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Self Care Series: Emotional Need, or Physical Need?

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

Perhaps this next statement will shock you: our physical well-being affects our mental well-being.

No? Not surprised? Okay, me neither. If I am having an anxious or irritable day, I always run through a list of physical causes in my head, first thing. I’ll ask myself, “How’s my body feeling? Have I been exercising? Eating well? Getting adequate sleep?”

But, seriously, if you’re struggling with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, it’s pretty important that you rule out potential physical causes. Even mundane physical complaints can easily be mistaken for mental health symptoms – for example, if you’re feeling very irritable, make sure you’re not just hungry. Being “hangry” is a real phenomenon!

Sometimes, mental health symptoms are indicative of an underlying disease or chronic health condition. In my work as a psychologist, I’ve been surprised to find how often physical health problems go unassessed and unaddressed in mental health treatment. It’s actually part of our diagnostic system. If your symptoms can be explained by a physical illness, you don’t have a mental health condition – you have a medical illness. Psychologists and most other mental health professionals are not medical doctors. We’re trained to help you with your mental health specifically, not in detecting the signs and symptoms of diseases.

Thing is, using psychotherapy or psychiatric medications is really not your best course if your symptoms are caused by a medical problem. If what is underlying your suffering is a specific disease, treating that disease ought to give you relief. Medical problems also tend to be easier to treat than psychiatric problems.

So, if you’re working on self-care to ensure that your mental health is in good shape, don’t neglect a trip to a primary care physician. Tell them about your mental health complaints, and explain that you’d like to rule out potential physical causes. For example, feeling tired all the time could be due to depression, but your doctor might want to rule out things like anemia and hypothyroidism. Your doctor may be able to tell from your description of symptoms that physical complaints are unlikely, or they may run some tests to check on some of your symptoms.

One thing to be careful about – it’s easy to start worrying about potential medical illnesses and start seeking too much testing and medical intervention. Definitely don’t get sucked into that anxiety trap! If, after a medical workup, it doesn’t seem like there’s a physical cause to your symptoms, and you’re still struggling, then it’s a good idea to address the mental health problem with a licensed professional. Pat yourself on the back for checking in with a doctor, though. You’re practicing good self-care.


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