Updated 28 October 2013

6 steps to get a grip on yourself

Most people know what to do when they are physically ill, but do you know what to do if you suspect your problem is psychological?

On an ordinary day at work, Pamela* suddenly started having heart palpitations, a tight chest and felt overwhelmed with fear that she may be dying. She immediately made an appointment to see her doctor who found no physical reason for her symptoms. He diagnosed panic attacks.

Pamela is one of the many people seeking medical attention for a psychological condition. In fact, a third of visits to doctors are for psychological and not physical illnesses.

Do you suddenly feel down and lacking in energy? Or not as in control of your emotions and thoughts as usual? Perhaps you feel that you are not coping with everyday activities? It might well be that you need the help of a mental health practitioner.

Most people know what to do when they are physically ill, but don't know which steps to follow if the problem is of a psychological nature. While people don't hesitate to visit a doctor for a physical ailment, the opposite might be true when they suspect that there might be a psychological problem. They might feel ashamed or guilty that they are not coping, or might feel that the simple solution is just to "pull themselves together". For others, it might be that they simply don't know that help is available or that they don't know where to seek help.

Some of the signs that you may need help:
  • More emotional: i.e. more down or much happier (almost elated) than usual
  • More anxious or tense than normal
  • Disturbed sleep patterns – need to sleep more or inability to fall or stay asleep
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Abusing substances, such as alcohol or drugs
  • Physical problems, e.g. heart palpitations, unusual sweating or trembling which are not the result of a physical problem
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Interpersonal difficulties
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Friends or relatives have expressed their concern that there is something wrong
  • Drop in school or work performance
  • Feeling that you are not coping with everyday tasks

What to do:

If you suspect that you might need help, follow these steps:

Step 1: Seek help

A good place to start is a visit to your family doctor. Discuss your concerns with him or her and ask whether or not your problems are of a psychological or a physical nature.

Step 2: Referral

Once you have established that you might need psychological help, ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health practitioner. Note that general practitioners don't specialise in mental health problems. It is therefore far better to ask for a referral. If you require psychiatric medication, you should be referred to a psychiatrist (a medical doctor who has specialised, post-graduate training in psychiatry). If you don't require medication, you could ask to be referred to a psychologist for therapy. Psychologists specialise in so-called "talk therapies" which help people to gain insight into their problems and to cope better.

Step 3: Medication

If a psychiatrist prescribed psychiatric medication, make sure to ask the following questions:

  • How long will it take before you can expect results? Some medications take up to six weeks to have an effect.
  • What are the possible side-effects?
  • Is there anything you shouldn't eat or drink while taking the medication?
  • At which point should you be concerned that the medication or its dose is not effective?

Step 4: Psychotherapy

If you have been referred to a psychologist, regard the first appointment as an opportunity for you to see if you feel comfortable sharing your problems with him or her. There is no point in continuing therapy if you cannot trust or be open with the person. If you are not happy with the therapist, ask your doctor to refer you to someone else.

Step 5: Get educated

Ask your therapist whether he or she can recommend any literature which explains your condition. You could also surf the internet for more information. has comprehensive articles on common psychiatrist conditions. If your illness is affecting others, it will be helpful for them to understand your condition. This will enable them to support you better and to know what they can or cannot expect from you at this stage.

Step 6: Get support

There are several support groups for people with mental health problems. Many people find it useful to meet others who are in a similar position. This is also a perfect opportunity to get practical advice on how to cope. Check the directory of any large South African city for the number of the Mental Health Information Centre and ask them for a list of support groups in your area.

And lastly, congratulate yourself for seeking help – you have taken the first step towards controlling your illness. Medication and/or psychotherapy have helped millions of people to overcome their illness or to cope optimally. Know that things can, and will only get better.

*Not her real name.

(Photo of stressed woman from Shutterstock)


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Teen angst »

Detecting depression: Phone apps could monitor teen angst

Studies have linked heavy smartphone use with worsening teen mental health. But as teens scroll through Instagram and Snapchat, tap out texts or watch YouTube videos, they also leave digital footprints that might offer clues to their psychological well-being.

Lifestyle changes »

Lifestyle changes helped new dad shed more than 20kg

Erik Minaya started to put on the kilos during his first year year in college. By age 24, he tipped the scale at nearly 120kg. But then he cut out fast food, replacing it with lower-carb offerings that he prepared himself.