Are my behaviors a result of a mental health illness? Tips for understanding the difference between mental health diagnoses and developmentally appropriate behaviors

Each of us faces emotional difficulties from time to time.  Feelings of sadness or loss and extremes of emotions are typical responses to the complexities of life. The realization that you or a loved one may need to seek professional attention for behavior and/or emotional management can be painful, frightening, invalidating, embarrassing and oftentimes parents may feel like they have failed.   Before seeking professional attention it is common for people to solicit advice from friends, family members, colleagues, and/or the internet.  Conflicts in personal and professional relationships are inevitable and oftentimes do not warrant a diagnosis of “personality disorder.”  Fear of public speaking does not mean one has a social anxiety disorder.   So the question remains, when does a behavior warrant a mental health diagnosis? For example, when does shyness become social phobia? When does being overly cautious speak to a bigger problem?

Oftentimes, it can be tough to diagnose a behavior as a mental health illness.  It is very difficult to assign a diagnosis to an individual during the first therapy session; especially with more severe mental health illnesses such as, but not limited to Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia or Personality Disorder.  Clinicians are placed in difficult positions as diagnoses must be assigned during the initial assessment for the purposes of billing insurances.  How much do we know about an individual after spending 1-2 hours with him or her for an initial assessment?   For these reasons, multiple factors must be taken into consideration before one is given a mental health diagnosis.

Mental health Illness Vs. Developmentally Appropriate Behavior?

What to look for:

Duration: How long has an individual presented with the symptoms? How often are the symptoms present?  Are the symptoms consistent?  Are there signs of improvement?  Obsessive hand-washing or drinking too much alcohol may be signs of a mental health condition.  Also, consider the context of the symptoms. For example, is the individual experiencing the recent loss of a loved one, transitioning to a new job, location, etc?  If symptoms such as sadness, irritability, changes in sleep patterns, appetite and/or isolation are consistently present in various settings over the course of a few weeks and getting in the way of daily living activities one should seek professional attention.

Intensity:  Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, irritability and anger are normal reactions to the ups and downs of life.  We may find ourselves feeling hopeless if we lose our job, sad after a break up or the death of a loved one, irritable with our spouse or children, angry after an argument with a loved one. These emotions can become a problem when we consistently lose control of managing them and they manage us.  How does your behavior influence your relationship with others?  Are people afraid to spend time with you?  Have loved ones consistently expressed their concern about your well-being?  If any of the aforementioned emotions or behaviors are frightening or concerning to an individual or others around them, seeking professional attention may be necessary.

Age/Stage of Development:  Understanding behavior that is developmentally appropriate given an individual’s age is arguably one of the most important factors in differentiating between mental health illness and developmentally appropriate behavior.  Life is full of transitions from childhood to late adulthood.  Children struggle from “terrible twos” through adolescence in search of their identity.  Young adulthood through middle adulthood also consists of searching for one’s purpose or passion and manifests in intimate relationships in careers.  Various changes in relationships, careers and locations are common for this stage of life.  “Who Am I” is the question individuals may be searching for from adolescence to middle adulthood include.   In late adulthood, one may question, “Did I have a meaningful life?”  “Do I have any regrets”?  “How did I impact society?”  When experiencing the range of emotions and behaviors that accompany the various stages of development, it may appear that one may be suffering from a mental health illness.  Changes in behavior due to growth and development are normal.  There will be times where behaviors are extreme; but this should be the exception and not the rule.  When we understand developmentally appropriate behaviors, we are able to use discernment for behaviors that are normal given an individual’s age.  For example, if an individual finds himself or herself in middle-late adulthood consistently displaying behaviors consistent with the adolescence stage; he or she may have unresolved conflict from adolescence that may require the attention of a mental health professional.

