Understanding the Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness
As we’ve mentioned a lot recently, the various facets of our health are inextricably linked. Mental health, physical health, and even social health all affect one another, whether for good or bad. This means that physical health and mental health are more linked than people realize; and, yes, mental illnesses do have physical symptoms. As this great article puts it:
“People living with mental illnesses experience a range of physical symptoms that result both from the illness itself and as a consequence of treatment.”
Understanding these physical effects is important. If you are suffering from them, it might help you to know the cause of your issues, and know your experiences are shared and valid. And understanding this might also be a good step toward getting the right treatment.
Of course, this works the other way around too: poor physical health can have effects on your mental health. But for the purposes of this post, we’re just going to talk about the physical symptoms of mental illness, to help you better understand them.
The three types of effects
I find it easiest to understand this relationship when the symptoms are split into three categories:
Manifestations: these are how various mental illnesses might show up in your body, i.e. depression feeling “heavy”
Physical symptoms caused by illness or treatment: these are the direct, negative impacts on physical health that are caused either by the illness or its treatment
Compounding effects: although similar to number 2, these are a combination of mental, physical, and social effects that compound on each other, often creating a cycle that is difficult to break
Some of your symptoms may be difficult to categorize like this, and that’s ok. I only use these categories because they seem the easiest way to break it up, but there can certainly be flexibility and overlap.
There are various manifestations of mental illness that can show up commonly, and each depends on your personal experience and the illness in question. While these manifestations may not be as directly harmful to physical health, they can still be difficult to deal with.
Depression often shows up as extreme tiredness, a feeling of general “heaviness” (sometimes felt in specific limbs or parts of the body), and brain fog. It can make concentration difficult, and decrease your energy levels. It, along with trauma, can also show up as back pain, especially in the lower back.
Anxiety can often cause tightness in the chest or throat, nausea, and real or perceived trouble breathing. A common response to anxiety is clenching the jaw, which can also lead to pain.
Any condition that causes increased stress can also increase tension in your body, especially in the neck and shoulders. This can lead to these areas feeling sore.
Different illnesses show up in different ways for different people. If you have a symptom you aren’t sure about, it’s worth exploring to see if it may be a manifestation of mental illness.
These are what people commonly think of when considering the relationship between physical health and mental health: the physical symptoms that are caused by the illness or its treatment. Sometimes these symptoms can be treated individually, and sometimes they only get better after improving mental health.
Many mental illnesses can cause sleep problems, from depression to anxiety to PTSD and more. Whether it’s difficulty falling asleep, terrible dreams, or not feeling rested, sleep troubles can be very difficult to deal with.
Another common effect of nearly all mental illnesses is getting sick more often. High stress levels can weaken your immune system, which then makes you more susceptible to getting sick.
Certain illnesses can also increase your risk of serious, chronic physical health problems. Depression can increase your risk of heart disease. Anxiety or high stress levels can make GI problems more likely. Stress caused by mental illness can also increase the frequency and severity of headaches and migraines.
A messed-up appetite is also common with some mental illnesses, and can be caused by many medicines used to treat these issues. This could show up as little to no appetite, a largely increased appetite, or not ever feeling full. Each of these can be troubling for its own reasons, so make sure to pay careful attention to them.
Medications, antidepressants in particular, can also cause weight gain. Sometimes this occurs through an increase in appetite, and sometimes it’s just a direct side effect. This certainly doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s still a common consideration in the relationship between physical health and mental health.
Depression and some other illnesses can cause lethargy, which leads to lower levels of activity and more difficulty completing tasks. ADHD and depression can also commonly cause difficulty focusing, although this can be a side effect of nearly any mental illness. This also makes it difficult to complete tasks.
Lastly, any condition that causes stress can also worsen chronic pain. And indeed, some illnesses can cause chronic pain, or the medications used to treat them can worsen it.
If you notice any of these symptoms, it never hurts to get help. If anything seems unhealthy to the point of potential harm, definitely go to a doctor, emergency room, or trusted professional. There’s no shame in getting help when you need it.
This is the last category of the intersection between physical health and mental health. It is a bit more tricky to nail down, and often overlaps with other categories. But the basis of this is that these are physical, mental, and social consequences of mental illness that build off of each other, often creating negative cycles that can be very hard to break.
Many illnesses, like depression, can lower energy levels significantly. In turn, this leads to less activity— which usually only makes the problem worse. Similarly, a messed-up appetite can lower energy levels, and without activity to make you hungry, you don’t get your appetite back.
Anxiety or paranoia can make interacting with others draining, terrifying, and even seemingly impossible. Similarly, depression can cause us to withdraw from others. But when we do this, we don’t have that support system, and most mental illnesses thrive on isolation, so it doesn’t make things any better.
Mental illness also usually carries with it a higher risk for smoking or other substance abuse. These behaviors typically worsen the effects of illnesses, which can then lead to more substance abuse. This is a particularly harsh cycle that can be devastating to an individual.
Not getting proper nutritional needs, due to low appetite or other side effects from medications, can worsen physical health. In turn, this worsens mental health, and makes it even harder to get the nutrients you need.
Lastly, sleep. As I mentioned before, many illnesses can cause trouble with sleep. But not sleeping well isn’t good for you, and can make almost anything worse.
Clearly, there are a lot of ways in which the physical symptoms of mental illness can interact with each other, and compound to make life more difficult.
Putting it all together
Physical health and mental health are not two separate entities: they are like different sides of the same coin, each different from each other yet dependently tied to the other. Mental health problems can cause physical health problems, and vice versa.
There are a lot of physical symptoms of mental illness that you might have to deal with, and knowing the signs is the first step in promoting better healing and improving mental health. And being aware of the manifestations of mental illness also helps you recognize where issues are showing up in your body. Treating mental health holistically is the most effective way to treat it.
Remember, if you are concerned about any of these symptoms or health in general, the best way to get help is through a professional. A psychiatrist, therapist, doctor, or even the ER can give you the support you need. Always reach out for help if you need it.
Did you learn something new today? Have other ideas you want to share? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know by leaving a comment below or tagging us on social media (@llctherapeutic on Twitter and @therapeutichealingjourney on Instagram).