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How mental distress can cause physical pain

It took Gemma* years to realise why she vomiting three of four times a week. She wasn’t suffering from some mysterious stomach illness. Instead, it was her mental health deteriorating.

“I have generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder. I actually had physical symptoms first, long before I even knew what panic attacks or anxiety were,” the 24-year-old student based in London tells The Independent. “I suffer particularly badly from gastrointestinal issues. I spent years throwing up three or four times a week, ending up in hospital, with no real discernible ‘physical’ cause. The cause was anxiety, expressed physically.”

Gemma believes that her condition went undiagnosed for so long because of how mental and physical conditions are too often treated as mutually exclusive, when they are in fact inextricably linked.

“I think people very much misunderstand the link between physical and mental health,” she goes on. “I was one of those people. I didn’t even realise they could be connected when I was a teenager. I thought I was relaxed. Anxiety was the last thing I thought I was suffering from. But I was ignoring a lot of stress and was poor at acknowledging my own emotions. That stress had to come out somewhere, and I almost feel like it was my body trying to get me to listen.”

Now, Gemma knows that anxiety can cause her severe stomach pains. Or that panic attacks are what most often fill her stomach with nausea, cause her arms and legs to go numb, and her heart to palpitate.

Similarly, Courtney*, a 25-year-old publicist based in London, says her depression causes her to feel lethargic and sluggish and her bones and joints stiff and achy.

“The bigger problem with physical symptoms is for the anxiety side of things. Outside of panic attacks, a bad flare up of anxiety gives me absolutely stunning headaches with blurred or double vision, which often makes it hard to work – especially at a computer screen,” she tellsThe Independent.

And as the stigma of suffering from mental illness is talked about more widely, these comparatively nuanced aspects of understanding health are what need to be tackled next, say experts.

“The idea that mental illness is ‘all in your head’ is not only outdated, but can make us blind to the physical symptoms that can be a sign of mental health problems,” Rethink Mental Illness spokeswoman Nia Charpentier tells The Independent.

“For example, if you have anxiety, you may experience a fast heart rate and sweating; or for someone living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the flashbacks can cause aches and pains, or make you feel sick. Similarly, depression can affect your appetite, causing you to either lose or gain weight.

Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are perhaps the most obvious ways that serious mental illness can affect a person’s physical health.

“In the case of eating disorders, these illnesses may well involve physical symptoms that can become increasingly obvious over time, depending on the specific illness. However, it’s very important to remember that these are mental illnesses at their root, and changes to behaviour and mood will probably be noticeable long before any physical signs,” a spokesperson for the eating disorder charity B-Eat stresses. “It’s vital that people are aware of these psychological symptoms as well as the physical ones, as the sooner someone enters treatment for an eating disorder, the better their chance of recovery.”

It is erasing this confusing that spurs the Mental Health Foundation on to campaign for health check to include mental health screenings.

“Men in their forties are routinely screened for their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, when they are more at risk of ending their life by suicide,” points out Dr Antonis Kousoulis at the Mental Health Foundation, adding: “It’s crucial that health screening cover the health of our minds as well as the health of our bodies.”

*Name has been changed

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