Recognizing Patterns in Symptoms

Knowing Your Symptom Patterns

People differ greatly in how they experience mental health disorders. 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. For example, people with anxiety disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, often find that their symptoms worsen when they are under increased stress.

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.

Why is it helpful to know your symptom patterns? 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 stress management strategies.
  • Help you and your healthcare provider better understand the nature of your mental health disorder. This may improve the quality and effectiveness of your treatment.

Graphing Your Symptom Patterns

A helpful way to evaluate your symptom patterns is to sketch them on a graph. For example, the graph below represents someone with major depressive disorder. The horizontal line (or x-axis) represents the period of time over which the person is tracking her symptoms. The vertical line (or y-axis) represents the intensity of those symptoms (with symptoms worsening as you go up the y-axis). The red line represents the individual’s symptom pattern. As you can see, the person in this example had two distinct episodes of depression over the course of a year, one with moderate symptoms and one with severe symptoms. Outside of those two episodes, her symptoms were mild.

If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and have symptoms of both depression and mania, it may make more sense for you to draw your symptoms on both sides of the x-axis. In the example below, the x-axis represents no symptoms, the area above the x-axis represents manic symptoms, and the area below the x-axis represents depressive symptoms. This person experienced one episode of mania between two episodes of depression.

No two people with mental health disorders share the same pattern of symptoms. Your individual symptom pattern may change over time, especially if you receive treatment. Graphing your symptom pattern is a quick and easy way to help you and your care provider understand your experiences. It can also be helpful to add details to your graph, such as important events that could help you understand why your symptoms fluctuated (for example, “started college” or “broke up with my girlfriend” or “stopped taking my medication”).

Symptom tracker- blank and bipolar

Next > Knowing When to Seek Professional Help

UM Depression Center© Copyright 2003-2016 Regents of the University of Michigan

The University of Michigan Health System web site does not provide specific medical advice and does not endorse any medical or professional service obtained through information provided on this site or any links to this site. Complete disclaimer and Privacy Statement.