You’ve been feeling awfully depressed for the past week, when suddenly a wave of anxiety hits you.
At the same time, you start getting weird aches and pains in your stomach, back, and limbs. You might even get a headache and start to feel sluggish and fatigued.
Is it just bad luck, or are the two issues linked?
Contrary to popular belief, mental illness isn’t just “all in your head.” It affects your brain, yes, but because your brain affects the rest of your body, it’s no wonder that mental illness can make you feel ill.
So if you’re experiencing unexplained aches and pains, it might be linked to your mental health.
According to Carla Manley, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author, people with mental illnesses can experience a range of physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, pain, headaches, insomnia, and feelings of restlessness.
They might also experience “brain fog,” which is when your brain feels fuzzy and unfocused, and you may struggle to concentrate or remember information.
Anxiety can also cause stomach pain. For some, this might be just a flutter — like butterflies in your stomach. But it could also result in stomach pain or diarrhea, says Melissa Jones, PhD, a clinical psychologist.
“Many people get an upset stomach at times when they are nervous or trying something new. People with anxiety can have that feeling all of the time, and then have those symptoms increase to diarrhea or migraine when their anxiety and stressors increase,” Jones says.
When physical symptoms are caused or made worse by your mental state, it’s called psychosomatic.
Many people believe that psychosomatic symptoms aren’t real — but they are, in fact, very real symptoms that have a psychological cause, Jones says.
But why does mental stress cause physical illness? And what can you do about it?
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You might have heard of having a “fight or flight” response to danger. When we see danger, our bodies get ready to either fight the danger (fight) or run away (flight).
Our bodies become filled with two stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. This increases heart rate and blood pressure, suppresses the digestive system, and affects the immune system.
This is meant to help us exert a lot of physical energy, which we’d need if we were fighting or running away from danger. After the threat goes away, our bodies usually return to a resting state.
This is an evolutionary response that’s meant to keep you safe. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps you avoid or deal with danger.
“A certain level of anxiety known as ‘optimal anxiety’ can be very helpful in raising one’s motivation to an optimal level,” Manley explains. “In this way, anxiety — and the bit of stress it creates — provides the energy and interest required to complete many daily tasks.”
But if you’re in a constant state of stress or anxiety, it can wreak havoc on your body.
Constant stress means your cortisol and adrenaline levels will constantly be high and you’ll seldom return to a “resting” state. It can have a negative effect on your organs and bodily functions.
What’s more is that anxiety and depression may actually lower your pain tolerance.
The parts of the brain responsible for pain reception also relate to anxiety and depression, and the two neurotransmitters (serotonin and norepinephrine) that are responsible for pain signaling in the brain and nervous system are also implicated in anxiety and depression.
The symptoms of chronic stress include:
- muscle tension and soreness
- digestive issues such as diarrhea, stomach pain, and appetite changes
- sleep issues or disorders
- feelings of sluggishness
There are also a few physical symptoms of depression including:
- digestive issues
- eye problems
Stress and trauma can also trigger autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, rheumatic arthritis, and more.
Many people don’t believe or understand that mental illness can cause physical illness. On the other hand, some doctors might use your mental state to dismiss your physical symptoms.
We often view mental illness in opposition to physical illness. Sometimes, we even make the mistake of setting them up against each other.
There’s a common idea that mental illnesses aren’t taken as seriously as physical illnesses — but as anyone with an invisible chronic illness can tell you, physical symptoms aren’t always taken seriously either.
The flip side of this is that physical symptoms are often dismissed as being “all in your head.”
When I started university, I was constantly ill, and doctor after doctor told me that my fatigue and flu-like symptoms were all down to anxiety. No blood tests were run.
In hindsight, my increased anxiety levels were probably partially responsible for my constant illness. But some other factors were responsible, too.
It turned out that I had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a fairly common yet relatively unknown autoimmune condition where your body literally attacks your thyroid gland.
This results in hypothyroidism, a condition that can lead to issues like fatigue, mental sluggishness, and feelings of weakness.
