Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/24/2022
Do I have a mental illness or am I overreacting? It’s a question most people have asked themselves at some point in their lives.
Whether you’ve had a rough couple of months after the death of a loved one, felt isolated in a new place or just had strong emotional reactions after a breakup, there are plenty of reasons that you may question your mental health. The difference between a mental illness and an overreaction (or reaction) isn’t really about extremes, so much as it’s about patterns. It’s not so much about events as much as it’s about how you deal with them and what happens next.
If that answer feels ambiguous, it’s because there are a lot of variables to consider when discussing mental illness. It can be difficult to judge your own mental health even on the most level-headed of days, and trying to do a self-assessment in the midst of strong emotions isn’t a good use of time unless you know what you should actually be looking for.
So what should you be looking for? What differentiates a rough week or a retrograde Mercury episode from depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions? There are a lot of answers to that question. Let’s start with the simplest one.
One of the easiest ways to understand the difference between a mental illness and a feeling is to look at a specific feeling like sadness. Sadness is what a child feels when they lose their balloon and it floats away. As you likely know by now, most kids get over that, and the younger they are, the more likely ice cream is to be the solution to the problem.
Even when you’re an adult, sadness can be a transient feeling. You can miss a great party, get sick before a friend’s wedding or go through a breakup. Those moments of sadness typically pass when the next party is scheduled or you meet your next significant other.
But when that feeling of sadness starts to become a regular feeling and impacts how you think or behave, it might no longer be sadness — it might be depression.
Depression is a mood disorder, which is a type of mental illness. It’s characterized by feelings of sadness, as well as by hopelessness, fatigue, sleep issues and other mental and physical health issues. It’s chronic sadness, with additional problems.
And that’s the difference: Everyone feels sad from time to time, but having chronic sadness with symptoms that reduce your quality of life is a sign you may have some kind of depressive disorder.
Mental illness can simply be described as the absence of mental health, but we’re willing to bet that definition doesn’t help much. Frankly, it’s difficult to describe particular symptoms, because each mental illness may affect you differently — and different people may be affected differently by the same mental illness.
Mental illness is a little like darkness: it’s the absence of light. “Light” in this case, however, is normal functioning in settings like work, school, relationships and more. If you’re mentally ill, you may not be able to cope with daily life or function like you used to in these areas.
People experiencing mental illness experience more intense distress, have trouble coping with adversity compared with others and generally struggle to meet obligations and enjoy an acceptable quality of life.
If you have a mental illness, you may struggle to identify the signs that it’s occurring. Truth be told, it’s common to think you’re just having an “off” day, week or even month before you realize the problem is becoming persistent.
Thankfully, there are some common signs of mental illness that you can look out for if you’re becoming concerned.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression to be on the lookout for are:
Changes in sleep
Changes in appetite
Reduced functioning when it comes to responsibilities or habits
Problems with clear thinking
If you’re experiencing any of this, it may be time to investigate whether you are experiencing a mental illness or if something else is affecting your mental health.
There are many different types of mental illnesses. But whether it’s anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or any other type of mental health issues, there’s one rule that applies to everything: the sooner you seek treatment, the better.
When a stressful event interrupts your daily life, it’s normal to feel off. But after a certain point, ongoing “off” feelings could be warning signs of mental disorders, from one of the various types of anxiety disorders to schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder and more.
Even if you’re considering that you have a mental illness, you might feel like you’re just overreacting to an off time. Truth be told, it’s nearly impossible for someone to interpret their own feelings without professional guidance.
So, this is the part where we tell you to do just that: get professional help.
Whether you have anxiety, depression, conditions like OCD or bipolar disorder or any other mental health issue, you need a healthcare professional to get an actual diagnosis, not to mention treatment.
Treatment for mental illness may come in a variety of forms. Lifestyle changes like better sleep habits, an improved diet and even reductions to your alcohol, caffeine and drug use may all have positive impacts on your mental health, but studies show that two of the most effective ways to improve your mental health are therapy and medication.
Both therapy (in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy or another psychotherapy) and medication (in the form of prescription drugs like antidepressants) can treat a variety of disorders and their respective common symptoms.
We’ve covered all of these topics before on the blog, but if you’re ready to hear more about what medication and therapy can do for you, it may be time to stop reading and start talking to a professional.
A mental health professional will be able to help you design a tailored treatment regimen for your unique needs, which may involve everything we’ve mentioned or just a few tools. You won’t know until you’ve talked to someone who can help you formulate that strategy.
Whether you just want to ask questions or you’re ready to jump into treatment, talk to someone today. Our online therapy platform and mental health resources are great places to talk about your concerns and, if nothing else, get a better idea of whether you have a mental illness or you’re just overreacting.