How I Deal with My Physical Pain From Mental Illness

Content warning: This content talks about mental illness and related side effects. Also, the solutions presented are personal and may not work for everyone. If this content is triggering for you, please exercise self-care.

Mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, are known for their effects on mood; however, mental health can affect the body in multiple ways. According to Harvard Health Publishing, "People suffering from depression, for example, tend to experience more severe and long-lasting pain than other people." This pain can occur in many forms, including fibromyalgia, back pain, nerve pain and headaches. 

My symptoms from mental health have been more gradual. During high school, I didn't have physical symptoms. I played sports, stretched every day and talked to my peers thinking I was pretty "normal" (whatever that means). I only started to realize through my constant fingernail biting — even getting to the point of ripping my whole toenail off — that maybe I wasn't just stressed about an exam.

Physical pain caused by mental illness is sometimes ignored in the media and in the mental health community in general. Highlighting these side effects can be beneficial, though, because I know that when I started to feel random pain in my joints and back, I was very confused about what was happening. 

Having dealt with anxiety for a while, my body has experienced tremendous amounts of strain from my varying levels of mental health. I normally experience frequent back pain/nerve pain, especially in my shoulders. Headaches, it seems, are less frequent for me. On my bad days, I can often be found lying on my heat pad, watching the same show I've watched a million times; knowing the ending means I won't be stressed out or shocked by it.

I noticed, that during quarantine, my pains have become markedly more frequent — possibly due to inactivity or all the alone time I have with my thoughts. I usually deal with my anxiety by getting out for a change in scenery or just doing activities, so I don't have to think as much. However, all of those things became almost dangerous and unwise in light of COVID, so now my way to find solace has transformed into an enemy. 

It became increasingly obvious to me that I needed a new outlet. I tried drinking more tea, cooking and morning walks. It didn't work. Once night time rolled around, my right shoulder was on fire, and no amount of popping or cranking could make it stop. Then, partly through a deep dive of exercise videos and my aunt's influence, I started practicing yoga again.

My pain started to subside, and I put my heating pad away for a couple of nights. Ever since quarantine, it has become a form of relaxation for me, and something slightly necessary for me to function. I even started teaching some of my friends since I moved back to Chapel Hill.

For me, yoga's benefits don't lie solely in stretching, but rather, it's the focus on breathing. My panic attacks are often triggered by losing control of my breath. I noticed that every time I rolled out my mat and did some poses, however, I could regain control. Yoga also benefits the mind and spirit.

I'm not saying my back pain magically went away or my anxiety pain is gone. No, my heating pad and long hot baths are here to stay, but the pain has become manageable and infrequent during this chaotic time. Physical pain from mental illness impacts my everyday life, and any tips and tricks to stop it are welcome.