My undiagnosed thyroid condition, in addition to the fact that I was now exposed to a lot of germs on campus every day, meant that I never quite felt right. Had I been tested earlier instead of having my doctors dismiss the cause as anxiety, I might have gotten the help I needed and felt better sooner, instead of falling asleep in every lecture.
All this is to say that having mental illness can definitely cause physical aches and pains, but your pain isn’t any less valid or serious than pain caused by other factors.
Because of this, it’s important to take your pain seriously — and to find a doctor who takes it seriously, too.
“One of the best ways to determine whether physical symptoms are related to physical issues or mental health issues is to meet with your primary care physician,” says Jones. “Your primary care physician can help run tests or blood work to help determine if there is a physical reason for your symptoms.”
Your primary care physician should conduct a thorough assessment to help them determine the cause of your pain.
“If the exam and routine tests show no underlying medical cause, it’s important to have a mental health evaluation,” Manley explains.
“If the mental health evaluation indicates that the individual is suffering from depression, stress, or anxiety, a psychotherapist can help determine the nature and degree of any psychosomatic symptoms,” she adds.
If it does turn out that your aches and pains are psychological, don’t dismiss it either.
“Psychosomatic pain is the body and mind’s way of asking you to pay attention to something in your life that is not right for you,” Manley says.
“When you learn to listen to your body — and to tune into your mental state — you’ll find that psychosomatic symptoms can tell you a great deal about what you need to do less of (or more of) in your life to be happy and fulfilled,” she adds.
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So you’ve found out that your constant muscle aches are the result of mental stress. What can you do about it?
There’s no silver bullet when it comes to mental health, and what works for one person might not help the next person. That being said, there are a few ways you can try to deal with your stress that might alleviate your symptoms.
One method is to use up that cortisol or adrenaline for good. If you can, engage in some cardio exercise, such as a long walk, a run, or a dance session. This might help you take your mind off the stress, even if for a moment.
Another way to deal with stress is to do something ultra-calming, whether it’s engaging in a hobby, slow exercise, or deep breathing techniques — whatever helps you feel calm is worth practicing often.
Remember, even if it doesn’t “cure” your anxiety or stress in the long run, a feeling of temporary relaxation can be good for you.
Put some long-term plans into place to help you deal with stress, Jones suggests. “Is there some activity, task, or stressor they can delegate to someone else or simply no longer do? Can they increase their social support network or rely more on their social support network?” she says.
If you’ve been dealing with stress or mental illness, you’ve probably considered therapy — that’s if you’re not already in therapy. But if you’re looking for extra encouragement to find a therapist, this is it.
While there’s no quick fix for psychosomatic pain, simply understanding that your mental state and physical health are linked might give you some relief — and it might help you figure out a long-term plan for dealing with it.
No matter whether your pain has a physical or mental cause, remember that it’s valid and you deserve to have it taken seriously.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and journalist based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.
Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headaches, or other unexplained aches and pains.Can mental health issues make you physically sick? ›
Although many people consider depression a mental health illness, it can cause physical symptoms, including sickness. Experts have found links between depression and several gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).How is mental illness like physical illness? ›
Unlike other general physical illnesses, mental illnesses are related to problems that start in the brain. The brain is an organ. Just like any other organs in our body, it can experience changes (healing or injury) based on life experiences like stress, trauma, lack of sleep, and nutrition.How do I know if I'm not coping? ›
Things to look out for in yourself when you're finding everyday life hard. Maybe you can't quite put your finger on it, but you're not feeling okay. You might be feeling tired more often, be feeling emotional, and you might not want to do the things that you usually enjoy right now.Can health anxiety cause physical symptoms? ›
Many people with health anxiety are often unable to function or enjoy life due to their fears and preoccupations. They become preoccupied with bodily functions (breathing, heartbeat), minor physical abnormalities (skin blemishes), or physical sensations (headaches, stomach aches).Why does anxiety cause physical symptoms? ›
If you have anxiety, your fear and worry trigger the fight-or-flight response, activating your sympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary breathing and heart rate. This activation leads the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, contributing to anxiety's physical symptoms.Can your mind create symptoms? ›
Yes when your physical symptoms are caused or worsened by your mental state it is called as psychosomatism. People with mental illnesses can experience a range of physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, pain, headaches, insomnia, and feelings of restlessness.How physical and mental health are connected? ›
The associations between mental and physical health are: Poor mental health is a risk factor for chronic physical conditions. People with serious mental health conditions are at high risk of experiencing chronic physical conditions. People with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health.How does mental health affect people? ›
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.What is a nervous breakdown? ›
The term "nervous breakdown" is sometimes used by people to describe a stressful situation in which they're temporarily unable to function normally in day-to-day life. It's commonly understood to occur when life's demands become physically and emotionally overwhelming.
