People who have never experienced mental health problems often don’t realise that many of the symptoms of mental illness are physical. They assume that mental illness affects only the mind. I’m on a mission to help break down the myths, misinformation and stigma surrounding mental illness, so I have decided to outline some of the physical symptoms I frequently experience.
My list is neither exhaustive nor typical: I don’t experience every single physical symptom of mental illness that has been documented and I am sharing my personal symptoms, not those of an hypothetical textbook case “mentally ill person.” The majority of my symptoms are caused by anxiety and/or depression, but I also have borderline personality disorder and this, no doubt, also influences my physical health. Not everyone with a mental illness — or the specific mental illnesses with which I have been diagnosed — will experience all of these symptoms. They might experience some or none of my symptoms; they may have symptoms I have not experienced.
With this in mind, here is my list of the physical symptoms I experience:
I feel lethargic most of the time. My body aches and I feel like both my mind and my body are moving too slowly. I have very little energy. When this is severe, I have little energy to do basic self-care tasks like showering or cooking dinner. It feels similar to the aching and lethargy I have experienced when I had the flu. No amount of sleep or power naps ease the lethargy, although insomnia makes it worse.
I am plagued by tension headaches. Taking painkillers can help a little, but I would be taking them all day every day if I tried to treat every headache, which isn’t healthy and can lead to liver damage. Any type of stress makes my headaches worse, but they are especially bad when I am forced to be around people (especially strangers), such as when I attend appointments. It takes me hours to recover when I leave my comfort zone — even if I have a pleasant evening out with friends, the stress and anxiety leaves me with a headache for most of the next day.
Diarrhoea and stomach cramps
I’m a little embarrassed to be mentioning this in a public forum, but it’s a common symptom (for myself and other people) and I want to give an honest account of my experience. I get diarrhoea and stomach cramps when I am very stressed and anxious. I get it every time I have to attend an appointment and I often experience it before meeting friends. It is inconvenient and often painful. I try to avoid taking medication, because this usually leaves me constipated, but I’m often forced to take it rather than risk an embarrassing situation.
Indigestion, gastritis, nausea and vomitting
Stress and anxiety cause all of the above. I had to cancel a day out with one of my best friends a couple of months ago because I had such severe gastritis that I was in agony and kept vomitting. It was so bad that my mother thought I would have to go to hospital — and my mum would never consider that unless it was clear I was in a lot of pain. Thankfully, I am more likely to experience lower level indigestion and nausea, but even these symptoms are unpleasant and cause a lot of discomfort.
I tend to carry a lot of tension in my jaw and shoulders when I’m anxious, so they ache a lot of the time. The tense jaw also causes headaches (see above). I find it impossible to switch off and relax. I have also been known to grind my teeth in my sleep — on one occasion, I woke myself up when I chipped a molar.
So there is is a snapshot of the physical symptoms caused by my mental illnesses! I think it is important that physical symptoms are discussed when we talk about mental illness and mental health in general. They are prevalent and cause a lot of suffering, yet physical symptoms get ignored or dismissed.
How does your mental health manifest in physical symptoms?