Mental health ‘Tells and Tricks’

What are your “tells” when you notice your mental health slipping? And what tricks do you use to hack your brain back into line? 

I’ve always been very aware of my mental health, but lately I’ve found myself being able to notice much more quickly when things are slipping, and I’m trying to learn some different techniques to stop the slide.

I’ve realised my “first tells” include the urge to retreat and isolate myself, and to eat All The Junk Food.

I wondered how much of this is a shared experience, and what other people do when they notice their warning signs. How can we best respond?

Tells: First warning signs

If you’ve had mental illness your whole life, or for any significant amount of time really, you might be able to to identify your “little tells” – the warning signs that let you know something isn’t right.

Like I said, my first Tell is the urge to retreat and isolate myself. I become irritable and then downright hostile. I don’t want to see or talk to anyone and I definitely don’t want them seeing me.

My second Tell is the urge to eat junk food. I guess it’s that old comfort eating habit, I just want to try and bury my feelings in something. When I’m well, I’m capable of thinking of and cooking proper meals, but that’s one of the first things that goes by the wayside.


What other people said about their Tells:

(These are verbatim answers)

-I play a lot of Tetris

-Ibs symptoms, nausea, headaches, neck pain, pain in ribs, eating all the junk food, bad insomnia, getting irritable & erupting. Feeling less grounded & centred, especially in stomach, sadness, grief, brain fog. Panic. Catastrophising.

-I start thinking coincidences are a little bit suspicious

-Absolute #1 indicator for me is the deep desire to turn off my phone for several days and/or putting my phone on airplane mode when i’m not at work.

-Not answering questions honestly, greater levels of avoidance, avoiding phone/email messages/people in general.

-Short term (i.e in the moment) I won’t have moved and be hesitant to move. I get up and walk around if I’m able to and make a cup of herbal tea (movement combined with a routine and the outcome is a calming drink). If I’m not up to that I wiggle my toes and look around the room.

-One of my longer term (i.e. hmm I think I might be getting unwell/am unwell) is that I have trouble making simple decisions. This one is harder, I generally go through a mental list of things I need (regular meals, enough sleep, connection, meaning, excercise/movement) and see if anything has slipped. If that’s not obvious I give it a few days and make an appointment with my counselor

-When I walk down the street I think everyone looks ugly.

-How tidy / organised my space is – I immediately make time to fix it. Also, funnily enough, my hair colour. The more it fades the less I feel like myself and I slip in to a rut. Sleep cycle – less than 5 hours a night and I’ll take steps to regulate it again. Smaller things are: How much I’m fidgeting with my hair/skin/nails.

-I eat more cream cheese, because I lose a bunch of my sense of smell and it’s the only thing that still tastes good.

-I also want and eat all the food. I sit mindlessly checking social media even though there’s nothing new. I get deathly tired and have to sleep, no matter the time of day.

-Problematic drinking and not even realising that I’m justifying it to myself. I get a “what the fuck am I doing?!” moment then “oh” as I realise how deep in denial i am. Recognising it is good but that’s when the hard work starts to get back on track.

-Cleanliness as in lack of . Body and surroundings. Feeling of not ‘being there’ huge desire to please authority. Hatred of phones’ connectiveness.

-Sleeping “too much”, wanting alcohol and/or sugar, massive spike in TV/movie/YouTube watching, relentless over scheduling. B: resisting all of the above, instigating 3 “stay at home” nights/week where I have to eat veggies (even if just a bag of salad fr store)and not drink

-Not reading and not making art-things are also early warning signs for me

-When i catch self-talk turning from “I” through “we/us” to berating-lecturer-style “YOU”

-Early morning waking and ruminating. Feeling like I’m “in my head” too much.

-Ditto junk food; I don’t automatically get out of bed when my alarm goes off, can’t be bothered braiding my hair before bed, don’t make my bed in the morning/sleep on top of the covers no matter how cold

-Then not taking make up off, not putting clothes back in the drawer when deciding what to wear, then just wearing the same thing over and over

-I stay up really really late even though I’m tired.

-Fatigue, brain fog, easily frustrated, less compassion for the people I work with and my colleagues. Wishing away the day so that I can be alone. Increase in inflammation in my ribs. Indifference. Low energy. Overthinking.

-Eating snacks with lots of vinegar, even though it fucks up my teeth & throat. Not going to bed. Getting unreasonably stressed about house work.

-Losing temper and lashing out at the smallest things.

-Same here with the eating but not getting out of bed in the morning for more than a couple of days at a time is a big red light. My sleep is the first thing that goes to shiiiit.

-Dishes piling up.


First Responses

I have found that a lot of mental health resources either focus on what to do in a crisis scenario, or are ideas for keeping things smooth longterm.

But what about when you first start to feel yourself slipping? You just need do be able to do something that can stop that fullheaded tumble into the Pit of Despair.

For me, social interaction is the key – which is in direct contradiction to what I want to do, which is hide under a duvet. So I have to force myself to reach out, even though my brain is telling me that I’m needy and a nerd and no one wants to spend time with me.

I also need to allow myself the shit days. I’m pretty good (extremely proficient, ok, jeez) at beating myself up. So I need to be able to go “Ok, today isn’t a great day. You are allowed to stay in your room and eat that family sized bag of peanut M&Ms. But tomorrow, we’re Going Out.

Fuck you, brain. Why must you drive such hard bargains?


What other people said about their First Response:

-I’m trying to incorporate walks in nature & tai chi classes & meditation/ visualisation podcasts. Trying to hold them sacrosanct when planning study & panicking today. Mind waking me with I Can’t Do It thoughts during the night.

-I try to rationalise things, check them out with others

-These days I have to talk to my fiancé, otherwise I can’t pull myself out of the cycle of avoidance.

-I get a fidget cube to deal with the energy in the moment. Motivation to maintain personal hygiene – I’ll fix this by rigorous shower / face wash / dental care routines.

-Reading is surprisingly effective as a “reset” button, as is singing if I catch it early enough.

-I make myself go the fuck to bed.

-Music, easy dinners, trip to the beach, silly DVDs with K, coffee with a friend, long hot hot baths, take my pain meds, cancel work meetings, reload my work week, let myself let things slip, watch a sad movie and cry, talk to the cat

-(After I’ve eaten all the chips) I try to have dinner so less reason to snack. Haven’t really sorted not going to bed, but take my sleeping meds (which I’ve no doubt forgotten) & hot shower. Do things that make visual diff: vacuuming, tidying dishes, wiping handbasin.


More from me

I thought it was interesting, in having these conversations with people, that a lot of us are able to identify our Tells – but it’s harder to figure out the Tricks that work, and even harder to make ourselves do them.

That’s been absolutely true for me. I can go “oh yep, here’s the start of the slippery slope,” but then I often can feel at a loss as to what to do to stop myself sliding down it. At least this post has given me a few more ideas – and hopefully for others as well.

Feel free to add things in the comments!


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