy things more, ever wished you could feel more motivation, pleasure, or interest in life or if you ever noticed how your numb feelings negatively impacted your relationships, school, work, or ability to do the things you wanted in life, then it seems that numbness isn’t working so well for you. You deserve help.
Interfering with Functioning
The second major problem is when mental health symptoms cause “impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” This just means that because of your mental health or emotional wellbeing, you are having difficulties in your relationships (romantic, friendships, or family), school, work, financial responsibilities, keeping not keeping up with your personal hygiene, house chores, or other responsibilities. Basically, you’re having a hard time doing the things you need to do, the things you want to do to function in your life.
The major thing is that it isn’t just “not optimal,” but that your mental health difficulties are resulting in real world problems with real negative consequences. Your relationships fall apart or you have few, you fail a class or struggle to stay in school, you get reprimanded at work or lose your job, and so on.
So don’t think of mental health treatment as simply a “treat yo self” kind of thing (which it can be if you so desire!), but more as a “I can’t function in my life the way I need to, pls send help” kind of thing.
When to Get Help
The following are all signs and situations which indicate the need for mental health treatment:
Having feelings of wanting to harm yourself or other people, especially if you have thoughts of suicide, not wanting to be here anymore, or are thinking of death often. (See Coco's Crisis and Suicide Intervention Resources. Call 911 or a local emergency hotline if in immediate danger.)
When you are struggling with addiction or substance or alcohol abuse. Even mentioning that you are having a hard time controlling how much or how often you do something or wish you could cut back but are having a hard time doing so suggests that it is time to find a mental health professional who has experience working with addiction or substance/alcohol abuse. Addictions can include drugs, alcohol, prescription medications, gambling, shopping, videogames, pornography, and more.
When you have been feeling notably depressed or severely anxious for a very long time and your symptoms have made it hard for you to function in life. If you have few social supports, are struggling in school or work, have a hard time with daily hygiene or house chores or other tasks of living your life - it is a good time to look into professional help because your symptoms are interfering with your ability to function.
When you notice yourself feeling numb, apathetic, feeling empty, not caring, agitated, angry, hateful, resentful, lonely, apathetic, or other such feelings, especially if you’ve felt this way for more than 2 weeks.
When you are concerned you might have a particular mental disorder, it is important to see a mental health professional to be assessed and be treated. The part of you wondering if this is a problem is literally telling you "I think my problems aren't at the “no-biggie level,” my problems are big enough to the point that I’m actually concerned I have an actual mental disorder." Mental disorder level problems need mental health professional care. And if you’re not sure? Go. Err on the side of caution when it comes to your health and wellness.
How We Can Overlook Problems
“I’m sure it will be fine,” can be a quick route to a pretty unfortunate learning opportunity aka problems snowballing aka a few months or years later “oh, crap – this is definitely not fine.” The “This is Fine” meme, born from the Gunshow webcomic, got absolutely gigantic for a reason: we’re all FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC at ignoring problems, even when they hit the Being Engulfed by Actual Flames level of problematic.
Sometimes we work hard at ignoring the flames. Sometimes we fill every second of our day with intense distractions, going from checking Twitter to Reddit to videogames to TV until we pass out during a movie we have watched a million times hours after we should have been asleep. We can put a tremendous amount of effort into not noticing, not feeling, not thinking about, not experiencing the things in our life, especially difficult emotions.
Other times, when problems have lasted for a long time, it is hard to know the difference between healthy and disfunction. You’ve always had kind of a heavy, down feeling and it’s hard to really imagine that there is anything else. Folks who grew up with a family that always screamed during arguments might not realize that most families do NOT scream or call others horrible names during disagreements. You’re a fish in water- it all looks normal to you, this is how it has always been, you’re swimming, right? Not realizing that no, you’re not actually a fish, you’re a human who has been surviving on tiny sips of air while trying not to drowning for 26 years. There are life guards and life preservers for your mental health. They can help you.
“But my family/friends/coworkers/llama will judge me if they know I’m in therapy!” First of all, no llamas may spit at you if they feel threatened, but they will not condemn you for very smartly prioritizing your mental health and wellness. Secondly, if your friends and family shamed you for doing things to take care of yourself, they’re being awful friends and family. You have the right to care, treatment, and support. If people are interfering with that or shaming you for it, those are damaging and unhealthy relationships that you need to set boundaries for.
And ultimately, mental health treatment, like medical treatment, is private. No one is legally allowed to know other than you and your treatment providers (if you are a minor or have a legal caregiver, they likely have some access to your records – ask your treatment provider for more info).
If You’re Still Not Sure
You might be hesitant to reach out for help. Does it work? Yes, mental health services change lives all the time. Is it easy? Sometimes you gotta put in work, but that’s true for absolutely anything. And it takes tons of effort living with this mental disorder, why not put in different effort and actually feel better? You went once and it didn’t help? Very few things are 100% success at the first go. This is true for even many medical conditions. Mental health or medical conditions might require trying different treatment providers, treatments, medications, time, and more. This is normal. This is how things work.
Ultimately, you already know how it is going on this current path. You’ve been on this path. You know how the “naaaah, I’m gonna chill on that mental health treatment thing” goes. You’ve been doing it already. If it has been working, great. If you’ve been reading this article, chances are part of you has been wondering… Can it be different? Could therapy maybe help me? Do I have to feel this way? Is this normal? Could it be better?
All great questions with, in some ways, a simple answer: why not go and find out?
Time! Money! Annoyance! Awkwardness! There are affordable options (see Coco’s Resources page). Time? Untreated mental health problems are tremendous destroyers of time! Annoyance? Awkward? What is more annoying/awkward/unpleasant/distressing/aggravating/soul-sucking than just living with this emotional distress or problems day in day out with no help?
Time to problem solve. Time to go and find out.