The Physical Side of Mental Illness

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:

 

Lethargy/tiredness

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.

 

Headaches

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.

 

Tension/muscle aches

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?

Week 1 of Using an SAD Lamp

I mentioned in my previous post that I have recently bought a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lamp and I thought I would give you a short update. My first impressions of using the lamp are very positive. I have noticed for many years that my depression seemed to get worse in the autumn; the fun and festivity of Christmas is all that gets me through the winter months. The limited sunlight at this time of year has a similar effect on many people, some of whom don’t experience depression at any other type of the year. SAD lamps emit a light similar to sunlight — and without UV light, so there are no harmful effects.

An SAD lamp is not a miracle cure. You will not instantly feel sunny and ready to take on the world. However, it can take the edge off your low mood and a lot of people describe feeling as though a light has been switched back on in their minds: they experience a gleam of hope after a period of having no hope. I have experienced a modest effect of this kind. I have more motivation now, so I am able to do simple things which were difficult a week ago. Today, for example, I used my exercise bike — which has a knock-on effect, further improving my mood.

The verdict so far:

I feel happier and more hopeful. My mood is still low, but I am more equipped to cope. So far, it’s £30 well spent!

Empowerment, Not Punishment

Some lessons must be learnt over and over again. Repetition is the only way to make them stick. One lesson I have had to learn many times is that when it comes to mental illness, punishment doesn’t work. Beating yourself up just makes everything worse. The key to improving your mental health is empowerment: doing whatever you can to enable yourself to take action.

I have been through a difficult patch over the past month or two. My depression has worsened, just as the anxiety is better than it has been for ages. My reflex was to beat myself up for feeling worse — to blame myself, criticise everything I do and insult every aspect of my being. Needless to say, this did not lead to a speedy recovery! Instead, it left me feeling more depressed, unmotivated and unable to help myself.

My mood improved only after I stopped berating myself for being depressed. I bought an SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamp because I believe that lack of sunlight was having a negative impact on my mood. There was a blip when I received the lamp and it didn’t work, but I was sent a replacement 4 (hellish) days later and I certainly feel better. Using the lamp improves my mood a little — it is not a miracle cure — so that I can do more to help myself.

Empowerment often involves a chain of actions: using an SAD lamp empowers me to walk the dogs, which empowers me to cook a healthy dinner, which empowers me to write a little more… Of course, the chain of empowerment isn’t always clearly delineated. Sometimes an action fails to empower you to do more; sometimes an action empowers you to do a lot more. The point is to do what you can, rather than getting caught up in disappointment and self-hatred when you can’t do everything you want.

I think this is a lesson many people need to learn, including politicians. When you punish people who are suffering, you diminish them further. When you reduce benefits for the poorest people in society, you remove their means of improving their lives. When you are struggling to afford food and heating, you are in no position to take a course, find work experience or even plan your future. Your focus is on the wretchedness of your current situation. On the other hand, when you empower people they gain confidence and can begin to change their lives.

Sorry to be cynical, but I don’t think the government is going to help empower you anytime soon. In my experience, receiving benefits causes a lot of stress and puts vulnerable people under pressure. Likewise, not everyone can rely on friends and family to empower them — I’m lucky enough to get a lot of support from my parents and close friends, but there is always a limit to how much other people can help you when they have their own lives to lead. However, you can empower yourself. You can focus on doing what you can, when you can.

Sometimes, empowering yourself is about little actions that seem insignificant: taking a shower or reading a few pages of a self-help book. You might feel frustrated that these actions are so small, but it’s vital that you take action when you can. When you keep chipping away at your depression, anxiety or any other health problem, you will make progress. It might be slow progress, but that doesn’t matter because it’s not a race! One day, you will notice that you have improved immensely in a particular area — you will make a phone call without panicking or wake up with enough energy to go for a walk. Progress probably won’t be lunear, but it will happen as long as you keep empowering yourself.