With all that being said, you may be wondering if you or a loved one could benefit from a mental health evaluation.    Each mental health condition has its own set of signs and symptoms.  Professional help may be warranted if you or a loved one are experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Marked changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns
  • Inability to cope with problems or daily activities
  • Strange or grandiose ideas
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged depression or apathy
  • Thinking or talking about suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • Extreme mood swings, excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior.

Remember it is important to keep in mind the frequency, duration, intensity of the behaviors and emotions; as well as the stage of development before one is diagnosed with a mental health condition.  However, it is also imperative that we do not dismiss the signs and symptoms as a normal part of life and avoid treatment out of fear or shame.  If you are concerned about your mental health or the mental health of a loved one, you do not have to suffer alone or in silence, please seek advice.

At HandinHand Counseling Services, LLC, we have licensed therapists trained to administer mental health assessments.  We also offer free 15 minute phone consultations.  Contact us at 412-414-7782 or 412-607-4805.

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Climbing the Stairs to Success: Tips for Failing Forward

“There is no elevator to success, we must take the stairs,” is one of my favorite quotes describing the process one must endure in order to achieve success.  When we climb the stairs, we will be met with adversity, obstacles, challenges, hardships, progress, setbacks………and that word that most of us fear…..failure!  Most of us were taught that failure was the “end all be all.”  In school, a “big red F on a test” was a reminder that you failed.  If you fail enough times, you are required to repeat the course.  Failing a course and repeating the same course that most of your peers have passed can leave one feeling embarrassed, ashamed, inadequate, incompetent and angry.  In the workforce, most people experience similar pressure.  The pressure may come from an employer requiring employees to pass a licensure exam to secure employment and failure can result in termination.  The outcome in both examples can leave one feeling like a failure.  In my experiences the initial feeling following a failure can feel like the end of the world.  Allow yourself that moment to taste, chew, swallow and digest that initial feeling.   After that initial feeling passes, it’s decision time.  Are you going to be a victim of failure or a victor of failure? You may fail in school, work and/or relationships; but you are not a failure.  Failure is success turned inside out.  It is an event, an opportunity to regroup and learn from our mistakes.  I have failed at many things, many times and have learned to accept failure as part of the process on my journey to success.

Through reading, interviewing, observing and spending time with successful people, I learned they have one thing in common; they don’t quit!  I have also learned that the most successful people govern their lives by what I call the “4 P’s for Failing Forward to Success”

The 4 P’s for Success:

Purpose: What is the reason for your journey? Have you found your “why?” How big is your “why?” Your why should be so big it will make you cry!  On the surface, most people pursue success for status, profit or honors.  What happens when these things fade?  What will sustain your drive when life beats you down while on your journey?  I challenge you to get to the core of you want to be successful.  A strong why is bigger than you and will sustain you when adversity strikes.  As Mark Twain quoted, “The 2 most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Patience: Your journey to success involves planting lots of seeds.  What you plant now will harvest later.  Stay true to your vision, trust the process and keep your end in mind.

Persistence: As a wise woman once told me, “Be a verb!” You must take action, keep pushing through, don’t accept no for an answer, leave no stone unturned and most importantly, “Don’t Quit!”

Passion: Your passion is the fire that lights the way.  It moves you beyond yourself, beyond the limits of your potential and beyond your failures.  If you are unsure about your question; reflect on these questions/statements: What makes your heart smile? When you are working and it does not feel like “work,” you have found your passion.

Success comes in many forms.  We seek success in our personal, professional and social lives.  In each facet of our lives success does not come without hard work, determination and failure.  The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.  If we do not fail, we do not learn.  If we do not learn, we do not grow.

~Success is to begin, embrace the process, to finish.

Please share your definition of success.  What barriers have you had to overcome on your journey to success?

The Hope, Health and Healing Series Presents: “Health and Wellness”

unnamed[1]The Hope Health and Healing Series is a quarterly event that takes a holistic approach in helping individuals improve their well-being.  This month the series will focus on “Health and Wellness,” with an emphasis on self-care.  Self-Care is a huge component of Health and Wellness as we cannot nurture from a dry well. When we are caring for ourselves, we are in tuned with each aspect of our being; including physical, professional mental/psychological, emotional and spiritual.

