Mental Illness Means Physical Pain Too

September 2, 2011 Natasha Tracy

Despite what many people think, mental illness isn't just about "being sad" or hallucinating or feeling suicidal - mental illness is about physical pain too. One of the ways people get diagnosed with illnesses like depression is due to physical complaints (what doctors call somatic pain).

When you have a mental illness, not only your brain hurts, but your body does too.

Diagnosis of Mental Illness

Many people don't know the symptoms of a mental illness like depression, so they aren't aware they have it. For example, many people don't know that extreme irritation is a sign of depression, so they never think of seeing a doctor for it. Even severe sadness can be overlooked by many and people do not seek help for it.

Physical Pain and Mental Illness

But when people experience physical pain, they are more likely to see their doctor. People with a mental illness often experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Abdominal distress (nausea, pain, etc.)
  • Change in weight
  • Cognitive symptoms (trouble thinking, remembering, etc.)
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia

And when I say "fatigue," I don't mean needing coffee in the morning. When I say fatigue, I mean feeling tired down to your very marrow with an inability to get off the couch. When I say a "headache," I mean one that starts at the back of your skull and squeezes your head all day long.

When I say physical pain, I mean physical pain. Not an annoyance. But pain. Debilitating, horrible pain.

Isn't that Just Medication Side Effects?


I'm not talking about people on medication. I'm talking about people with mental illnesses who have never even seen a doctor. The mental illness causes these symptoms and not "just" the medication as some people think.

(Yes, medication can cause these symptoms too, but often people attribute these symptoms incorrectly to medication, forgetting that the illness itself can cause them.)

Mental Illness is a Real Illness

This is just another way in which mental illness physically manifests itself. When someone with depression complains about headaches, they aren't "whining" or "making it up" they are experiencing a well-known symptom of mental illness.

These physical symptoms are just another way mental illness can harm, or even ruin, your professional and personal life. Physical pain with mental illness is to be taken seriously. It's not just "in your head."

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, September 2). Mental Illness Means Physical Pain Too, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 16 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

James Pitout
April, 2 2019 at 2:04 am

I had a bout of really bad irritability last week. I wrote it off to being disturbed by someone while I was busy studying for an interview.
Your blog reminded me that it is my bipolar expressing the current depression I am experiencing. I thought I was doing OK and everything was under control but now I realise that my Bipolar lurks in the background waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

phillip dileonardo
August, 31 2017 at 4:03 pm

diagnosed with a bipolar disorder when i was 28 somewhat stable although experiencing severe stomach pain everyday for the past 8 months. hasnt gone away or gotten better. had to quit my job because pain was too severe to work. my doctor tells me its all in my head and that nothings wrong. did all the tests nothing was found. anybody know if this will last the rest of my life? thanks anything helps.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natasha Tracy
September, 1 2017 at 4:25 am

Hi Phillip,
I'm so sorry to hear that you're experiencing that pain. If the pain is related to a psychological issue, then therapy may help. If it's not, I would recommend getting a referral to a specialist to look for a physical cause. Remember, some doctors write our pain off because we have bipolar, but not all do.
- Natasha Tracy

August, 19 2017 at 2:30 am

My brother has been suffering from mental disorder since july 2016... He has been going back to the hospital monthly for follow ups... He was normal for the past 25 years then suddenly the disorder occured... It was a big blow to the family.. It was my fist time seing him humiliated because gossipers were all around because he became violent for 3 days, so he was tied... Sometimes he would talk nonsense, even talking alone... Now he is somehow in a better state... He takes antideppressants... I am just worried because he always discuss about getting a job, which is still prohibited by the doctor... He is more often sleeping and complains about body pain too... I hope to get him totally cured... I am hoping that it is not permanent and that he could go back to how he used to... He's even got a young girl just barely 1 year old... I hope he can get through it...

Danny M Reed
February, 15 2017 at 2:37 pm

I have had Bipolar I Disorder officially since 1988, but probably earlier. Over the years I have had Diagnoses for AD/HD Inattentive Type without Hyperactivity, Narcolepsy, Fibromyalgia, Sleep Disorders, and so on. I participated in an experimental procedure at NIH in DC using Ketamine for Bipolar Depression which was instantly successful for three days in 2011. There is so much involved physically with Bipolar, and it changes over time; responding or not to treatments and medications. (A metabolite of Ketamine, HNK, has been discovered at NIH recently as the specific beneficial substance that is not hallucinogenic or addicting.

