Is it only in my head? When mental health gets physical

It’s generally believed that mental illness is just that – in your head.

But sometimes the stresses in your head get so great that mental illness starts affecting you slightly more and showing physically.

There is a huge stigma around this – for example, you may yourself be depressed and feeling exhausted but not realise that the physical symptoms you are experiencing are related.

When you call in to work sick and explain that you feel stressed and utterly exhausted, it often goes misunderstood.  I have experienced being ridiculed when I return because I was signed off with depression.

My team leader at the time said I was just lazy and I didn’t want to work.  Ouch.

But mental overexertion is a thing and you don’t have to be suffering from mental illness to be affected.

Work, daily life – life can be so mentally full-on it leaves you poorly and exhausted.

For example, I work as a Dental Receptionist two days a week; and I find that some days it’s so busy I don’t get a minute to pop to the toilet let alone leave the desk and so I don’t do much physical exercise at all.

Yet it’s so busy I find myself wiped out by 5pm – more so than when I worked in the surgery and was on my feet all day.

Mental overexertion can wipe you out more than any physical exercise can, it’s a fact – so why are physical symptoms of depression and mental illness ignored?

When I get into a state of panic, stress or upset I’m exhausted.

I get constant headaches and I develop an upset stomach that can take weeks to go away.

I get heartburn, again all the time.

My hair falls out in clumps.

My skin gets greasy and I get spotty.

I get chest pains.

As a woman this tends to ALWAYS be blamed on hormones… of course they are a part of it but I know my body and I know that stress and depression makes me poorly.

You might be reading this thinking that life or work is a little much at the moment and you physically feel a little poorly – please be kind to yourself, take a break, lessen your load, seek medical advice if your symptoms concern you.

You might be reading this as someone who suffers from depression or mental illness and you may not realise how much it is affecting you physically – take some time to identify any physical symptoms and try to be kind to yourself; and seek medical advice if you are concerned.

You may be reading this thinking it’s a load of crap and that depression is ‘all in the head’. Be mindful of friends, families, colleagues, or anyone around you who might need some extra TLC or just to know you are there.  Maybe someone close to you is experiencing physical symptoms – be there to lend and ear, or even offer a cup of tea when life gets rough.

Sometimes that’s all it takes – as someone living with depression I know that some days I don’t want to talk, and little things such as a knowing smile, the offer of a cup of tea or a bad joke to cheer me up means the world.

I’m a complete stress head at times and although I’m no expert or trained professional I have found a few things that help:

1. Breathe. If you find yourself in a sticky situation sometimes all it takes is a few deep breaths; close your eyes if you can, and take some deep long breaths; in through your nose and out through your mouth.  It’s a coping technique I was taught to use on dental phobic patients and it really works.  I even use it when my toddler is being challenging… I hide behind the fridge and count.

2. Do something that makes you happy. Read a book, have a bath, ring a friend, watch a film.  Be totally selfish and do something you love.

3. Have a hot drink. As a typical Brit a cup of tea is literally therapy in a Teacup; it solves all manner of problems and I find that there is something about a warm cup of anything that is comforting.  Caffeine is a stimulant and can make physical symptoms worse plus keep you awake – there are all sorts of herbal and decaf options out there.  I love a warm cup of milk in the evenings, or even a hot juice.

4. Write.  My blog started as an outlet to get my feelings and innermost thoughts out and I would recommend it to anyone; there are so many people in the blogging community who have experienced mental illness and it’s a huge comfort and support network.  If bloggings not for you buy a new notebook and write, draw or doodle your thoughts. Sometimes getting it out makes it all feel a little better, especially if you don’t want to talk about it in the physical sense.

5. Drink water.  I’m terrible for not drinking enough and it makes me feel worse when I’m dehydrated. There are lots of pretty and inspirational water bottles out there, grab yourself one you like and get drinking.  You could always just use an existing glass or mug of course, but I love pretty things and it makes water a little more exciting…

6. Eat properly.  I’m not going to get all up in your grill about nutrition and healthy eating because I’m terrible at it myself; what I mean is don’t skip meals, don’t starve yourself, have your 5 a day.  The world can seem very bleak if you are hungry and malnourished.

7. Eat chocolate.  A little bit of chocolate is really good for you; especially dark chocolate.  I’m not sure on the science behind this one but I do love a square of proper bitter dark chocolate.  Yummers.

8. Have a shower & get dressed.  It’s very easy to not care what you look like when you feel poorly and low but it’s amazing how getting dressed or having a shower can be really invigorating and make you feel better.  It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, who cares, but think about how you feel with greasy hair and three-day old pyjamas versus fresh clean clothes and clean hair… an important part of living with depression for me is celebrating the little wins and getting washed and dressed is always a little win for me.  If I can get up, get myself dressed and do my hair I know that it is another day the depression hasn’t beaten me.  I can face the world, especially when I draw my eyebrows on too… 🙂

9. Clean & tidy.  I can’t be bothered to drink water and go to the toilet when I feel low so my house really suffers.  At the same time I’m incredibly houseproud and a clean and tidy house makes me really happy.  I make a 5-minute contract(see below) with myself and again it feels like a little win, even if I manage to wash a spoon up.  I have to really force myself but I find a clean and tidy environment makes my head a little clearer.

10. Go for a walk.  Fresh air and a bit of nature is better than any therapy; and I try and walk every day.  Things are a little different these days as I have a toddler to entertain but I find it so calming to just find a quiet spot, shut my eyes and take in the sights and smells around me.  The sea is my happy place, especially near my mother-in-law’s house on the Isle of Wight; when shit gets bad I can close my eyes and take myself to that place.  I also sometimes use apps on my phone that play nature sounds like the rain and the sea; you can find loads my searching ‘relax’.  My favourite one is Relax Melodies – I can play the sea and the rain at once and it quite often sends me to sleep.

I talked about a 5-minute contract and it was suggested to me many years ago as a way of living with depression and I still use it daily.  It’s really simple and effective if you have anything to do – it could be getting dressed, washing up, cleaning, work… it goes like this:

  1. Identify the task that needs doing – for example, tidying the kitchen.
  2. Set a timer on your watch/phone/fridge etc for 5mins.
  3. Spend the 5mins doing the task with as much gusto as you like.
  4. When the 5mins is up, evaluate – if you have had enough, celebrate the fact you have achieved 5mins and go and chill out.  If you want to carry on, set the timer for another 5mins, and repeat for as long as you like.

It doesn’t matter if you get the job done in 5 minutes or a week; it’s all about celebrating the fact that every time you complete five minutes you have beaten your mental illness and done what you need to do.  Well done!

I am trying lots of new things and will post more as I find new coping mechanisms and techniques – as always if you have ways of coping and living with mental illness I would love to hear from you, you can comment below or contact me here.

Have a good day, whatever you are doing; and be kind to yourself.


One thought on “Is it only in my head? When mental health gets physical

  1. Oh my gosh, the dreaded, “You’re just lazy,” statement. I’m sorry you had to go through that.
    Great advice. Writing is definitely something I subscribe to, it’s so important to get our musings out of our minds and into the world and speaking for me just isn’t feasible as I’m not the greatest communicator. Anyway, thank you for this post “).

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