The topics covered will include:

Personal Self Care:

Who are you?

What do you want in life?

What are your short term goals

Professional Self Care:

Set Professional Development goals

Take time off from work

Set boundaries


Self reflection






Adequate Sleep

Healthy Eating


Remember, self-care is not a selfish or self-indulgent act. Self-care is a necessary act  to ensure we are making enough deposits into our spiritual accounts to allot for the amount of withdrawals that occur from others on a daily basis.

Please share at least one self-care activity you engage in per week.  Your ideas can help those who are struggling to find ways to take care of themselves.

If you are near the Pittsburgh area or looking for a reason to take advantage of the great weather by traveling; I invite you to attend this free seminar!  Join us for an afternoon of thought provoking discussions, health coach assessments, mental health consultations and free blood pressure screenings.  The second edition to the Vitamin C brand; “Vitamin C: The Healing Workbook,” my newly published book will also be available for purchase.

In the second edition of my book, Vitamin C: The Healing Workbook, I spend time examining the topic of health and wellness as it relates to self care. Each chapter includes a workbook section that allows you to work through some of your most pressing issues.

To RSVP to the event or inquire about purchasing Vitamin C: The Healing Workbook, email

Vitamin C copies can also be purchased at

What Purpose Does Anxiety Serve in Our Lives? Tips for Understanding and Managing Anxiety

Most of us experience some level of nervousness or anxiety when faced with unpredictable and/or challenging situations.  For example, public speaking is arguably the most anxiety provoking activity; and this is normal.  Anxiety can develop into a problem when it becomes so frequent and forceful that it gets in the way of our daily activities.  In order to successfully manage anxiety, we must learn to understand its purpose and also to differentiate between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder.

The Purpose of Anxiety

Every behavior serves a function in our lives.  For this particular article, anxiety is the behavior.

Anxiety is Normal: Anxiety is hardwired into our brains and helps us to survive.   It is a normal response to uncertainty, trouble or feeling unprepared.  Examples of normal anxiety include occasional worry about circumstantial events such as an exam, job interview, speaking engagement or a break up.

Anxiety is Adaptive: When the brain senses danger, our sympathetic nervous system gets triggered.  This is the system in the body that is responsible for our response to fear as well as the way our bodies prepare to defend itself.  The activation of this system leads to the production of adrenaline and helps us to deal with real danger.  Our body responds to danger through fight, flight or freezing.

Anxiety is Not Dangerous:  Our bodies will experience sensations such as heavy breathing, nervousness and sweaty palms.  Although these sensations may feel uncomfortable, they are not dangerous.  These symptoms serve to protect you from danger and will not hurt you.

Anxiety is Temporary and Will Subside: The aforementioned sensations are short-lived and serve to protect us from perceived threats.  Increase in frequency and duration of anxiety could be more problematic. *This will be discussed later in the article.

Anxiety is Common: One in ten adults suffers from anxiety problems.

The distinction between having normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder is whether your emotions are causing a lot of distress and dysfunction.

Signs of an Anxiety Disorder:

Anxiety comes in many forms such as panic attacks, phobias and social anxiety.  The following list will provide an overview of signs and symptoms that may indicate more than the “normal anxiety.”  If you or someone you know has experienced the following symptoms most of the days for 3-6 months, consult your doctor or counselor.

Excessive worrying: Worrying too much about everyday things large and small. These persistent anxious thoughts must occur on most days of the week for 6 months.  The anxiety must be so bad that it interferes with daily life.

Sleep Problems: Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep can be a sign of anxiety disorder.  Waking up feeling wired, having racing thoughts and being unable to de-escalate can also be signs of anxiety disorder.

Irrational Fears: Most of us fear things such as but not limited to flying, wild animals, public speaking.  The fear I am speaking of becomes overwhelming, disruptive and is not congruent with the risk involved.