August, 30 2016 at 9:56 am

I suffer from bipolar, depression, anxiety & today, again, my stomach is rolling in knots. My hands shake visible in tremors from the lithium. They said it'd get better. Not seeing it yet. I don't know how people function. I need my meds to wake up & even stay up after I wake. The feeling is so heavy & full that I can barely get out of bed. I need my meds mid day to keep my anxiety & depression at bay. My thoughts of suicide are ever present. I pray. I listen to hypnotize tapes on YouTube. But I wish I could go to sleep right now, & the sun is shining. I'm all about family & friends making casual comments about mental illness. I worry desperately that I'll be alone when I'm in old age. Then I remember, I'm a survivor! One foot in front of the other. Going to stop reading for now & get out there today! I'll pray.

May, 27 2016 at 7:35 am

I do agree, having BPD could experience body pain especially in the morning, it's hard to get up to start a new happy day, I always miss to witness the sunrise which is one of my favorite hobbies when I was young. :( It's like someone extremely punched me the last night, but lately what I always do is I force myself to stand and then take a shower until the pain is gone. I easily get exhausted too, when I'm feeling tired my temper gets low so to control it I stop to work and relax for awhile. There are pains that I couldn't understand but I don't mind them that much thinking those are mere part of my disorder for I focus myself for the future and I need to keep moving. Regular check up with my psychiatrist and medications are important. Spiritual health push me to be more stronger because I've learned the reason why humans are suffering on these days and whom it came from, but there's a promise which we can find in Revelation 21:3,4 ... 3 With that I heard a loud voice from the throne say: “Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them, and they will be his people. And God himself will be with them. 4 And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” And through prayers God sustains me. There's also a bible text which made me cry in Psalm 34:18 God is close to the brokenhearted;
He saves those who are crushed in spirit... Don't lose hope, we can survive =) ...

February, 23 2016 at 3:33 pm

This is really backwards imo. I get pain first, then the depression, headaches, body pain, etc., comes. We are brainwashed into thinking our pain is not real, then over time, we begin to agree with the brainwashing. It is bs in my opinion; take care of the pain and mi will be less or gone. FIND THE CAUSE; Too many doctors do not want to find the cause of the pain, so they say you are MI. Easy fix for them and big bucks in their pockets from the drug rep.
I suffered for 30 years with, "depression, anxiety, hypochondria and more", but I just found out I have Celiac Disease. If just one! ONE g d doctor had run a blood test, i'd not be as sick as I am today!!!
I bet if everyone who has depressive symptoms got tested for celiacs (how many depressed people eat truckloads of gluten?), you'd see the connection between the two. One out of every 120 or so people have CD and most are unawares, so WHY are docs not testing? Because there is no money in celiacs, but there is in antidepressants. Celiac's malnutrition will manifest itself as mi, at least it did me.
A pill will simply cover up the real problem. I truly believe that mi is often (maybe not always) from nutritional deficiencies, but who takes the time to find out? Certainly not your doctor!!!
Challenge: Eat real food for one month and see how you feel. each meal, 1/4 plate meat, 3/4 veggies. Eat nothing that has been processed. One month; I double dog dare you :)

Jackie Marcello
February, 13 2016 at 4:24 am

I'm so glad I clicked on this site. I've been wondering what is wrong with me for over three years now. Got spiritual and all of this is happening tob me. At my wits end. I've been thinking i'm possessed! I mean, what is this?! It's so awful! Hearing the devil or a demon berate me night and day for over three years now! What do I do? How do I get rid of this thing?! My life is a mess! Can't bare it! Waiting for a relationship with God but, got evil instead! Now I see others are suffering with it as well. I don't know if it's as severe as mine but there are so many similarities. Wish God would heal me.

