Yes, Mental Illness Can Cause Physical Symptoms — Here's Why (2022)

Yes, Mental Illness Can Cause Physical Symptoms — Here's Why (1)Share on Pinterest

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?

How mental stress can cause physical problems

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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:

  • headaches
  • migraine
  • 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:

  • pain
  • digestive issues
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • 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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.


Can mental illnesses cause physical symptoms? ›

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.

Can my mental health affect me physically? ›

For example, when you're in a state of stress, the body releases the hormone, cortisol, which causes a spike in blood pressure and heart rate. Overtime, high levels of stress or chronic depression, anxiety or PTSD may increase your risk of developing heart disease.

What mental illness can cause physical pain? ›

Some psychological factors that might cause physical pain include anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and stress. What Types of Pain Does It Cause? Just like pain caused by a physical stimulus, psychogenic pain can be acute or chronic.

Can mental illness manifest itself through physical complications? ›

Research shows that mental illness can often manifest as physical symptoms. Depression can show up as headaches, anxiety as gastrointestinal issues, or post-traumatic stress disorder as back pain. The phenomenon is especially common among Asian-Americans, studies show.

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.

What physical symptoms can anxiety cause? ›

Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense.
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom.
  • Having an increased heart rate.
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating.
  • Trembling.
  • Feeling weak or tired.
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry.

Can your mind make you feel pain? ›

However, you can still feel pain even without nociceptor signals. That's because your brain can still create the sensation of pain without those signals. Nociceptors can also activate on their own, creating the feeling of pain even when there's no actual cause. In either of these two circumstances, the pain is real.

What does poor mental health lead to? ›

Untreated mental illness can cause severe emotional, behavioral and physical health problems. Complications sometimes linked to mental illness include: Unhappiness and decreased enjoyment of life. Family conflicts.

What are signs of being mentally unstable? ›

If you just don't feel like yourself, it could be a sign you need to take care of your mental health.
  • Disrupted sleep. Poor sleep could be a red flag that you're experiencing depression or anxiety. ...
  • Irritability or being more emotional than usual. ...
  • Loss of joy. ...
  • Change in appetite. ...
  • Worsening physical symptoms. ...
  • Low energy.
2 Dec 2020

Can mental stress cause physical pain? ›

Stress can cause your muscles to tense up — and over time, that can lead to pain and soreness in virtually any part of the body. The most common stress-related aches and pains are in the neck, back, and shoulders.

Can anxiety cause pain all over your body? ›

Muscle aches and joint pain can be caused by tension, as well as general poor health. Anxiety causes the muscles to tense up, which can lead to pain and stiffness in almost any area of the body.

Can mental illness cause back pain? ›

Both acute and chronic back pain can be associated with psychological distress in the form of anxiety (worries, stress) or depression (sadness, discouragement).

How do you stop physical anxiety symptoms? ›

To relieve stress, try some deep breathing or relaxation exercises. There are numerous online resources and smartphone apps that can help guide you through relaxation techniques. Physical activity can also help you relieve tension. Try to squeeze in a daily walk or a run.

Can anxiety cause you to imagine symptoms? ›

People with health anxiety often misinterpret normal or benign physical symptoms and attribute them to something more serious. For example, if they were to compress an arm while asleep, instead of rolling over and shaking off the numb feeling, they might worry they were having a stroke.

How do I stop psychosomatic pain? ›

How are psychosomatic pain and other somatic symptoms treated?
  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy.
  2. Medications, such as antidepressants.
  3. Mindfulness-based therapy.
  4. Referral to a specialist in mental health (for example, a psychiatrist or psychologist).
  5. Regular contact with your primary care provider.
30 Apr 2021

Why is physical health important for mental health? ›

A healthy and fit body promotes good mental health. This is because being physically active boosts our energy levels, moods, concentration skills, and self-image. Exercise also releases endorphins, which make us feel happier by activating the reward system in our brains that gives us pleasure and lessens pain.

What is the most important physical or mental health? ›

Which Is More Important? So, which is more important, mental health or physical health? The link between physical and mental health is complex, but the answer is simple your body needs both mental health and physical health to function properly and let you live a happy and healthy life.

What are the 5 signs of mental illness? ›

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five adults in the U.S. has mental illness.
Here are five symptoms of mental illness that are often overlooked.
  • Constant Fatigue. ...
  • Physical Pain. ...
  • Perfectionism. ...
  • Lack of Emotion. ...
  • Avoidance.
3 May 2021

What is high functioning anxiety? ›

“The term high functioning anxiety describes an individual who, despite feeling anxious, seems able to effectively manage the demands of day-to-day life,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.

What can happen if anxiety is not treated? ›

For the majority of people with undiagnosed or untreated anxiety disorder, there are many negative consequences, for both the individual and society. These include disability, reduced ability to work leading to loss of productivity, and a high risk of suicide.

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.

Can overthinking cause physical symptoms? ›

But the fact is, worrying can affect the body in ways that may surprise you. When worrying becomes excessive, it can lead to feelings of high anxiety and even cause you to be physically ill.

Can thinking you have a disease cause symptoms? ›

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 your mind trick you into feeling symptoms? ›

We become so hypersensitive to minor tweaks and sensations in the body that we find ourselves jumping straight to worst case scenario. When in reality, our body is shifting and changing all the time – and some days are naturally going to feel better than others. The more we worry, the worse the physical symptoms get.

