Mental health and physical health are very closely connected and often influence each other. Poor mental health is a risk factor for chronic physical conditions, and an unhealthy lifestyle can initiate or add to mental health challenges. Many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic are inherently stressors for both physical and mental health concerns, like spending more time inside, less social interaction, and more screen time. A lot of people aren’t feeling like their best selves after a year of COVID-19 stress, and if you live with a mental health condition, you may have noticed your symptoms getting worse or even changing entirely – it’s normal to experience your mental health condition in a new way now that we are living in such different circumstances.
In 2020, over 2.5 million people took a mental health screen on Mental Health America’s (MHA’s) screening platform – more than double the number of individuals who took a screen in 2019. The number of people screening with moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety increased throughout 2020 and was consistently higher than rates before the pandemic. Both anxiety and depression are linked to physical health symptoms like fatigue, digestive issues, brain fog, and more. When physical symptoms are caused by your mental health, they are called psychosomatic. Psychosomatic symptoms are often misunderstood as “just in your head” or imagined, but they are just as real as any other physical concern. It can be hard to recognize when these physical symptoms are related to your mental health, especially if you feel like you’re doing okay emotionally.
During this time of high stress throughout the pandemic, anxiety-related physical discomfort might be more intense or frequent. You’re not making it up – there’s a scientific explanation for this. When in danger, our bodies go into flight-or-flight mode and over-produce adrenaline and cortisol, two stress hormones. Generally, this is a good thing – it preps you to exert a lot of physical energy to get away from the danger, and then your body can return to its resting state. But our brains can’t always distinguish between different types of danger. When you’re feeling stressed or anxious often, your body keeps producing high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, and constantly high levels of stress hormones with limited recovery time can have a negative impact on your organs and bodily functions.[i] Many people get an upset stomach when they are particularly nervous or stressed, but if you live with anxiety, stomach pain may be a symptom that you experience often, and seemingly at random – especially during COVID-times. Your digestive system and brain are closely connected and communicate frequently; mental health challenges can lead to stomach problems, and vice versa.
Because of the social isolation and loneliness that has come along with COVID-19, many people are facing more severe depression than they have before. Like anxiety, depression can cause stomach problems – people with depression often have low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that both regulates mood and maintains digestive function. Most of the body’s serotonin is actually produced and stored in the gut, not the brain.[ii] Depression is also associated with fatigue and low energy – people with depression often have a lower quality of sleep than others, and many have trouble falling or staying asleep.[iii] Aches and pains are more common if you’re experiencing depression, too – researchers are still trying to understand the relationship between physical pain and depression, but some theories include depression and pain both being influenced by changes in neurotransmitters (like serotonin) or that people with depression feel pain differently.[iv]
It’s important to keep in mind that long-term stress and untreated mental health challenges can actually weaken your immune system – stress decreases the white blood cells that help fight off infection[v] - so if you’re feeling sick, you may have actually caught something going around. Check with your doctor to rule out other possibilities, but if your tests come back negative and you’re still having unexplained aches and pains, paying extra attention to your mental health might help:
Use your typical coping skills. Doing the same things that you do to reduce your depression or anxiety may help calm your physical symptoms, even if you don’t feel depressed or anxious. Think about what has helped you to feel better during times of high anxiety or depressed mood, like art, meditation, or connecting with a friend.
Explore your feelings. It’s easy to bottle up your stress, especially during the pandemic – there’s so much going on and a lot of pressure to act as if everything is normal. Give yourself time to recognize and process your emotions. Once you identify how you’re actually feeling, it won’t seem as overwhelming and you’ll be better equipped to manage it, which can help reduce your physical symptoms.
Dedicate time to relaxation. Think about how you are spending your downtime. If you use it to scroll through social media, you’re not actually getting a break from the stresses of daily life. Think about all the COVID-related content, the “inspiration” posts that push non-stop productivity, and the natural tendency to compare yourself to others. Let yourself rest by truly disconnecting and take time to stretch, read, or do some deep breathing.
Get your heart rate up. This might be the last thing you want to do when feeling sick or achy but getting some exercise can make use of that extra cortisol and adrenaline your body is producing. Go for a run, do an at-home workout, or dance around your bedroom to your favorite songs. This can distract your mind from how you’re feeling, relieve stress, and boost your mood.
Take care of your body. If you treat your physical body well, your mental health will thank you. This includes things like eating a nutritious diet, getting fresh air, and maintaining personal hygiene (even if showering feels pointless because no one will see you anyway). The little things go a long way in helping you feel more connected to the world around you.
Seek out professional help. If you’ve been dealing with high stress or anxiety and aren’t already in therapy, now is a great time to start. There’s no quick fix to mental health struggles or the psychosomatic pain that can come with them, but regularly working on your mental health can help you keep uncomfortable symptoms manageable. Use a therapist search engine like Psychology Today, Choosing Therapy, or SAMHSA’s Treatment Services Locator.
[i] Ferguson, S. (2020, June 30). Yes, mental illness can cause physical symptoms – here’s why. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/mental-illness-can-cause-physical-symptoms
[ii] Block, D.B. (2020, December 4). The physical effects of depression. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/physical-effects-of-depression-1066890
[iv] Block, D.B. (2020, December 4). The physical effects of depression. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/physical-effects-of-depression-1066890
[v] Hasan, N. (2020, March 23). 6 signs you have a weakened immune system. Penn Medicine. https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2020/march/weakened-immune-system