June, 6 2015 at 6:18 pm

I am a strong believer that your mental health affects your physical health and vice versa. That's why sometimes I believe the power of prayer, mediation or even yoga can be so beneficial
When depressed and pushed beyond my limit I tire easily and tend to get irritable. I also get a lot of tension headaches. Medication has helped some. It mellows me out. I get a lot of joint aches and pains too because when I'm depressed I sleep, ALOT. Being inactive like that causes my muscles to weaken from disuse so that when I do eventually get moving again I tend to ache all over. I used to be able to operate on a kind of automatic pilot from doing repetitious things but I find it harder to do that now, although some of that might be due to getting older or even medication in part. When I'm depressed it's much more difficult to think clearly and I really need to focus hard on what I'm doing, even if I've done it dozens of times before. I work with numbers a lot so if I make a mistake it can be rather costly. I have to double check and often triple check everything. I rely heavily on post-it-notes and to do list to remember important things. When I'm depressed I usually overeat but if I get myself into a really hopeless state of mind I don't wanna eat at all. I also have GAD and when it's bad I get terrible stomach aches and diareahha. Depression and anxiety severely upsets my circadian rhythm as does mania. A good nights sleep is so important to overall general health.
No doubt about it depression (& anxiety) can cause inordinate amounts of pain and suffering. Manic depression or psychotic depression even more so...

June, 6 2015 at 4:43 am

I experience severe abdominal pain--the kind that makes you double over.

Nikki VE
June, 5 2015 at 4:48 pm

I've been experiencing severe physical pain for months now. My whole body hurts. So sore and achy. Can hardly move at times. It feels like the achyness that comes with the flu and NOTHING helps. It's awful and frustrating.

February, 9 2015 at 11:36 pm

Thanks for the article. Through this article, it gives me some consolation that I am not alone in this, and also that the symptoms I am experiencing, such as migraine, nausea, fear, anxiety, extreme fatigue(difficulty getting of bed),.... etc., are genuine, and am not faking or chose to have, like my in-laws insisted. So alone I am, that there's no one who understands, not even my husband, who chose to believe in his family instead, that depression are all in the mind of those chose to be weak and helpless. Sometimes it also makes me wonder if I am a freak to feel sick all the time, unlike normal people who are healthy and hardly fall sick. Hate being a burden to my family, esp mr children. It also doesn't help when the inlaws goes round spreading about me with mental illness~crazy.

February, 9 2015 at 8:39 pm

I am a 61 year old male who has been diagnosed with depression and find it practically impossible to get to see a psychiatrist even though I have told my gp I just want to go to bed and die and I also suffer with all sorts of pain from head to stomach does anyone else find it impossible to access the right help

February, 8 2015 at 2:19 am

I hear you Robert, love your emotion and expression, sad for your pain, my experiences are so similar, would love to share my thoughts, will try in the next few days, you're a special guy, yes I believe Jesus always helps me in my fight with this wretched thing, I have faith and trust. Jan in Perth, Australia .

February, 7 2015 at 10:30 pm

Thanks Natasha, I know that mental illness - Bi Polar is a condition caused by our physical bodies unable to run normally as a healthy person's should. Mine onset at 33 and some of my close younger relatives now have it also. I believe I am genetically predisposed to Bi Polar and an episode always starts from a pre period build up of stress, worry, anxiety, irregular size meals and eat times along with shortened periods or irregular times of sleep. Throwing your body clock into may hem. Recently experiencing mania trying to take hold of me and past episodes, my body is feeling not so much painful, but very uncomfortable, tired, weak, heart tremors, tightness, adrenalin pangs, ear ache, headache, eye ache, irritation, lack of sleep, taste and smell changes, sore throat, loss of voice due to bacterial throat infections, sweating, fever, fluctuating temperature, burning up all over, clammy skin, dry hair and skin, bowel and urine movements all different, I actually feel that death is not far away even within the next 5 minutes, but I won't call anyone as the will put me in hospital, so I ride it out trying to tell myself all will be OK. I have a compulsion to eat salty tomatoes and try and get some fish oil tablets to help. This pre episode always occurs prior to a manic and or psychotic episode. Fear of what might happen to me compounds the problems resulting in less and less sleep until the point when I'll be dozing and I am suddenly woken up almost with a bang to get up and that is when a trip switches in your head and you are suddenly hyper, on a mission, full of energy, I'm literally wide awake, all go go go, the physical pain has eased a little, not a care or worry in the world for my own well being but an enormous amount for others. That's when I try to help them - strangers, friends, relatives and they don't want me around, some take advantage of me and accept my generosity of cash or good deeds, gifts, whatever. I'm too "crazy". This can happen over the course of a week building up and the illness starting and crossing over to mania in about 3-4 days. I liken this experience in my body to having a top class motor vehicle with all the computer and mechanical systems you can think of, driving along purring like a kitten, lovingly maintained. Then the owner was too busy to check the tyres, oil, water levels, etc. because he didn't have time, skipped the maintenance, put contaminated/incorrect fuel in, it started to run rough, but no time to stop and fix, carry on need to drive a long way today and it's very hot. The car cops a beating and now the fuel is affecting the engine and it's computer management system. It says check fuel, but there is no time, too tired, too hungry to do it. The computer tries to fix it self by adjusting fuel/air ratios then the plugs become damaged and the ignition won't fire the pistons properly. It's overheating, the oil is cooking, the water is steaming, every thing affects everything else. The car is tired and is just limping around, what to fix first?? Then bingo the computer kicks back in and gets going and drives that car on and on, like it received a boost of all new powerful fuel over riding everything else and on we drive even if we don't need to, we can't stop, we are on the super highway now everything is a breeze , keep out of my way because I'm going somewhere!, don't try to and stop me or I'll get very annoyed and cranky. Then I take the Lithium, it kicks in and I can then take My foot off the pedal reluctantly and resume cruise control. What a wild ride, hopefully I haven't damaged myself too much by the illness or the cure.

