The Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness

The Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness | Dr. Ali Ghahary

In any given year, as many as 1 in 5 Canadians are affected by mental illness either directly or indirectly, and it is said that approximately 8% of Canadians will experience major depression in their lifetime. Unfortunately, due to the stigma surrounding mental illness, many people suffer in silence which can not only lead to a worsening of their mental health, but an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness can also have many physical manifestations, too, including the following:

Upset stomach/nausea: While this can sometimes be narrowed down to something you ate or a flu bug, having a sinking feeling in the stomach and feeling nauseous can also be a physical manifestation of poor mental health and stress. According to researchers at Harvard, when you are depressed this can lead to inflammation of the digestive system and can even be easily mistaken for other medical conditions like IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome.)

Along with an upset stomach and nausea, it’s also not uncommon to suffer from other digestive-related problems such as diarrhea or constipation, as things like sadness, stress and anxiety are also all known to cause some disruption to our digestive tract.

Headaches and migraines: Having a headache on occasion isn’t abnormal. In fact, they are common. However, if you start to notice a pattern where you’re developing frequent or almost daily headaches, then this could be a sign of depression.

Pain: There are a number of reasons why someone might experience pain. You might have slept the wrong way at night, have tense and aching muscles, have a sprained wrist or ankle, or have poor posture. However, overall body aches and pain can also be a common symptom in those who are experiencing psychological distress.

According to certain studies, there is a link between body pain, inflammation, and the neurocircuits in our brain, and pain is another way for our brains to communicate with us and let us know something is going on. In this case, it may not necessarily be the pain itself that is the problem, but your overall mental health.

It’s also not uncommon to have an overall decreased pain tolerance when mental illness is involved. If you are experiencing pain but cannot find any physical reason as to why it is there, this is another sign of depression.

Fatigue: If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re going to feel tired – that much is a given. However, if you’re feeling fatigued almost every day or find that you have lower energy levels than you’re used to, then this could also be a sign of a decline in your mental health, as things like depression and stress are both known to cause fatigue. In addition, fatigue that is related to depression can also cause other symptoms such as irritability and poor concentration. That being said there are many other illnesses that can also cause fatigue, so if you are feeling unusually tired then you should speak to your doctor to rule out any other contributing factors.

Cold hands and/or feet: When you experience anxiety or have a panic attack, your body goes into what’s known as the “fight or flight” response. This can result in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate – and this redirection of blood is what can cause your hands or feet to feel cold.

While these are just some examples of the way mental illness can manifest in different ways physically, there are also other common physical manifestations that can also occur, such as jaw clenching and teeth grinding, nervousness, ringing of the ears, blurred vision, developing frequent colds or other infections, dry mouth, trouble swallowing, as well as insomnia. In addition to these physical manifestations, there are also cognitive impacts that can occur, including inability to stay focused, poor judgement, forgetfulness, disorganization, disorientation, constant worry or racing thoughts, and overall pessimism.

In some cases, individuals may not be able to initially identify that they are struggling with their mental health. While you might feel sad or upset on occasion, one of the most tell-tale signs of mental illness – particularly depression – is having a constant hopeless outlook on life in addition to feelings of worthlessness, unwarranted guilty, self-hate, and thoughts of suicide. Thus, if you are experiencing negative thoughts or feelings such as these, it’s critical that you reach out to someone, such as your physician, for support.