The Hidden Side of Mental Illness: Physiological Symptoms

So this is the second instalment in my series of posts headed ‘The Hidden Side of Mental Illness’. Where the previous post was about sensory difficulties, this one covers the physiological side of what are otherwise considered psychological/mental/emotional illnesses.

Living with mental illness takes a toll on your body as much as it does your mind and this is where confusion lies. There is often not immediately an obvious connection between the physical symptoms and whatever mental health problem(s) the person has, and subsequently people can spend years going through tests, consultations and the hopelessness of not being able to find a “reason” for their problems. In this case, there IS actually a valid “reason”, it’s just not what you may be expecting i.e. you may be experiencing a secondary effect of mental illness rather than a separate illness.

Venn Diagram

Please don’t get me wrong, it isn’t as cut and dry as mental illness CAUSING or being responsible for these symptoms in all cases; a lot of the time they co-exist or one initially causes the other but it ends up as a self-perpetuating cycle. For a start, health anxiety is a real and very debilitating problem in itself. And if you do experience any physical symptoms then do get them checked out with a medical professional to eliminate other causes. But these are some examples of physical symptoms that can be a key part of mental illnesses, where the link is often overlooked. Stomach Ache

  • Depression and anxiety are both linked with a lack of appetite, while nausea and other gastric/digestive problems are very common in anxiety disorders (that gnawing feeling in your stomach when you’re nervous can be almost constant and severe if you have an anxiety disorder, and a “nervous tummy” is a frequent difficulty).
  • Many mental illnesses are associated with sleep disruption (either sleeping too much, or insomnia) e.g. depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD. Sleeping excessively can interfere with all aspects of life – it can lead to missing work/other important commitments, loss of social interaction and reduced exposure to natural sunlight and Vitamin D (which can all perpetuate and worsen depression). Sleep DeprivationInsomnia and resulting sleep deprivation in turn reduce resilience and physical stamina, making it harder to deal with aspects of daily life and can actually worsen or even cause other mental symptoms e.g. paranoia, irritability, and hallucinations (temporary psychosis can develop as a result of severe sleep deprivation). Sleep deprivation for whatever reason is, in short, dangerous and needs to be addressed with medical and/or mental health professionals – on a basic level, after even one night of poor/little sleep, it can lead to a lack of attention in key tasks like driving, with the potential for traffic accidents!
  • During a panic attack, you can end up with more than ‘just’ hyperventilating and a tight chest. Panic AttackFor example, I get tunnel vision and hearing, dizziness, chills and/or overheating, pins & needles, fainting, intense nausea and sometimes vomiting and collapsing. Unfortunately, because these symptoms are so physical and can often occur without the typical hyperventilating, it is difficult to identify them as a panic attack until after I recover. One of my triggers for a panic attack is crowds but my body doesn’t recognise that just feeling uncomfortably hot whilst standing is different to being in a crowd, so that can often result in a panic attack, seemingly out of nowhere. If you get physical episodes like these, it is always worth logging them (what you were doing beforehand, where you were, what you felt like, what happened and how you recovered) to see if there is a pattern. After eliminating low blood sugar, low blood pressure etc. in these circumstances, I used my log to identify mine as panic attacks.
  • There is also a wide scope for a variety of side effects of any medications you might take to help the symptoms of your mental illness. MedicationCommon side effects of anti-depressants include dry mouth, upset stomach, while anti-psychotics can have the nasty effects of tremors, stiffness, shakiness, restlessness, muscle spasms and slowness. Both can affect sexual function/drive and lead to drowsiness and sometimes extreme changes in weight (severe weight gain and even diabetes has been linked to treatment using certain commonly-used atypical anti-psychotics – read more here). These side effects can lead to fairly significant impairment in daily functioning but without the medication itself some people would be unable to function, would be at great risk to themselves and, less commonly, to others. It is complicated as you end up in weighing up how effective the medication is and and whether it is worth the side effects – the result varies from person to person, and even from one year to another, which is why medications must always be reviewed regularly.

Stress of any sort, especially when experienced long-term, has wide ranging effects on the body, basically impacting the functioning of most bodily systems! So it’s not a surprise that many mental illnesses are associated with seemingly unrelated physiological symptoms. Just look at this image, showing how stress affects the body:

Stress Effects on Body

This is just a basic overview of some of the main hidden physical effects of mental illnesses but it is far from all of them, it is probably a never-ending list, given the variety in how people experience any form of illness, physical or mental!

If any of this rings a bell for you or you have anything to add, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, you can read more from me about the hidden side of mental illness in my first post about sensory difficulties here.

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