August, 25 2014 at 8:57 am

thanks for all the articles you do. the problems that arise out of mental illnesses like this are so painfully destructive, such as the condemning perception others can have on you can hurt more and last longer than a psychotic episode, which books on the subject say is the worse human experience. this has been my experience anyway, someone who loves and wants to be loved (is that a strange character trait? must be crazy right?).
hear me out..
After a huge span of tine of increased manic behavior and out of character acts, I then had a span of 8 days of nothing but hallucinations- gustatory, olfactory, audio, visual, body sensations, absolutely everything blended and it felt like being attacked by demons, not CHEMICAL IMBALANCE.
But gotta say, the feeling of being around hundreds and hundreds of strangers who think they know who you are and hate you with joy is worse than some psychosis when you try to receive an education as you make friends but are unable to and are tormented with physical ailments as a result of the pain and those ailments you suffer from really make people laugh and make up stories as to their cause. (as they laugh with hatred about your suffering and mistakes, the actual root sings through the air into my bone marrow perhaps? regardless I care for you all and am sorry for all that has happened) But it was most likely a symptom of the methodical destroying force that is mental illness. finds who you are, what you hope for and tries to strip it off your soul.
truly, having the experience of people youve never met or a goodhearted woman you wish you could cook a dinner for.. look down at you while you carry some music to sing hope to them (despite your painful ordeal) is on the direct intersecting line between tragedy and comedy. like someone bound in a fortress of chains grabbing a beautiful rose from the last spark in the heart and trying to extend it through the spider web of torment, just have someone youre trying to give it to spit on it or mock how much of your blood is on the thorns on its stem. and then, let another rose grow and do it again! dang not red enough. sorry everyone, forgive me.
After time I found the only medication that is functional and proven to work is reading the bible, praying and finding relationship and peace in others who are listening to you WITH the hope of helping, not of other motives (just as you who love someone would lend a caring ear to someone lost in a maze). When anyone speaks about their conditions it is because they want help for them and others!! theyd even face their terrorizing illness by talking about it as if it were a puzzle missing a piece. I found the piece!
I understand its quite a common thing of our times to jokingly dis the bible and them who are truly given hope, new life and redemption through it, (I even did it for a short while) but I only am saying this for Im alive because the Actual truth that is not submissive to human reasoning and intellect saved me.
I was in deep depression, and I got into a serious head injury accident and out of miracles from God and working through prayers and wonderful people and professionals I have recovered fully and am better than I have ever been in my life. I have been cured of my illness! I had it my whole life, but now I have a new life. actually, after a lifetime of this, I Now have life. I should not have survived, I couldve been a vegetable or paralyzed, but I have experienced a true miracle and everyone saw it happen. Its nice when the truth is not based on an individual's perceptions, magical mind and bicep powers and ideas but when it's based on actual invincible truth. The truth of the bible is that however you see yourself, however others see you, the one who created all things loves you. it shocks me that it can be seen as an offending issue, but again, I am only saying this, only able to type because of faith, the truth and love of God and the love and support of others. I am healed of mental illness.. a terrible condemning thing to be branded with that has no cure.. and healed of it.
Amen! Love you all, my heart aches for those who suffer from these things and from their lasting effects on life. In Jesus Christ (a name that, even when said by people who hate the name as they are cursing, feel it has power), be freed.
We struggle not against our brothers and sisters, but against darknesses. What I always loved about the night was not the darkness, but how beautiful and lovingly it made the lights shine and how the darkness could do nothing but flee in defeat against one little light. in the most pitch black darkness, if there is a light, it makes it even brighter even for all to see from far away, so much brighter grows the light! Good game darknesses, but you lose.

