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?
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:
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.
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.