The Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness I Wish People Understood


While the constant lack of knowledge surrounding mental illness I notice in today’s society never ceases to surprise me, what really gets to me is when people don’t understand the physical effects of mental illness on the body.

I am pretty open with my close friends about my anxiety and depression. If I’m having a bad day they can usually read it on me, or I will straight up tell them. But for those people in my life that I don’t quite feel like spilling all the beans to, I imagine sometimes my behaviors and complaints can seem unwarranted or whiny.

When I’m going through a rough streak with my depression, which happens a lot during the winter, my entire body aches constantly. I feel like I’m 90 years old. Standing for long periods of time is utterly exhausting and hurts my legs. My joints protest when I move too quickly or bend down. I go through periods of eating everything in sight, to eating just one small snack during an entire day. I get headaches in the back of my head three to four times a week. Every time I get out of bed in the morning and place my feet on the ground, I can physically feel the weight of the world pressing down on me through the soles of my feet. And even if I set my alarm to wake me up at an appropriate time after eight hours of sleep, fall into a deep sleep for 12 hours, or hardly sleep at all during the night, I am tired.

I am always tired.

But it’s beyond the point of “just being tired,” like you had a late night doing homework. I can barely function without coffee as is, but if I don’t get caffeine into my system within an hour of waking, I start falling asleep the moment I sit down or lean up against something. It’s a kind of foreign exhaustion that I feel threading itself through my veins like a slow-working, liquid poison.

Depending on the day, this is not all that happens to my body. When anxiety strikes, it strikes hard. If depression is ice, freezing me in place and slowing my movements; anxiety is fire, and my entire body is kindling. My chest hurts because my heart wants to escape my ribcage. My hands and fingers shake. My brain thinks it’s trying to win the next Daytona 500. I get nauseous. And there go my fingernails, again.

I would like to mention these are not the only physical effects of mental illness on the body, they are simply the ones I am familiar with. Others may deal with different symptoms that affect them in different ways.

When I write open-heartedly like this, I am not trying to cry out for attention. I am not looking for pity. I’m trying to raise awareness. The more time I spend in college and the more people I talk to, I realize that mental illness also has a tight hold on many of my peers. 

So the next time one of your friends or family members is talking about how much their body aches, or how they have this annoying little headache, listen to them. Don’t just write it off as “being lazy,” or “sensitive,” or “looking for attention.” Sure, sometimes when you get a headache you can still function. You can still go to the store, meet up with a friend, go for a walk and complete daily tasks. But for someone with a mental illness that is chewing them up from the inside out, the physical effects on the body are real and begin to feel like just one more thing that isn’t in their favor. If they let you know this, then they are trusting you. They are chiseling out a piece of that wall that has been built and sticking out a sign for help.

Be kind. Listen.

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Unsplash photo via Imani Clovis


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