Recognizing Symptoms

Symptoms of emotional problems can take many forms. Some are obvious; some are difficult to recognize and identify. Types of emotional disorders can be loosely categorized as follows. 
Category D includes the most common kinds of problems.                                             

(A) Psychoses
(B) Drug induced disorders 
(C) Disorders secondary to brain damage or other medical illness
(D) Emotional disorders.

(A) Psychoses include extremely serious 

mental disorders that which cause people to lose contact with reality, to see or hear things that are not really there (hallucinations) or to have obviously distorted and unrealistic thoughts (delusions). These disorders usually render a person unable to care for themselves. These people may require extensive psychiatric hospitalization, or they may respond well to outpatient psychotropic medications. Without proper treatment, they may wander the streets as homeless persons.

(B) Drug induced disorders

 may result in a wide variety of symptoms secondary to substance abuse.  In these cases the substance abuse problem must be eliminated before the symptoms can be addressed.

(C) Brain damage due to head trauma, 

running extremely high temperatures, diseases such as Alzheimer’s or having impaired brain function due to the effects of an organic disease is another category of disorders which can result in a wide variety of symptoms.

(D) Emotional disorders are the most common of all. 

Exaggerated examples of such symptoms are often portrayed in television or motion pictures, such as Frasier, or the old Bob Newhart show, The Odd Couple or the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets.” Such movie and television characters may portray a variety of symptoms of emotional disorders, such as constant feelings of inferiority, an  obsessive fear of germs or illness, constant fears of having cancer, a heart attack, or some other dread disease, or fears of elevators or enclosed places.

Excessive and persistent fears of some form of disease is called hypochondriasis, from which the term hypochondriac is derived. Excessive, persistent and repetitive thoughts are called obsessions. Unreasonable repetitive actions such as constantly checking and rechecking that the gas is off, or that the door is locked are called compulsions. Often these kinds of symptoms occur in combinations rather than distinct forms.  For example, a person might constantly feel compelled to wash his hands because of obsessive thoughts about germs and in connection with hypochondriacal fears of illness.

Emotional distress confined mainly to fears may be classified as phobias.  These could include a fear of animals, or heights, or enclosed places. Usually a person will simply avoid the feared situation, a limitation which may become an increasingly serious problem in their life. Some people feel like they are in a constant state of anxiety, not necessarily associated with any specific situation. 

Panic attacks are a form of severe anxiety 

that may limit a person’s activities and which may cause a person to think they are going to faint or die of a heart attack. Panic attacks may have phobic qualities, such as a fear of flying, or driving on the freeway, or being far from home (agoraphobia). (See panic attacks & anxiety disorders for more information about these symptoms.) 

Depression is a symptom which can result in fatigue, 

a loss of interest in life, insomnia or hypersomnia, a disturbance of appetite and an inability to work and function normally in everyday life. There are certain less common forms of severe depression which fall in the category of psychosis (see Depression.

Many of the above described symptoms are expression of various forms of anxiety. Both anxiety and depression are universal human feelings, which we all experience from time to time. Normally these feelings are connected with identifiable stress factors and they  usually are limited in extent and duration. When these symptoms begin to dominate and disrupt our lives they are signs of emotional distress which require professional help.

People usually respond favorably to help from a well qualified and experienced mental health professional. (See selecting a psychologist,  types of therapists and types of therapy.)


People are curious about their “diagnosis.” It is important to understand that there is an significant difference between a psychodiagnosis of an emotional or mental disorder and a medical diagnosis of most physical diseases or disorders. 

Diagnoses of a diseases such as diabetes, measles, mumps, hypertension, a fractured femur or a perforated ear drum usually refer to quite specific biochemical disorders, physical damage, or viral or bacterial infections. Psychodiagnoses usually have less specificity. They generally refer to a cluster of symptoms that vary in nature and intensity from one person to another. There may be some very important differences between different people who have the same diagnosis.  

For example, some people with an obsessive-compulsive disorder may be so impaired that they behave in a very strange way and can scarcely function, while others may have no obvious external manifestations of their symptoms. Although you may experience some noticeable changes in your moods, it is a mistake to conclude that this means you are bipolar. Most people have some variation in the nature of their psychological functioning, such as periods in which they may be very social, punctuated by periods of feeling somewhat detached and withdrawn, or periods of being easy to get along with, punctuated by periods of irritability and hostility. This does not mean that you are schizophrenic or that you have a multiple personality. 

Psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use a reference called Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV) to categorize symptom clusters into psychodiagnostic categories. For more comprehensive and specific information on this subject, you may refer to Psychnet-uk diagnosis, which provide Online information about the criteria for different DSM IV psychodiagnostic categories.  Don’t be surprised to find  that you may have some characteristics of several psychodiagnostic categories . This does not mean that the diagnosis applies to you. Most symptoms are extreme expressions of feelings or thoughts that normal people experience. It takes training and experience to develop the knowledge and judgment to differentiate between the vicissitudes of normal psychological functioning and psychopathology. It is a common occurrence for graduate students in psychology, as they study various psychodiagnostic categories, to mistakenly “self-diagnosis” themselves with multiple serious psychiatric problems.  In the spirit of the conundrum that “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing,” I do not recommend the use of this information for “self diagnosis.” 

Medications: You will also find information about tranquilizers, medications for anxiety, for ADHD and other problems at the bottom of the page  on Types of Psychotherapy