Top 5 Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness.

No matter what anyone says mental illness is never entirely ‘in your head’. There are thousands of us who experience mental health 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.

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.

Image from Craig Adderley

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.

Tummy Trouble.

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.

Muscle Pain.

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!”

Image from MART PRODUCTION

Headaches.

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.

Palpitations.

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.  

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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.

Image from MART PRODUCTION

Other Symptoms.

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.
  • Syncope.

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.

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108 comments

  1. I can get behind the feeling of being tired all the time. That seems to be my life no matter how good or bad I’m feeling.
    I just know it’s a side effect of many years of not eating well, though, which is troubling.
    Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  2. Thank you for shining a light on this. The exhaustion and fatigue is usually the first sign for me. I’m the kind of person who is NEVER tired… I run on next to no sleep without hesitation. However, when I’m slipping into that dark hole, it’s like I can’t get enough sleep. I’m tired ALL the time.

  3. This all makes sense to me now Nexie, thanks for sharing! Depression is not an easy thing to handle.

  4. I love this post and I really relate to the stomach distress side of it especially. I’ve had stomach issues all my life but as my mental health has worsened over time they’ve gotten more prominent to the point where I’ve constantly been fobbed off with “it’s just IBS.” It’s so important to realise that mental illness comes with a whole package of genuine physical symptoms! Thank you for sharing x x

  5. They didn’t give my partner pills like I expected. Instead, they ran blood to determine was it something else! They always just fob me off!

  6. Thank you so much for reading. I never thought so either until I started going through it (and hard) in 2018! Now I know what to look out for.

  7. Thank you so much for reading. I’m glad you were able to find this helpful and that you think they are helping others. That’s the aim of this blog, after all.

  8. Mental Health is such a serious issue. I myself, suffered from it before and these symptoms are true. Friends and families can help a lot.

  9. Mental illness was once considered a social taboo. But not anymore and the credit goes to people who have come out and supported the cause. I am glad the post like these are not only informative but also helps people who are suffering.

  10. Such a great post! I never thought that my husband or my own issues may be from mental illness. I know I have mental illness. But maybe this is the issue with my husband. Will have to dig deeper into this.thanks!

  11. Reading this made me realize how important it is to be aware of all these symptoms. Definitely will share it with family and friends!

  12. When I’m struggling mentally, and in deep depression, one of the main things I experience is extreme fatigue and exhaustion. It’s such a hard thing to go through! You don’t even have energy to take care of your most basic needs.

  13. This is a really interesting post. I had never associated these physical symptoms with mental issues before. But it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Mental illness has a way of affecting our body in so many ways. Poor mental health can be a risk factor for chronic physical health problems and vice versa.

  14. I never realised that there were so many underlying factors that pointed to mental illness. This is a very interesting and informative post .

  15. I agree. The fact that I am so thrilled when a doctor notices is evidence that not enough doctors are practicing this kind of medicine/well-being.

  16. Wow I’ve never thought that mental illness has physical symptoms. Now, when I’m thinking about it, has perfect sense . I’m suffering of mental illness too and, I have those symptoms that you describe above, where doctors tell you that you have a headache due to a lot stress, and bum gave you pills for everything without any more analysis and exams.

  17. Having dealt with anxiety my whole life, and now watching my husband and daughter also struggle with it, I can definitely relate to the connection of stress and physical ailments. Having articles like this will hopefully help others to see they are not alone, and then go seek help.

  18. I feel sad and mad whenever people say that it’s all in your head. Just because you don’t see doesn’t mean it does not exist. I just wish everyone will be more careful with what they say and be more understanding and caring.

  19. Tummy Trouble I can 100% see has being a mental health symptom. I know if I am ever stressing out or anxious, my stomach starts to act weird. It’s rare I feel these ways so when my stomach does start acting weird, I know I need to take a minute to RELAX.

  20. Truly a great read of awareness. I work in behavioral health and it is so important. Thanks for your continued support of such a needed cause.

  21. My IBS was defo brought on by chronic stress and anxiety, both of which I ignored for years prior. I do not recommend it. Listen to your body!

  22. Definitely! I think a second opinion is always justified and within the patient’s right. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  23. Thank you so much for sharing it Amanda (I saw it appear briefly on my feed before it renewed itself. It’s annoying like that). My physical symptoms are constantly flaring and its just a matter of me recognising and controlling them.

  24. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Our bodies are connected all over, which includes the brain. So its no surprise that we need to look out for physical symptoms of psychological problems.

  25. Exactly. I keep trying to tell my partner this but he seems determined to do it by himself. I hope when he gets some help that it might help him see the light and slow down.

  26. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Lady Gaga is honestly one of my biggest inspirations in regard to mental and chronic illness. Neither can be ignored any longer.

  27. Reflux Esophagitis is a very serious thing and I’m so sorry you went through that. My grandfather went through that and it eventually burnt a hole in his esophagitis which later resulted in cancer. I’m not trying to scare you but please be mindful and get checked often. I have heard of ulcers developing too, particularly in my family and with colleagues.
    Thank you so much for stopping in and reading.

  28. Oh they certainly do. As soon as I get distressed or worried I can’t eat. That’s just it. My stomach just ceases up and I feel like I’m going to be sick.
    Thank you so much for stopping in and reading.

