Taking an Emotional Temperature
When a friend or family member is not feeling well, one of the first things you likely think to do is take their temperature. Rightly, you reason, a fever would be a clear indicator of illness and a sign to take some action, whether it be to call in sick to work or to make a doctor’s appointment.
When the discomfort is emotional or mental, rather than physical, it’s harder to measure and harder to know when to take action. This is especially true, because everyone occasionally feels sad or down.
Luckily, there are some indicators of emotional distress. The goal of this piece is to identify them and make some recommendations for next steps. Think of it as a way to take your loved one’s emotional temperature.
Imagine an affirmative response to each of the following conditions as a point on a 5-point scale. The higher the number the greater the likelihood of a serious emotional issue ranging from depression to suicidal ideation.
Has your loved one deviated from their normal routine? One of the first indicators that a loved one might be feeling off is a departure from their normal activities. If a person typically loves to read or cook, for instance, and they suddenly no longer feel like it (and have not taken up any new interests either), it’s time to begin paying attention.
Has your loved one changed their hygiene habits? Someone experiencing emotional distress may neglect their personal appearance, bathe less regularly, or not worry about brushing their teeth or hair, for instance. They may appear disheveled. This is your second clue that they may be experiencing emotional distress.
Are they sleeping irregularly? If your friend or family member suddenly starts sleeping during the day or is too anxious to sleep at night, this may be an indicator of emotional troubles. Because sleep is so important to our wellbeing, problems with sleep can seem to destabilize our emotional compass even further.
Are they turning down opportunities to relate with others? If your friend or family member suddenly stops accepting invites or answering their phone, they may be feeling emotionally withdrawn.
Are they talking about not being around? One of the most serious ways that people let us know that they are distressed is by saying things like, “I am just a burden to everyone,” “I just want to fall asleep and not wake up,” or “I think it would be easier if I weren’t here.” They are unlikely to say, “I am thinking about committing suicide” or “I need help.”
Regardless of what number of “yeses” you came up with, it’s OK to ask the person about their feelings. Doing so will show them that you care. Listen without judgement and reassure the person that you are there for them. Share that help is available locally through agencies like United Counseling Service and through primary care providers.
If you feel they may be in immediate danger, stay close and ensure that they are not left alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 9-1-1.
Your attention to your loved one’s emotional state, as well as their physical health, is a great way to show you care and could make a lifesaving difference.
Rachel Darby, PMHNP, is a psychiatric nurse practitioner at United Counseling Service and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, both in Bennington, VT.