Often it’s not glaringly obvious that we need to seek professional help. So we wait until we’re experiencing crippling anxiety, a deep depression, full-blown insomnia or seething self-loathing to finally contact a therapist.
In fact, many people do. According to some research, people wait years or even decades before seeking help.
However, going to therapy early — before problems become deeply entrenched — means we can feel better faster, and start the process of healing sooner.
According to psychotherapist Aaron Karmin, MA, LCPC, “Going to see a mental health professional when you experience some subtle signs, is no different than going to see a dentist when your gums bleed. If left unaddressed, these subtle signs become ‘impacted,’ like a wisdom tooth. This fosters infection and promotes disease.”
In other words, he said, when ignored or disregarded, subtle, occasional symptoms can turn into frequent, intense issues.
Understandably, it’s not easy to acknowledge that we need help. “It is human nature to want to avoid suffering or to try and escape it when it arises,” said Amber Baker, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, trauma, relationships, and career and life transitions in Mission Viejo, Calif.
We might bury our thoughts and feelings by being extremely busy, using substances to numb out or simply suppressing and denying them, she said. We also might berate and judge ourselves for struggling in the first place and needing help. Or we might dismiss an issue, believing, “I don’t have it as bad as the guy down the street … who am I to complain?” Baker said.
Admitting you need to see a therapist may be difficult. But in the long run, it can help to improve your well-being and life. Therapy helps individuals better understand themselves; learn healthy ways to cope with stress; make decisions about their careers and relationships; adjust to big transitions; and lead a more fulfilling, satisfying life, Baker said.
Below, Karmin and Baker shared a range of subtle signs it might be time to seek therapy. (This isn’t an exhaustive list.)
“The body is the voice of emotions, eloquently communicating critical information about our current emotional state,” said Karmin, who practices at Urban Balance in Chicago, Ill. For instance, tight muscles and a sick sensation in your stomach might accompany fear, while a heightened heartbeat and body temperature might accompany rage, he said.
- Racing heartbeat
- Clenched fists
- Clenched jaw
- Sweaty palms
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in weight
Aggressive Feelings or Acts
- Frequently feeling angry or irritable
- Kicking, shoving, grabbing or hitting
- Throwing or breaking things
- Spreading rumors
- Regressive statements such as, “You did that on purpose”; “You deserve this”; “I’ll show you”; and “You started it.”
- Using drugs
- Driving recklessly
- Blaming everyone else
- Seeking out fights
Pessimism — like other perspectives — often is viewed as an innate or fixed trait (e.g., “this is just the way I am”). However, it’s actually a malleable approach you can change in therapy for the better.
Karmin shared this example: You have an important presentation at work. Days before you’re nauseated and exhausted and have muscle tension and headaches. You start ruminating: “If I screw up this presentation, I’ll get fired. I won’t have a career. I won’t be able to support my kids. I’ll have to resign myself to being a failure as an employee and a parent.”
Working with a therapist can help you question and revise this thought process to a healthier outlook, he said: “I have dealt with setbacks all my life, I can deal with this, too. I am good employee whether I excel or not. I am not ever going to be superior or inferior. I am free to concentrate on what I have to do. All this worry only gets in my way.”
How we talk to ourselves is a clue into our well-being. It also drives our behavior — sometimes unbeknownst to us. Self-defeating thoughts may prompt self-defeating actions, such as staying in a job or relationship you don’t even like, because you’re convinced this is what you deserve.
Here are several examples of negative self-talk, which might warrant help: “I’m not good enough”; “I’m worthless”; “I don’t deserve happiness”; “I don’t deserve love”; and “I’m a horrible person.”
Karmin added these statements: “What’s the point in trying anymore?”; “What’s wrong with me?”
According to Baker, other subtle signs include: feeling confused or having trouble concentrating; feeling disconnected from yourself or your surroundings; losing interest in activities you previously found pleasurable; and experiencing mood swings.
Some people may only realize they have a problem after consequences from their behavior emerges, according to Karmin, who also pens the Psych Central blog “Anger Management.” For instance, he shared the example of people who grind their teeth. They don’t realize they’re stressed out until their dentist tells them they’ve been grinding their molars flat.
“[A]s they talk, many share how they fear failure, rejection, and isolation. They feel helpless and overwhelmed.”
Again, seeking therapy and working with a therapist are no easy feats. Both are vulnerable, brave acts.
Baker has worked with a range of individuals — everyone from couples to combat veterans to parents to kids. “My experiences have taught me that these men and women do not represent weakness, rather they are the strongest and most courageous people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. It takes great courage and strength to face one’s issues, ask for help, learn new skills, and make efforts to grow and heal.”