Can mental health cause physical pain?

The mind is a clever thing. It can play tricks on us, and it can fool us as well. When we’re feeling low, or under a lot of stress and worry, the mind might tell us we’re okay and even encourage us to ‘power on’ despite our feelings. But ultimately, the body keeps the score. If you’re suffering from poor mental health, it might be that the first sign that something is wrong manifests as a physical symptom.

Typically, the symptoms are related to back pain (particularly low back pain), neck pain, chest pain, joint pain and breathing problems or nausea. That’s interesting, because the Central Nervous System (CNS), the complex set of nerves that control the activities of the body, runs from the brain along the spine.

The Central Nervous System

The CNS is composed of the brain and the spinal cord and can be considered the command and control centre of the human body (unless you count the gut but that’s for another post!). The CNS communicates with the rest of the body via neurons linked to what is called the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). When a stimulus is introduced to the body, receptors communicate with sensory neurons, which in turn communicate with motor neurons to effect a response with the CNS.

Some of these responses could be called reflex responses, for example when your hand brushes close to a heated flame. The urge to pull your hand away from the heat is automatic and happens outside of your conscious mind.
In addition, there are 31 pairs of spinal nerves that form the PNS and flow out from the spinal cord. It therefore makes sense that how you feel mentally might manifest itself in pain further along the CNS.

Missed messages?

The brain and the body send out signals about how we’re feeling but we’ve become very adept at ignoring them. I said the mind was clever; it will find a way to slow you down and get your attention in the end. If that means causing you physical pain, so be it.

If you have physical pain, and you can find no recognisable cause, have a think about how you’re feeling. Could it be stress, anxiety or depressive symptoms that are manifesting themselves in other areas?

If this is the case, here are three things you can try straight away to alleviate your symptoms:

  1. Find a way to quieten your CNS: meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing and walking in a calm environment are just a few very powerful ways to do this. I’ve blogged about this before, so check out our Resources page to read previous posts.
  2. Explore the underlying issues: take some time out to look at your lifeload – the amount of stress you’re carrying. Make a list of all your responsibilities, commitments, pressures and then make another list of the things you do for pleasure and relaxation. Imagine the two on a balancing scale and see how that looks.
  3. Take a load off: try and remove some of the commitments and pressures. Maybe you could outsource some of your commitments or let some things go. Maybe you find some strategies in point 1 that help you balance your load.

There’s a very good book about psychosomatic symptoms called It’s All In Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan. I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in the power of the mind and enjoy reading case studies. My book, Rise and Shine, also discusses this topic in lesser detail.

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Leanne Spencer is an entrepreneur, coach, TEDx Speaker, author of Remove the Guesswork, and founder of Bodyshot Performance Limited. Bodyshot is a health and fitness consultancy that helps busy professionals get more energy by removing the guesswork around their health, fitness and nutrition. Visit or email to register your interest in our services and connect with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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