Mental health isn’t just all in our heads. There are various physical symptoms to look out for that could indicate more about your mental state than you realize.
How often have you heard the phrase “It’s all in your head“? This phrase has been used to discount the suffering of the unseen illnesses many deals with on a daily basis. It’s especially true for the physical symptoms that mental illness can bring with it.
Many mental and chronic illnesses are widely considered to be invisible illnesses. Everywhere I look I see people feeling ‘invalid’ because you can’t see what they’re feeling. It therefore extremely hard for sufferers to be heard and can even discourage people from seeking the help they need.
My journey with physical and mental pain.
In May twenty-eight-teen I developed severe bowel problems, accompanied by fatigue, insomnia, headaches and joint pain. With my stubborn gut being the most pressing matter I went to my GP after all other remedies had failed. Instead of leaving with a GI appointment, I was handed a box of strong medication. We never discussed my chronic stress levels, nor my mental health and history of anorexia nervosa. In hindsight, I should’ve spoken up but I was so desperate for help that I didn’t question it.
The rest was history. After a series of different diets and samples to find the root of my ‘IBS’ symptoms, I was told: “you may need to take these [medications] for the rest of your life.” That was it. No mention of further tests or investigations. And, although I can’t tribute my relapse entirely to poor management and various elimination diets, it certainly didn’t help.
Since leaving a stressful environment and, in hindsight, unhappiness, my bowels have become magically regular again; something I haven’t had in well over four years. Nothing else has changed except my employment. My diet is still abysmal despite eating more for recovery, I’m drinking less water than ever (oops) and I’m grieving. The only thing I did was remove myself from the perpetual stress and my stomach relaxed.
Top 5 Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness.
In preparation for this post, I spoke to several members of the mental health community about their experiences with the physical symptoms of mental illness. I’m thankful that twenty-one wonderful people responded to my call to action, each with a varying mix of physical symptoms.
How often have you been under pressure and you’ve uttered the words “my stomach is in bits”? Just last year while at one of many funerals, I heard my family members say this on several occasions. I experience GI changes in times of high stress, anxiety and even, sometimes, after a particularly bad bout of depression. Fortunately, I’m not alone.
It’s a common complaint from those struggling with emotional and mental trauma to experience tummy trouble. In fact, one of the most common physical complaints from anyone suffering from mental illness is gastrointestinal issues. This was confirmed by the folks on Twitter with sixteen of twenty-one respondents reporting suffering from IBS, acid reflux, indigestion or various other gastrointestinal issues.
I’m no stranger to muscle pain and it appears nor are ten of my Twitter participants. It comes from the tension we hold within our bodies due to the thoughts and trauma escalating in our brains. On numerous occasions, I’ve gone for physicals or massages and I’ve been told that I carry most of my stress within my shoulders. Although this could be from hunching over a desk all day, it’s more likely the fact that I tend to fold in on myself when I feel threatened. The goal, subconsciously, was to make myself as small as possible, when in reality I was just giving myself horrible back pain!
“Unfold yourself, hold your head up high, you’re not a turtle!”
Considering all the emotional and mental pain that mental illness brings, it’s no surprise that headaches follow suit. Nine participants reported suffering from headaches, ‘brain fog’ or memory problems on a regular basis.
I’ve also suffered from frequent headaches during university and these were only exacerbated by many external stressors. Frequently, I’d walk into work feeling physically fine and by lunch, I’d be nursing a horrible headache and popping painkillers just to make it home.
To make matters worse, I experienced the first and the worst, migraine of my life on October twenty eighteen. This experience ultimately found me in A&E for over twelve hours on oxygen and vomiting constantly. I was given several naproxen which reacted with my stomach and was told to lower my cortisol (stress) levels which, at the time, were through the roof. It took me no less than three days to recover and ever since I’ve been paranoid when I feel just a niggle of pain along my brow.
Fatigue and chronic exhaustion.
How often have you gone to bed exhausted and woken up feeling exactly the same, if not worse? Nine of Twitter respondents know this feeling all too well, myself included.
Perpetual exhaustion and chronic fatigue are commonly reported physical symptoms of mental illness. It’s thought that this is partially due to how illnesses such as depression react with the body. For example, depression makes us feel lethargic, while anxiety speeds it up and often prevents us from getting a restful night’s sleep. In combination, these two can leave you feeling caught in a constant loop of needing to sleep but being unable to quiet your mind enough to achieve that.
Mandy Freeman at Health 24, states that those with mental illness often take longer to fall asleep and very little REM sleep. REM is the most important part of sleep as it’s known as being the deepest and most restorative part. Without it, we’re never fully healing from our own exhaustion.
Heart palpitations, flutters and even, in some cases, irregular rhythm were discussed during the Twitter conversation. A number of respondents (eight) reported having had some difficulty in regard to their heart health.
On a personal level, I’ve always had issues with my heart due to anorexia, and as a result, I’m often called in for ECGs. My anxiety causes me to suffer from frequent heart palpitations and chest pains. These are particularly present during highly stressful situations and during the night.
According to the British Heart Foundation, “ Your heart health and mental health are closely related. Studies have shown that people with severe mental health problems are 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer from heart and circulatory disease due to medication and lifestyle.”
Better Health has also produced a similarly informative article wherein they discuss the increased likelihood of mental health and CHD.
Other participants on Twitter were reporting more obscure symptoms including;
- Hormone imbalances cause the absence or extension of the menstrual cycle.
- The development and exacerbation of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
- Poor skin health.
- Blurred vision.
- Lowered immune system.
- Hives and rashes.
- Unexplained chills or overheating.
Although some of these caught me off guard they aren’t unheard of. Looking back over my life I can distinctly recall increased sickness after periods of high stress, hives and rashes that I had put down to ‘the weather’ and the constant condition of being cold and pale, even while a healthy weight.
It’s never all in your head!
No matter what anyone says mental illness is never entirely ‘in your head’. There are thousands of us who experience mental health issues in a physical way. And what’s worse still is that the presence of these symptoms can make the root cause even more difficult to deal with.