- alprazolam (Xanax)
- clonazepam (Klonopin)
- lorazepam (Ativan)
- diazepam (Valium)
Some of the physical signs that your stress levels are too high include: Pain or tension in your head, chest, stomach, or muscles. Your muscles tend to tense up when you're stressed, and over time this can cause headaches, migraines, or musculoskeletal problems. Digestive problems.Is depression a mental or physical illness? ›
Depression is a common mental disorder. Globally, it is estimated that 5% of adults suffer from the disorder. It is characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities. It can also disturb sleep and appetite.How does mental health affect your daily life? ›
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.Why physical health is more important than mental health? ›
Working on your physical fitness and health will not only add years to your life, it can also improve your mood and help prevent mental illness. People who are healthy and active feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better, feel more relaxed, and think more positively about themselves and life in general.How Do I Stop overthinking about my health? ›
Constant worrying and overthinking can often lead to issues with mental health and well-being. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, self-compassion, and asking for help from a healthcare professional can help alleviate the stress of overthinking.Can your mind make you feel pain? ›
But unfortunately, just like pain can make you feel worse mentally, your mind can cause pain without a physical source, or make preexisting pain increase or linger. This phenomenon is called psychogenic pain, and it occurs when your pain is related to underlying psychological, emotional, or behavioral factors.How do you stop worrying about things you can't control? ›
- Mindfulness and meditation.
- Deep breathing.
- Practice self-compassion.
- Do a body scan.
- Share your fears with friends and family.
- Practice gratitude.
- Keep an emotions journal.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
Chronic worrying can also be a major symptom of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a common anxiety disorder that involves tension, nervousness, and a general feeling of unease that colors your whole life. If you're plagued by exaggerated worry and tension, there are steps you can take to turn off anxious thoughts.How long do physical symptoms of anxiety last? ›
These attacks can lead to shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and breathing difficulties. Panic attacks tend to occur and escalate rapidly, peaking after 10 minutes. However, a panic attack might last for hours.
The Link Between Chronic Stress and Neuropathy
Chronic stress can lead to neuropathy by damaging the nervous system. When the nervous system is damaged, it can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and other symptoms. The end result is pain, discomfort, or even worse.
Because hypochondria can activate the “fight or flight” system of the body, having excessive worries about your health can cause some physical symptoms. Some common symptoms of anxiety that hypochondria can trigger include: Stomachaches and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) Dizziness.Why do I always think the worst about my health? ›
Illness anxiety disorder, sometimes called hypochondriasis or health anxiety, is worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill. You may have no physical symptoms.How do you get rid of psychosomatic symptoms? ›
- Work with your care providers. ...
- Practice stress management and relaxation techniques. ...
- Get physically active. ...
- Participate in activities. ...
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
The Long-Term Effects of Untreated Mental Illness
However, there are some commonalities. When mental illness is left untreated, it can lead to long-term issues with emotional stability, behavior regulation, relationship difficulties, substance abuse, and even physical illness.
This stage is the result of prolonged or chronic stress. Struggling with stress for long periods can drain your physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point where your body no longer has strength to fight stress.
- Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry.
- Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse.
- Family history of mental health problems.
- Your lifestyle, such as diet, physical activity, and substance use.
- Listen and validate. If your relationship is iffy, it doesn't hurt to just listen. ...
- Ask questions. ...
- Resist the urge to fix or give advice. ...
- Explore options together. ...
- Take care of yourself and find your own support.