Muscle Tension: Constant muscle tension such as balling fists, flexing muscles throughout body and clenching jaw.

Chronic Indigestion: This particular symptom is a great example of how anxiety can start in the mind but manifest itself in the body through physical symptoms.  Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that consists of cramping, bloating, gas, stomachaches, and/or diarrhea.  Research has shown that IBS and anxiety often occur together and the digestive tract is very sensitive to psychological stress.

Self-consciousness: People with social anxiety disorder tend to feel like all eyes are on them all the time.  They experience symptoms such as blushing, trembling, nausea, profuse sweating or difficulty talking.  These symptoms make it hard to meet new people, maintain relationships and impact productivity at work and in school.

Panic: Panic attacks can be scary.  Imagine a random feeling of fear, helplessness, shortness of breath, tightness of chest, pounding of heart, sweating, dizziness that can last for several minutes.   Not everyone who has a panic attack has an anxiety disorder, but people who experience them frequently could be diagnosed with a panic disorder.

Flashbacks: Reliving a traumatic event such as loss of a loved one, abuse and violence.  These symptoms are aligned with that of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  People with these symptoms often avoid reminders of the experience.

Perfectionism: Individuals who constantly judge themselves or anticipate making mistakes or falling short of their standards.

Compulsive behaviors:  Compulsive behaviors can progress into an anxiety disorder when the rituals begin to take over your life. These compulsive behaviors include; someone telling himself or herself it will be okay over and over again, excessive hand-washing, straightening items. For example, an individual is constantly late for work because s/he repeatedly checks to make sure the doors to the house are locked.

Self-Doubt: Persistent self-doubt and second guessing could also be a sign of an anxiety disorder.  These “doubt attacks” become common when questions cannot be answered or when grey areas occur.

Tips for Managing Anxiety:

Take time out:  Most of us are busy.  What adult isn’t busy?!?!  But if we are committed to managing our anxiety we must find ways to relax.  This can include 5-10 minutes per day of alone time, yoga, prayer, meditation, massage.

Eat well-balanced meals: Do not skip meals, eat at least 3 meals per day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and include healthy snacks.  Plan your meals at least a day in advance.

Limit alcohol and caffeine:  Alcohol and caffeine can trigger panic attacks and aggravate anxiety.

Get enough sleep:  Our minds and bodies need adequate rest in order to function effectively.

Exercise: An “organic” treatment to managing stress and anxiety.

Take deep breaths: Breathing calms the reactive part of our brains.  When feeling stressed inhale and exhale slowly.

Do the best you can with what you have and where you are:  Perfection is not a goal.  Set realistic goals and work toward achieving those goals.

Accept the things within your control: Put your anxiety into perspective.  Are things really that bad? Are you having a bad day, bad week or bad life?

Maintain a positive attitude:  Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts and smile!

Humor:  Humor can be a great “form of medication.”

Learn your triggers: When we understand our triggers, we can learn strategies for managing ourselves when we come into contact with these triggers.  Triggers can include any person, place, thing, smell etc.  Write in a journal when you are feeling anxious in order to begin identifying patterns.

Talk to someone: You do not have to experience this alone.  Talk to friends and family that you trust about your situation.   Talk to a physician or counselor for professional help.

Anxiety is helpful and adaptive when it is working to protect us from danger.  However, when our minds influence our bodies to live in a state of anxiety when there is no real threat, this level of anxiety becomes our baseline; which can in turn lead to a diagnosis of anxiety disorder.

It is my hope that the discussion of the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorder did not create anxiety.  My intent was to bring awareness to the difference between a common day to day problem and a condition that may require attention from a medical and/or mental health professional.

If you or someone you know has questions or is experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms of anxiety; please contact HandinHand Counseling Services, LLC @ 412-414-7782.

Please share your thoughts, experiences and coping strategies you may have used to manage anxiety provoking situations.