Audrey Ward
June, 25 2014 at 9:40 pm

How can you distinguish between bi polar and real physical pain ( severe back pain )? Tests don't reveal anything but my chiro dr thinks there is something wrong . This is regarding a family member and I don't believe her pain is imagined

March, 9 2013 at 10:26 am

My 32 yetr old son has off and on horrible abdominal pain he had a colonoscopy and an endoscopy which revealed no problems but he suffers from depression & possibly some other mental illness. I am wondering if his abdominal pain is realted.

December, 14 2012 at 7:59 pm

I have bipolar type 1. The pain is real and hard to explain to anyone who has never experienced it. my ankles hurt so bad I cant hardly walk sometimes, my back, shoulders and hands. it is at times almost unbearable. it usually last for a week and then goes away for a couple of weeks then it is back again. for people who think bipolar is easy, just take your meds and it will be fine, YOU ARE WRONG!!

January, 12 2012 at 7:18 pm

I am going thru some of the things that were mentioned above with my husband. He is in so much and no pain medication helps. I know his pain is vey real and I do not know how to help. The doctors have no idea how help him. Does anyone have any tips that can help me help him? What are some questions I can ask his doctors?

January, 5 2012 at 6:02 pm

I agree, bipolar hurts emotionally as well as physically. At times I find it too painful to be in my own skin. I physically hurt. I can't even begin to describe the pain. It's unlike a physical ailment, it's a sensation under my skin that is unbearable. There are no analgesics that ease the pain. Nothing helps, we just have to ride it through until it eventually goes away.

Natasha Tracy
September, 6 2011 at 1:53 pm

Hi Fenny,
That's a pretty extreme example of what I'm talking about. It does happen. It's different for each person.
And yes, the pain is very real. Thankfully you had a doctor who took you seriously and didn't just write you off because you are "crazy."
It's good you got to the bottom of it, because you're right, you need to deal with why it was there in the first place.
"Somatic pain = real, not made up!!!"
Absolutely. Thanks for sharing your story.
- Natasha

September, 6 2011 at 10:54 am

It is so true!!!
I've had all sorts of stuff over the last 6 years especially.
THis year I even ended up in hospital with severe belly ache. The surgeon suspected appendicitis. However, I was completely checked up including CT-scan and all, and no physical reason was found.
The pain was very real, though! Even the strongest pain killers the hospital had didn't take away the pain.
I felt like a whiner, but thankfully my GP took me very seriously, bless him!
I was shocked to find out that somatic pain can be thát bad! I was on special pain killers for a long time. After a while I weaned myself off of them (wah, not nice!!!) Now the pain is not dibilitating anymore, I can live with it and work on the reason why it turned up in the first place.
So thanks for bringing this up.
Somatic pain = real, not made up!!!

Natasha Tracy
September, 3 2011 at 6:44 am

Thank-you. I agree.
- Natasha

September, 3 2011 at 6:05 am

So very true! I have lived this also! When you have to make your self get up outta bed. WE must stay strong& never give up our journey. <3 2 all!

Ann Becker-Schutte
September, 2 2011 at 11:41 am

This message is so important in combating mental health stigma. Thanks for saying it so clearly and so well.

Natasha Tracy
September, 2 2011 at 11:15 am

That's not why they invented Cymbalta, that's how they _marketed_ Cymbalta. That drug works like other drugs in its class.
In fact, I think all the drugs work on both physical and mental pain. Basically, once you make the depression go away, the physical pain goes with it. Nothing special about Cymbalta there.
(Their ad irks me however, as they make it sound somehow special. It isn't.)
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
September, 2 2011 at 11:10 am

Hi Christy,
Yes, the reminder is a good thing. We do need to be reminded we're not defective. Just sick. We all forget that sometimes.
- Natasha

September, 2 2011 at 10:45 am

Great article Natasha. In fact, isn't physical pain that's associated with depresssion the reason they came up with Cymbalta? It works for both depression and those nameless depression pains...

September, 2 2011 at 10:26 am

I'm glad you wrote about this because both my husband and I suffer from depression and anxiety. We're always walking around saying "I don't understand why I never feel well" or "I'm so exhausted, I can't understand it". It's nice to get a reminder that we're not defective, just depressed.

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