When feelings feel physical

 “It’s all in your head.”

“You need to get over it.”

 “Just ignore it and move on.”

How often do we say this to people who feel depressed or anxious?

Well, we’ve all heard of people heading for the Emergency Room with chest pain and learning it was a panic attack. This is because panic has a profoundly physical part of it that can make it hard to function. Imagine how hard would be to ignore severe chest pain. This is what’s being asked when folks tell people with anxiety and panic to just get over it. Many feelings and mental health disruptions can show up as physical health issues. Check with your doctor to rule out things like heart attacks, stomach ulcers, and brain or neurological problems, of course, but once those are ruled out, look for a mood or psychological issue (feelings or thoughts) that could be helped with counseling.

Imagine, or maybe you’ve already felt it, the amount of pain involved to send you to the hospital. All the parts of us are connected so it makes sense that depression, anxiety, and trauma can cause physical symptoms. If you get frequent stomach aches, headaches, or even just feel unwell or less healthy, this can be due to either a physical injury or illness, or a mental one.

Not sure about the connection between psychological and physical feelings? Try this little experiment: Bring something to mind that makes you feel angry – a memory, assumption, future meeting with someone. Sit with that thought or memory for a few minutes and notice if there’s a place in your body that feels pain or other physical sensations. For me, it’s my head. If I’m really angry my head sometimes aches. I know, most of us get headaches on occasion. I’m not saying they are always due to anger or other emotion - but sometimes mine are.

Now bring up a memory or future event that causes you fear. Where do you feel it in your body. Some people feel heavy limbs, stomach aches, or a sore throat.

Now try it with sadness, again sitting with the thought or memory for a few minutes. Pay attention to your body and where your sadness lives. Do you feel a heavy chest, a sharp stomach ache, something else?

And lastly, think of something or some time you felt joy. The kind of joy that has you jumping, clapping, and maybe even crying for its beauty. How does your body feel? Hollow? Full? Loose? My arms and legs get almost floaty, they become so light.

Bonus, you can try this with other positive feelings to help you improve your mood. Recall something terrific (calming, or safe, or happy), including sounds and smells. Keep it in your mind for more than a few minutes. It really works!

It seems that some pains may truly be in our head, but that’s not a bad thing. If you have unresolved pain, and your doctor can find nothing physically wrong, call me to talk about whether you might want more help. 

Related posts: Where do you hold stress, Mad as hell, Finding the right therapist (anywhere)