  29. That’s very true. There is significantly more help now than there ever has been before and for that I am grateful. But there is still a great way to go in order to get everyone the help that they need, the poor, the middle class and so on. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment.

  30. Thank you so much for reading. A bit of TMI but also a must because enough people don’t talk about it to realise that it’s a major issue.

  31. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I’m sorry that you had to go through that, but sometimes it’s essential so that we can learn to look after ourselves.

  32. That’s very true. And the all inclusive burnout syndrome appearing among many employees in the 21st century. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  33. I always assumed that everything in the body was connected so one thing having issues would affect other things. However, I had no clue about those symptoms. I always associated mental illness with depression, stress or anxiety but I understand better now. This post is so informative.

  34. This school year I’ve got lots of stress at work and I noticed muscle pains appearing on a daily baisis, or at least quite often, and I don’t do any sports right now. I didn’t know it may be related to stress. Great info! 🙂

  35. I remember going through these symptoms when my mental illness was at its peak, so it’s nice to see people still discussing it to help other be aware

  36. This is such an informative post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge about the subject and your honesty in dealing with the problem of mental health. You are very brave and I truly admire your courage.

  37. It’s great to see that in recent years mental illness has been getting a lot more attention and people are taking it a lot more seriously instead of just dismissing it. I have close relatives who struggle with this and nowadays they find a lot more support than they used to.

  38. This is a really important post!! When I was dealing with my depression the one thing that I noticed the most was how tired I was, I slept all the time.

  39. I totally understand. Once, when I was going through a really stressful time, I got this condition called “reflux esophagitis” (mainly tummy troubles). Luckily, I have a great doctor and he managed to recognise that it was down to all the stress. It’s really horrible that people (even medical professionals!) tend to wave away mental illnesses or problems.

  40. As Lady Gaga said, mental problems are a problem of our century and ignoring them is useless, when instead the time has come to talk about it to understand what signs our body gives us about it. So thank you for this post.

  41. These are really interesting. I have to keep on the look out for these. My mom has had these symptoms!

  42. I think people severely underestimate the power of the mind. When your mind is not well, why would your body be? I believe that people would take a lot less meds (of course I understand that sometimes they are necessary) if they knew how to properly care for their mental needs. Sometimes there is no magic pill that cures physical ailments, and you have to look at the big picture.

  43. This is a really interesting post. I never associated these physical symptoms with mental issues. But it makes sense when you think about it. Stress, depression, and anxiety probably really cause these problems.

  44. I shared this post on Twitter. I can also relate to this post. When I get stressed out, have an anxiety attack or when I fall into a depressive time person I get physical symptoms.

  45. I’ve had a lot of these symptoms all through my life but not one single doctor ever made the connection. It’s easy to see in hindsight where they were coming from.

  46. Yes! Your whole body is affected by anxiety and mental illness. I was very surprised when my son went in to the doctor for gastrointestinal issues and anxiety was at the top of their list of concerns. So maybe the medical community is making some progress here!

  47. It is so interesting how doctors are so different when it comes to giving a diagnosis based on one’s symptoms. One thing that I believe in is getting a second opinion from another doctor compared to going with the first diagnosis.

  48. Its really interesting how our body reacts and give symptoms to try to inform us when something is out of wack like for instance epinephrine, serotonin, and more. I am so happy you write about mental health issues because we need to be more aware of them. It is not all in there heads.

  49. I think we find most of our body is connected when it has an issues even if its mental, recommending this to my friends. One of them is looking for more ideas to help with her mental health. Thank you for sharing.

  50. It’s great to know what to look for. My anxiety definitely contributes to my stomach issues. It’s a constant work in progress.

  51. The headaches and the chronic fatigue! It is true that mental illness has physical manifestations. Thank you for raising awareness. Some people just don’t understand and are so quick to judge.

  52. This is all too real. Sadly, there are so many symptoms and our bodies react to our mental health issues. Good post bringing these to people’s attention. This is such an important topic.

  53. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Stomach aches are common among those with not only anxiety but autism based on a few friends of mine who have the same issues. Wishing you and your son all the best in the future. Hoping there is some sort of answer for you guys out there.

  54. I am so sorry to hear about your troubles. That sounds so, so painful. It’s something to think of, and actually, an ulcer is not something I thought of until reading your comment.
    Wishing you all the best!

  55. Likewise with me. My IBS is still present and acts up every so often. Lately, it’s been hit or miss.
    Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  56. Thank you so much for stopping in and commenting. A lot of people ignore the warning signs, me included. But we need to wake up and realise that we are not indestructible. We need to listen to what our bodies are telling us.

  57. Unfortunately this topic is mostly ignored by people. But let this monster grow and one day it is sure to take you down. One must watch his or her body very closely

  58. Everything is connected in our bodies and what we might think that are diseases, can be symptoms for something else. I used to get horrible migraines because I had an ulcer. Thanks to my doctor who never gave up until she found out what was triggering the migraines, I didn’t die. When they discovered the ulcer, in the end, it was already burst.

  59. I can see how these would be symptoms. You go through a lot with a mental illness. My son has autism and anxiety, and sometimes he gets stomach aches because of it.

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