What does a mental breakdown look like? ›

feel overwhelmed — unable to concentrate or make decisions. be moody — feeling low or depression; feeling burnt out; emotional outbursts of uncontrollable anger, fear, helplessness or crying. feel depersonalised — not feeling like themselves or feeling detached from situations.

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.

Who is more prone to mental illness? ›

Prevalence of Any Mental Illness (AMI)

This number represented 21.0% of all U.S. adults. The prevalence of AMI was higher among females (25.8%) than males (15.8%). Young adults aged 18-25 years had the highest prevalence of AMI (30.6%) compared to adults aged 26-49 years (25.3%) and aged 50 and older (14.5%).

How long do people with mental health issues live? ›

The average reduction in life expectancy in people with bipolar disorder is between nine and 20 years, while it is 10 to 20 years for schizophrenia, between nine and 24 years for drug and alcohol abuse, and around seven to 11 years for recurrent depression.

What are the early warning signs of psychosis? ›

Early warning signs include the following:
  • A worrisome drop in grades or job performance.
  • Trouble thinking clearly or concentrating.
  • Suspiciousness or uneasiness with others.
  • A decline in self-care or personal hygiene.
  • Spending a lot more time alone than usual.
  • Strong, inappropriate emotions or having no feelings at all.

Is it OK to walk away from someone with mental illness? ›

There's no clear-cut answer regarding whether an individual who's dealing with someone with a mental illness should stay in the relationship. There may be plenty of reasons to stay; however, fear of the relationship ending isn't a valid reason and isn't healthy for anyone involved.

Can hypochondria cause physical symptoms? ›

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.

What are the 5 signs of mental illness? ›

  • Feeling sad or down.
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt.
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows.
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities.
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping.
8 Jun 2019

What are psychosomatic symptoms? ›

Common examples include:
  • Fatigue.
  • Insomnia.
  • 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).
30 Apr 2021

Can anxiety cause you to imagine symptoms? ›

People with health anxiety often misinterpret normal or benign physical symptoms and attribute them to something more serious. For example, if they were to compress an arm while asleep, instead of rolling over and shaking off the numb feeling, they might worry they were having a stroke.

Can your mind trick you into feeling symptoms? ›

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 you have a disease cause symptoms? ›

People with somatic symptom disorder -- thought of as being hypochondriacs -- are worried about having a physical illness. The symptoms they describe can range from general complaints, such as pain or tiredness to concerns about normal body functions, such as breathing or stomach noises.

Why You Should not Google your symptoms? ›

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.

How can you tell if someone is mentally ill? ›

Feeling excessively sad or low. Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning. Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria. Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger.

How does a mentally ill person behave? ›

The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioral. A person may be extremely quiet or withdrawn. Conversely, they may burst into tears, have great anxiety or have outbursts of anger. Even after treatment has started, someindividuals with a mental illness can exhibit anti-social behaviors.

How can you tell if someone is lying about mental illness? ›

However, some indications of faking mental illness can include exaggerating any existing symptoms, making up medical or psychological histories, causing self-harm, tampering with medical tests, or malingering.

How do you get rid of psychosomatic symptoms? ›

Learning stress management and relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, may help improve symptoms. Get physically active. A graduated activity program may have a calming effect on your mood, improve your physical symptoms and help improve your physical function. Participate in activities.

What is an example of a psychosomatic illness? ›

For example, these include psoriasis, eczema, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and heart disease. It is thought that the actual physical part of the illness (the extent of a rash, the level of the blood pressure, etc) can be affected by mental factors.

How is psychosomatic pain detected? ›

Do you have psychosomatic symptoms? 6 common signs.
  1. Fatigue.
  2. Nausea/vomiting.
  3. Fever.
  4. Constipation/ Bloated Belly/ Abdominal Pain.
  5. High blood pressure.
  6. Back pain.
4 Oct 2018

What are weird symptoms of anxiety? ›

  • Excessive yawning. During anxiety attacks, hyperventilation is a common response leading your body to feel it isn't getting enough oxygen. ...
  • Phantom smell. ...
  • Brain shivers or zaps. ...
  • ‍Phantom vibrations. ...
  • Tremors. ...
  • ‍Derealization. ...
  • Globus hystericus. ...
  • Eye problems.
12 Jun 2019

How do you get rid of physical anxiety symptoms? ›

Physical exercise can help relieve stress and tension felt throughout the body, increase energy levels, and improve mood. Stress-reducing relaxation exercises, such as yoga and meditation can help you learn how to control your body sensations and remain calm in the face of anxiety.

Why does anxiety make you feel crazy? ›

Due to the change in brain functioning when the stress response is active, we can experience a heightened sense of danger but have a more difficult time rationalizing. Sometimes this change is enough to make us think we are about to lose our minds and go crazy. This is especially true the more anxious we are.


1. How stress affects your brain - Madhumita Murgia
2. Psychosis or Spiritual Awakening: Phil Borges at TEDxUMKC
(TEDx Talks)
3. Bipolar disorder (depression & mania) - causes, symptoms, treatment & pathology
4. Schizophrenia - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment & pathology
5. Physical and Mental Health
(Psych Hub)
6. How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris

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