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Understanding your mental health

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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Madison Roman

University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine - MD Class of 2024

Madison Romano is a second year medical student as USF Morsani College of Medicine.

She has dealt with anxiety and PTSD for a long time; and her goal is to become a psychiatrist so she can use her experience to help others struggling with their mental health.

Understanding your mental health is the ultimate catch-22 – your brain is trying to assess how well your brain is functioning. It’s a complex task because the signs and symptoms aren’t always as clear as a broken bone or the common cold; changes in mental wellbeing can manifest differently for everybody. It’s imperative to figure out what that looks like for you; I’d like to share examples of my signs so that others may know where to start looking in their own lives. Personally, I like to categorize signs of mental distress by maladaptive behaviors that can be seen externally, and harmful thoughts can only be seen by me internally.

A big red flag telling me that my mental health is declining is the food that I’m eating. During high-stress periods, I’ll notice that all my meals come from the freezer or from takeout. These options have their place; they’re quick, tasty, and sometimes necessary for long days. However, if I’m constantly lacking energy to cook, then I know I’m really lacking mental wellbeing.  Another example is how often I’m showering. Unfortunately, this one is rather noticeable by others – the greasy hair, the accumulating acne, the disheveled appearance. It’s embarrassing enough to not be able to take care of myself, but knowing that other people might see how bad I’ve gotten only makes it worse. I get stuck in a loop of harmful thought-patterns: “can I shower before class? No, what if I want to go to the gym later? You’re not going to the gym; you’re just lazy. It’s hot outside today, so I will be sweaty, but I don’t want to stand quietly in my thoughts for 10 minutes. My hair is gross, but ...”. Those thoughts suck my energy away and further prevent me from being able to take care of myself. 

That’s how the internal manifestations begin to form – repetitive, obsessive thoughts turn into consuming, hurtful lies about myself. Individual stressors sew themselves together until they form Frankenstein’s Stress Monster and totally overwhelm me with their combined power. I lose the ability to filter my thoughts, allowing them to run rampant and damage me further. I’ll notice my negative thoughts about school turning into negative thoughts about my family, which turn into negative thoughts about my past, which turn into negative thoughts of myself. I can go from studying a difficult topic to being deeply consumed by self-hatred without noticing until I’m deep in the trenches of depression. At that time, I don’t have the capacity to tackle my problems individually and handle them one at a time; all I know is that I’m overwhelmed from every angle.

That’s why it’s so important to recognize these signs early – they are alerting you that there is a bigger problem going on within you. It can be a daunting task to look within yourself and analyze why you are feeling the way that you are; it’s okay if you’re not ready to do that right now. I needed the help of my friends and a good therapist to gain the perspective to see what my declining mental health actually looks like. Now that I know, I can recognize the signs earlier and seek help sooner. I look to these signs as a beacon of light during the storm; they warn me of danger and can guide me back to safety.

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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