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Normal or not? Many of us may be a little bit 'off' and that can be OK

Mental health exists on a spectrum and it’s quite normal to have some personality traits or quirks that are left or right of center, experts say.
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/ Source: TODAY Contributor
By Jacqueline Stenson

You’re schlepping the kids to after-school activities, so you double-check your phone calendar and then check again to make sure you didn’t forget to pick up one of them — or gasp — another child in the carpool.

Maybe your boss is emailing after hours again, leaving you on edge and keeping you awake at night with work — and worry.

Or with the holidays right around the corner and Santa behind schedule, perhaps you’re feeling more like the Grinch than a happy Who.

Is it just another Manic Monday, Terrible Tuesday or Wake-Me-Up-When-It’s-Over-Wednesday? Or is there something more troubling going on? Maybe you’ve joked with a friend about being “a mess” or “all OCD,” or that you’re “losing it.”

It might be tempting to start Googling symptoms of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or another mental health problem to find out whether you’re “normal or not.” But some sources might unnecessarily add to your worry.

Mental health experts say if you’re struggling more than usual, especially if symptoms persist for a couple weeks or more, consult a health professional. There’s no shame in it — or there shouldn’t be. Practitioners would love for the world to view mental illnesses in the same light as high blood pressure, diabetes or any other health issue that requires treatment.

They also say that before you stress too much about your sanity, it’s important to realize mental health exists on a spectrum and it’s actually quite normal to have some personality traits or quirks that are left or right of center to some degree.

“Being off a little bit is normal,” said Dr. Philip Muskin, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “We all have something that’s us, that makes us uniquely us.”

Some people are natural worriers, while others just don’t get worked up as much. Some tend to go through life seeing the glass as half empty, while others view it as half full. Some people are super orderly and like to have their black socks arranged separately from their blue, brown and white socks, while others just throw them all together in a big pile.

Any of these traits can be harmless if they aren’t causing problems for you or those around you, experts say.

“We all have quirks, but that does not mean we have a mental health issue,” Muskin said. “The bottom line is: Are you suffering? If you’re suffering, whatever it is, well then that should at least be worth looking into.”

Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and an assistant clinical professor at Harvard University Medical School in Boston, explained that while people may manage just fine being a bit anxious or having a sad day, in greater degrees, those qualities can make their lives so dysfunctional that they can’t work, care for their kids or get a good night’s rest.

“A lot of these things exist on a spectrum,” Duckworth said. “There are no bright lines in this line of work.”

Certain quirks may even serve you well in some ways. Being a little on the obsessive side may mean you’re more organized or thorough. But there’s a difference between routinely checking the locks because the kids often leave the door open and checking the locks exactly 30 times because you’ll be overcome with anxiety if you don’t.

If you’re concerned about your mental health, experts urge that you seek help. Start with your primary care doctor or any health professional you are comfortable talking to, even if for women that’s their OB/GYN. If that practitioner doesn’t have the necessary expertise, he or she can put you in touch with a psychologist, therapist or other qualified practitioner who may recommend further counseling or medication.

When patients get mental health care and start opening up about their concerns, Muskin said, they can be surprised to hear that some of their seemingly abnormal thoughts or behaviors aren't so uncommon or abnormal after all. Just having the opportunity to talk about them can be a big relief. Patients also can learn coping mechanisms to help them better handle the stresses of life.

People who successfully manage disappointment, anger and other challenges “may not be happy, they may be somewhat anxious, but they handle it,” Muskin said. “They go for a run, they watch their favorite movie, they read a book and take themselves out. They do some breath technique, or they say, 'You know I haven’t done yoga for a while.' They go for a walk out in the snow because it’s pretty even though it’s cold. They have ways of resetting.”

Unfortunately, mental health problems can be stigmatized, so some people might feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek help, said psychologist Lynn Bufka, senior director of practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association in Washington.

“There’s a concern that people are going to be labeled ‘crazy’ or that they messed up,” Bufka said. “We don’t tell people that if they have celiac disease or they lost their vision that, ‘You’re the problem.’ We treat it as: Here’s a health condition and we have some things that we can do to help you. Wouldn’t it be great if mental health were the same way?”