When Mental Health Gets Physical

Mental illness might be a chemical imbalance in your brain, but given how connected your brain and body are, mental health can often become physical. This is that story.

The first chapter of the story is a look at some of the physical symptoms of mental illness. But before I can get into those, I must insert the reminder that my mental illness is not yours. Things like depression and anxiety manifest in very different ways for different people, so my symptoms might not be yours. For me, when my anxiety is really bad, it creates a lot of stomach problems. The first day of college and the first day of law school were so nerve racking I thought I’d have to spend the entire day in the bathroom. Both my depression and anxiety can give me pounding headaches, and the stress of dealing with them on a daily basis sometimes leads to stress headaches that will last for days. Also, I can usually tell a day or two before I go into a serious depression because I’ll be extra fatigued and my whole body will feel twice as heavy. Sometimes I will also have brief moments of vertigo.

Other people have other symptoms. I’ve heard from several people that their vision changes. A frequent description is that it becomes tunnel like as they go into depression. Extreme anxiety can impact heart rates, creating real cardiovascular concerns. And these are just to name a few.

Mental illnesses can also make it difficult to find the motivation to take care of yourself. Eating a nutritious diet, regular exercise, regular sleep patterns, proper hygiene. These are all so important to overall health and all of them can be particularly difficult for individuals with a mental illness.

And these are just from the disease itself. Treatment can bring additional physical symptoms. 

The medication I am on, Lexipro, frequently upsets my stomach. Often this is merely an unsettled stomach, but on several occasions I have been physically sick. It can also provide a headache on its own, often leading me to wonder whether it is the disease or the medicine that is hurting my head. Lexipro also makes me very tired, which is unusual. Most individuals who use Lexipro take it in the morning because it is supposed to activate the brain, not put it to sleep. Apparently my brain is extra unusual.

Anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, all these mental illnesses have terrible impacts, changing how you view the world, and twisting your emotions while whispering horrible lies to you. This is tiring enough, but fighting off the physical symptoms only adds to the struggle. It is just another reason why dealing with mental illness can be overwhelming at times.

Mental illness might be an invisible disorder, it might be all in your head in a literal sense, but that doesn’t mean it can’t wreak havoc with your physical health. Even worse it can increase the risk of developing physical ailments. As this article from the National Institute of Mental Health points out, people with depression have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. Some studies also suggest that people with depression are at higher risk for osteoporosis relative to others. Many of these links are not clearly understood.

The link between the physical and the mental works the other way as well. Individuals who have had heart attacks, or been diagnosed with cancer or other serious medical ailments are also at increased risk for developing depression and other mental illnesses. This is why it is so important when treating the body, that medical professionals, friends, family, and the patient themselves all keep mental health in mind as well.

There are so many difficult things about dealing with mental illnesses. Some of those things are physical, and only some of those physical impacts have been discussed here. Like I said, your mental illness may bring its own physical ailments. Yet, just like with mental illness itself, these ailments are in no way a sign of weakness, laziness, or failure. They are not something to be embarrassed about, but rather something to be honest and open about. For me, being honest about it has helped me understand it better and helped me fight back when my mental illnesses get physical.

And while your mental illnesses might be different, I have no doubt that learning to understand it better, including learning to understand the physical symptoms better, will help you take care of yourself better as well.


One thought on “When Mental Health Gets Physical”

  1. Good points brought up in this article! The mind-body connection, I think, is very important to consider. For example, anxiety can lead to an increase in blood pressure, which can, in turn, put someone at higher risk of a heart attack. Sometimes, this can even come back around by making the person more distressed because they recently experienced a heart attack, resulting in higher levels of depression. It is definitely tough, but with increased awareness, we can try to treat people more holistically when it comes to both physical care and mental health care. Great post!


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