Being Proactive with Your Symptoms

People differ greatly in how they experience mental illness. Many people find that there is a somewhat predictable pattern to their symptoms. For instance, people with depression sometimes notice that their symptoms grow worse during the late fall and winter months when there is less daylight. People with bipolar disorder often find that they consistently have manic episodes in the spring and summer when the days are longer. Others find that their symptoms increase in response to specific events. Identifying the patterns in your own symptoms can be very beneficial for you and your healthcare provider as you work together to manage your illness.

Recognizing your symptom patterns can:

  • Help you and your healthcare provider anticipate times when you may be more likely to have an episode.
  • Help you to take steps to prevent an episode from developing (such as using Self-Care).
  • Help you and your healthcare provider better understand the nature of your mental illness. This may improve the quality and effectiveness of your treatment.

“Mental health should be a priority in everyone’s college experience. Needing to take a break for yourself or open up to a friend is not a sign of weakness. Knowing when you need to recharge will only make you stronger. College is a time of change and growth, but also a time to reflect. Check in with yourself about your mental health before you get too stressed out. If you make a mistake, learn from it and turn to what you know works for you. There are so many resources, people, and options available. Explore what allows you to be your best self, and immerse yourself in it!”

Tracking Your Symptom Patterns

A helpful way to evaluate your symptom patterns is to sketch them on a graph. You can use this information to decide what the best coping strategies are for you and be more proactive in managing your symptoms. For example, if you have more episodes over winter break when you’re isolated from friends, you could create a plan to stay in touch with them while apart.


Bullet journals have been called an analog organization system for the digital age. It can be customized to your personal preferences and has been used as a to-do-list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, but sometimes all of the above. Some people with mental illnesses have found it helpful for tracking their mood, medications, habits, and their mental and physical health symptoms. Bullet journals are just one way to track your symptoms, and this method may not work for everyone. Buzzfeed has a couple of examples to get you started.


Everyone, regardless of whether or not they have been diagnosed with a mental illness, experiences distress from time to time. If you have a mental illness, you are more likely to experience distress more frequently and more intensely. So it is important to be aware of your experiences and talk with a mental health provider if you feel your distress is overwhelming and interfering with daily tasks. Below are some general characteristics that can be helpful in gauging your severity of distress:

Typical Distress vs. Distress Requiring Professional Attention*

Typical distress Distress requiring professional attention
Usually begins to subside after a few hours or days Often does not subside for weeks, months, or even years
Usually has an identifiable cause, such as:

  • Arguing with a friend, roommate, or family member
  • Getting a bad grade on a test or assignment
  • Receiving disappointing news
  • Losing an important game
Might not have a clearly identifiable cause:

  • Crying frequently without knowing why
  • Having angry outbursts at others for no apparent reason
  • Feeling anxious in situations that are usually considered non-threatening
Usually has a reasonable intensity given the circumstances:

  • Crying for a few days after a romantic breakup
  • Feeling butterflies in your stomach before a major exam or presentation
  • Not talking to a friend for a time after s/he betrays your trust
Is often out of proportion to the circumstances:

  • Feeling worthless or hopeless after performing poorly on an exam
  • Angry outbursts over small problems
  • Avoiding classes or social situations because they make you feel very anxious
Gets better, at least briefly, when something good happens Might not get better even when something good happens

*NOTE: This list is not intended to replace a professional evaluation.

Consider talking to your provider if any of the following pertains to you:

  • Your distress leads to dangerous thoughts or behavior, such as considering suicide or physically harming your body. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call Psychiatric Emergency Services, 734-936-5900 or CAPS Urgent Support, 734-764-8312. If you have an emergency medical situation, call 911.
  • Your distress lasts for a long time (weeks, months or years).
  • Your distress seems out of proportion to your problems.
  • You feel distressed frequently and you are not sure why.
  • You continue feeling bad even when good things happen.
  • You find that distress interferes with your ability to live life the way you want to live it.
  • You feel a need to use alcohol or drugs in order to feel better.

Watch this video about Christina and how she learned to use Mindfulness to recognize and manage her anxiety.



Ask yourself the following questions, and if you answer “yes” to any of them, consider talking to your mental health care provider:

  • Am I having difficulty carrying out or completing my normal activities and responsibilities?
  • Am I unable to do my class work, or has class work suffered, because of the way I have been feeling or acting?
  • Am I having difficulty interacting with friends, classmates or strangers?
  • Has my behavior damaged my relationships with friends or family members?
  • Have I been avoiding people or important situations frequently because I have been feeling anxious?
  • Has my drinking or drug use interfered with my relationships, my academic performance or my other responsibilities?


Sometimes it’s difficult for us to recognize when we are having problems that may be obvious to friends or loved ones. If someone you trust expresses concern about your health or behavior, take time to consider their concerns objectively. Consider the other person’s perspective and find out why they are concerned.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has someone recently told me that I’ve been acting differently?
  • Has someone recently told me that I have been treating people differently?
  • Are other people worried about how I’ve been acting?
  • Are other people finding it difficult to interact with me?
  • Has someone expressed concern about my weight or my eating habits?
  • Has someone objected to or shown concern about how much I have been drinking or using drugs?

Additional Resources:
  • Members of the U-M campus community can call the main CAPS phone number, 734-764-8312 for after hours mental health consultations
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255)


Get Help Now - Crisis Text Line 741-741 // Call U-M Crisis Phone Line: (734) 936-5900 or (734) 996-4747