In recent years, an increasing number of people have reported experiencing chronic pain that is not being caused by a physical injury. Is it imaginary? Or is it actually possible for mental illness to cause physical pain?

 

Man clutching his chest in pain
Image by freestocks.org

 

Research on this topic has revealed that emotional problems and stress can lead to physical pain. For instance, earlier this year, Chrissy Teigen experienced headaches and muscle pain after the birth of her first daughter. When she went to the doctor, it turned out she had no physical injuries, but she did have Post-Partum Depression. This sort of thing also happens with sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Reports of dizziness, chest pain, headaches, and heart palpitations are all too common amongst PTSD patients. Some of these symptoms may also sound familiar if you suffer from anxiety or depression.

It’s highly unlikely that everyone with a mental illness is imagining these aches and pains. So what is the truth?

How mental pain transforms into physical pain

The process through which mental and emotional pain is transformed into body pain is commonly referred to as somatization.

Researchers believe that this happens because emotional pain and physical pain activate the same part of the brain. Meaning it’s possible for emotional pain to be interpreted as physical pain in the brain. 

Another explanation for this scenario is that muscles become tense and constricted when you’re stressed or anxious. As a result, the muscles become fatigued. This, in turn, causes the muscles to feel painful. The International Association for the Study of Pain suggests walking every day to oxygenize your muscles, and to consider acupuncture to relax your entire body. 

But physical pain doesn’t just manifest over present mental conditions, it can also be triggered by painful memories. This is true if you’ve experienced a traumatic event which led to anxiety, depression, or PTSD. If you never worked through your trauma, it’s likely that your body is still in ‘survival mode’. This means your blood pressure increases and your body constantly releases stress hormones. When your body remains at this level of distress day after day, physical pains will begin to manifest.

Somatic symptoms

There are many symptoms that doctors can’t explain, but they’re very real for those suffering from them. Here are the most commonly reported pains:

  • Pain in specific locations (head, abdomen, back, joints, arms and legs, etc.)
  • Gastrointestinal issues (stomach pain, gas, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.)
  • Sexual problems (lower libido, erectile dysfunction, menstrual irregularities, etc.)
  • Neurological complications (impaired coordination or balance, hypervigilance, nightmares, hallucinations, etc.)

If you feel any of these and all your medical scans have come out clear, try seeking psychotherapy instead. It may very well be due to mental illness.

What does this mean for mental health patients?

Experiencing mental illness as physical pain calls for physical therapy as well as psychotherapy to properly manage the problem. If you have a past trauma which continues to haunt you, then definitely seek help as soon as possible. Once your mind feels better, your body will too.   

Regardless of the cause for your somatization, there is hope for feeling better. With the right cognitive behavioral therapy, you can tackle this problem effectively and at an affordable cost. Help is closer than you think!