Contributing factors to loneliness include situational variables, such as physical isolation, moving to a new location, and divorce. 2 The death of someone significant in a person's life can also lead to feelings of loneliness. Loneliness can also be attributed to internal factors such as low self-esteem.What is considered mentally unstable? ›
An inability to cope with problems or daily activities. Feeling of disconnection or withdrawal from normal activities. Unusual or "magical" thinking. Excessive anxiety. Prolonged sadness, depression or apathy.
Yes when your physical symptoms are caused or worsened by your mental state it is called as psychosomatism. People with mental illnesses can experience a range of physical symptoms, such as muscle tension, pain, headaches, insomnia, and feelings of restlessness.What are psychosomatic symptoms? ›
- Aches and pains, such as muscle pain or back pain.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- Trouble breathing (dyspnea, or shortness of breath).
- Indigestion (upset stomach).
- Headaches and migraines.
- Erectile dysfunction (impotence).
Do hypochondriacs feel real symptoms? Yes. Hypochondria can trigger symptoms associated with anxiety including: stomachaches, dizziness, headache, dry mouth, muscle tension, fatigue, increased heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, and a frequent urge to use the bathroom.Can psychological pain cause physical pain? ›
Coping. Emotional pain can often feel as strong as physical pain and at times can even cause symptoms of pain throughout the body. It can also have a detrimental impact on both short-term and long-term mental well-being, so getting appropriate help and treatment is important.Can your mind trick you into thinking you have symptoms? ›
When physical symptoms are caused or made worse by your mental state, it's called psychosomatic. Many people believe that psychosomatic symptoms aren't real — but they are, in fact, very real symptoms that have a psychological cause, Jones says.Why do I always think the worst about my health? ›
Illness anxiety disorder, sometimes called hypochondriasis or health anxiety, is worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill. You may have no physical symptoms.Can thinking about pain cause it? ›
But unfortunately, just like pain can make you feel worse mentally, your mind can cause pain without a physical source, or make preexisting pain increase or linger. This phenomenon is called psychogenic pain, and it occurs when your pain is related to underlying psychological, emotional, or behavioral factors.Can you worry yourself sick? ›
But can you actually get sick from stress? The short answer is yes. Stress sickness can contribute to many health issues, including: Anxiety.How is psychosomatic pain detected? ›
- Constipation/ Bloated Belly/ Abdominal Pain.
- High blood pressure.
- Back pain.
- Conversion disorder.
- Somatization disorder.
- Body dysmorphic disorder.
Research literature has associated anxiety and cyberchondria with problematic internet searching for medical information. A study reviewed in Comprehensive Psychiatry shows that googling symptoms results in an escalation of concerns and excessive worrying about symptoms.What to do when doctors can't diagnose you? ›
What should I do if I can't get a diagnosis? If you think you have an underlying disease that hasn't been diagnosed, you can ask your primary care provider for a referral to a specialist. And if you or your doctor suspect the disease could be genetic, you can always make an appointment at a medical genetics clinic.Can stress and anxiety cause neurological symptoms? ›
Specifically, researchers believe that high anxiety may cause nerve firing to occur more often. This can make you feel tingling, burning, and other sensations that are also associated with nerve damage and neuropathy. Anxiety may also cause muscles to cramp up, which can also be related to nerve damage.Where in the body are emotions stored? ›
According to Olson and other research , emotional processing occurs in the limbic structures of the brain. We're constantly taking in information, which generates pre-conscious autonomic nervous system responses. This sends a signal to the body activating the corresponding emotion.What are the 5 signs of emotional suffering? ›
- Eating or sleeping too much or too little.
- Pulling away from people and things.
- Having low or no energy.
- Having unexplained aches and pains, such as constant stomachaches or headaches.
- Feeling helpless or hopeless.
- Create a positive mantra to counter the painful thoughts. ...
- Create physical distance. ...
- Do your own work. ...
- Practice mindfulness. ...
- Be gentle with yourself. ...
- Allow the negative emotions to flow. ...
- Accept that the other person may not apologize. ...
- Engage in self-care.