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A woman suffering from depression and anxiety rubs her neck at her work desk to ease her pain.

5 Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness

Reading time | 4 mins
Depression and anxiety can have physical symptoms, too. Megan Potts highlights 5 things to look out for.


A lot of people who have struggled with mental illness may tell you that it’s not just their minds that are affected. From headaches to changes in toileting habits, mental illness can affect your body in many ways.

As someone who has lived with mental health issues for many years, I wanted to highlight some of the unexpected, physical side effects I have experienced as a result of my conditions.

1. Headaches

One of the things I find I struggle with more when I’m experiencing a mental health flare-up is headaches. Generally, these are called tension headaches and, for me, tend to occur when I’m anxious and the muscles across my shoulders and up my neck tense up.

You can see how suffering from anxiety or other mental illnesses that have anxiety as a symptom could end up leaving me battling with frequent headaches.

I’ve found that massages can help release the tension from these muscles, thereby reducing the frequency of the headaches. Alternatively, relaxation exercises can also prove effective. And of course, hydration is crucial in preventing the onset of headaches!

2. Muscle pain

Looking at the level of tension I experience while battling mental illness, it’s easy to see how I can struggle with regular muscle aches. Think about what happens if you do a workout at the gym, or even if you just carry heavy grocery shopping on your ten minute walk home. In all likelihood you’ll notice your muscles aching the next day.

The same principle can apply if someone has been in a stressful situation and their muscles have been tense throughout. Again, this may be helped by massage or relaxation exercises.

Also, I sometimes realise that my diet has been negatively impacted by my mental health, and this can lead to a deficiency in select vitamins and minerals, which can result in muscle cramps and pain. If you can relate to this, consider speaking to your GP about having these levels checked.

3. Dental issues

It’s a fairly well-known problem that people who suffer from depression can struggle to find the energy to look after their personal hygiene, which can lead to tooth decay as time goes on. I find that it helps to set alarms that prompt me to brush my teeth at the start and end of each day.

I also find that I often struggle with toothache and broken or chipped teeth. Initially I didn’t know why this was happening!

In fact, it was only when my partner at the time told me I was grinding my teeth in my sleep that I found out the cause. For me, teeth grinding can be a sign that I’m dealing with a lot of stress in my day-to-day life. If you find that you’re dealing with this, speak to your dentist because there are solutions available that protect your teeth from further damage.

4. Racing heart

This one may be familiar for anyone struggling with anxiety or a panic disorder. When I find myself getting anxious or panicked, my heart will often speed up. Sometimes I notice it, other times it fades into the background, drowned out by other symptoms like sweating or breathlessness.

Personally, I find that having the physical symptoms of anxiety under control makes it easier to address the psychological symptoms. This is because as well as being caused by anxiety, my physical symptoms also feed into my anxiety. It’s easy to see how this can result in my rapidly spiralling into blind panic.

5. Abdominal cramping

This is one that nobody likes talking about. Often during a mental illness flare, I will experience painful cramps in my lower abdomen, often accompanied by a change in stool.

This is because a flare up of depression or anxiety can trigger a flare of irritable bowel syndrome. This can result in the bowels working overtime, causing urgency when needing to use the bathroom, or it can have totally the opposite effect and cause the bowels to slow right down, leading to constipation.

This can have a negative effect on my daily life, preventing me from leaving the house freely, as well as feeding back into my anxiety, creating a seemingly inescapable cycle. While there is no single treatment for IBS, there are medications and dietary changes that may help. Speak to your GP for more information.

The takeaway

You may recognise some of these symptoms, or you may recognise none of them. Mental health is a complex matter, and everybody’s experience is individual to them. Just because this is my experience, or your friend’s experience, doesn’t mean that it will be yours. It doesn’t invalidate your diagnosis.

Every day is a school day when living with chronic illness, and it isn’t fair on others, or indeed, ourselves, to expect us to know everything about how our illnesses work. I myself am ten years into my mental health journey and I’m still learning new ways that my illnesses affect me, as well as new things that affect my illnesses.

NPS-IE-NP-00674 January 2023