It’s a strange thing mental health. Sometimes you don’t even realise you have a mental health condition because it only shows up in physical signs. A family member for instance had no idea that he was suffering from a stress induced depression. He went to the doctor with a list of symptoms including aches and pain, insomnia, cramps and nausea. The doctor looked at all his symptoms and told him it was a classic case of stress. I don’t think he fully believed the doctor at the time. Another example of this comes from my friend @blackdogrunner who has written about ‘warning signs’ i.e. all the physical manifestations of his depression at blackdogrunner.wordpress.com. It is often hard to believe that a mental condition can cause so many physical symptoms.
When I am anxious all sorts of things start to go wrong with my body. My breathing goes all short, my chest tight, nausea hits me, I feel exhausted and my body aches. Sometimes I feel dizzy when I stand up and my legs feel all wobbly. With the bipolar my body is also affected in a number of ways. When I am depressed I get some of these anxiety symptoms along with an extreme feeling of tiredness and like my body is really heavy. When I am manic sometimes my legs can just feel like they need to be shaken out or something. I feel like I need to pace around and move them to stop the burning sensation that creeps up them. I can feel my chest flutter and I feel all wired up and ready to go. I sleep less, eat less and generally feel a bit wired.
Although in some ways it is comforting to know that your physical symptoms don’t mean that you are about to suffer an untimely death, there are some downfalls too. First of all, people don’t take your physical symptoms seriously if they know they have a mental cause. Of course this is ridiculous as it doesn’t matter what has caused the symptoms, the symptoms are still real physical problems. In fact, the mental illness itself is a real physical thing too.
Another problem is that if you know your symptoms have a mental cause it can mean you feel helpless to do anything about them. There is no obvious fix. With a bacterial infection you take an antibiotic. With a muscle problem you may undergo physiotherapy. However, with mental health things are a bit more complicated. You can have so many physical symptoms it is hard to know where to begin. You can take medications or therapy to try to get to the underlying mental problem. However, you don’t know what treatment will work for you or if they will alleviate all your physical symptoms.
Why I am writing this post today is because I have been suffering from some physical problems which I had put down to my mental health issues. The problem is that because you know your mental illness causes lots of physical symptoms, you may have difficulty picking out the ones that actually have nothing to do with mental illness. I had been waking up at night not breathing and having to gasp in air. It was a terrifying experience that has repeated itself since. My family and two doctors I had contact with immediately said it was just anxiety. But this made no sense as I had not been particularly anxious and I had never had this symptom before. Finally the doctor today confirmed what I had thought: that it was probably obstructive sleep apnea which is a treatable condition.
I think there are two main points I want to make. The first is that you shouldn’t worry too much about lots of physical symptoms that you experience as part of your mental health condition. Look up the symptoms of anxiety and depression and be aware of which ones you may be likely to have. However, the second point I want to make is that if you do have a symptom that seems unusual or worries you it is better to be safe than sorry and visit your GP. They may try and put it down to stress but they should never dismiss you straight away. They should always be prepared to get a problem checked out. It is too easy for a doctor to see in your medical records that you have a mental health problem and put everything down to that. You must fight your corner and get them to check it out. It is better to be safe and to ease your mind. This in itself will reduce your anxiety.