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Illustration by Brittany England

Imagine, for a second, that you use your hands for work every day.

And now imagine that your hands suddenly stop working. Your muscles feel so sore that it’s sometimes impossible to move them. It becomes nearly impossible to open jars and medicine containers. Even holding a cup of tea is difficult.

Because I’m a writer, I often feel like my job is all in my head.

Research, reading, and writing are cerebral activities. It’s usually not until I have severe lower back pain that I remember how much my body is physically involved in my work.

Recently, I developed a painful condition where my hands became sore, stiff, and swollen. Within the space of a few days, they went from fully functional to persistently sore.

The physiotherapist and I tried to figure out what was causing the problem. It wasn’t arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome; it seemed to be the result of strain.

I was writing and editing far more than usual, but even after I consciously decided to work less, my hands were aching.

Later, it dawned on me that my OCD — specifically, my hand-wringing compulsion — was taking a toll on my hands.

Your mental state can affect your body physically. The most obvious example of this effect is crying: You feel sad or overwhelmed by emotion, and your body produces tears.

Many of us feel anxiety in our bodies, too.

The physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • aches and pains

Similarly, depression can affect your energy levels and result in bodily pain and fatigue.

As a mental health writer, I was well aware of the physical effects of mental illness. But I didn’t think about how OCD, in particular, could impact my body.

In addition to anxiety-related headaches and depression-like brain fog, I was experiencing physical strain because of my compulsions.

My compulsions have shifted over time, but they often involve wringing, flexing, or hyperextending my hands.

I’m so used to these compulsions that I barely notice them, which is why it took me a while to make the connection between my OCD symptoms and the physical pain.

Because I type on my laptop all day, my hands are already under strain — and my compulsions were just making it worse.

In addition to this, there’s a link between OCD and insomnia: A 2020 study found that people with OCD are 7 times more likely to have insomnia.

Because compulsions vary from one person with OCD to the next, the physical effects of the disorder aren’t the same for everyone.

For example, someone who has a handwashing compulsion might find that their hands become red, cracked, and sore from excessive handwashing.

A similar issue can arise if you have compulsions that involve excessive showering or cleaning. These compulsions are common among people who have contamination OCD.

Another example is exhaustion. All compulsions can be pretty exhausting, both mentally and physically. If you have a compulsion around pacing up and down, for example, that can be physically tiring.

Similarly, compulsions that involve “checking” or rearranging items can tire you out.

A compulsion is, by definition, hard to control, persistent, and repetitive. In the moment, it’s not always easy to foresee the physical toll your compulsions will have.

More often than not, you’re so preoccupied with the obsessions that you’re not necessarily thinking about whether you’ll end up with cracked skin or a tired body.

For this reason, it’s not always easy to link the physical effects of OCD to your compulsions. However, noticing the connection can help you take care of your body and address your compulsions better.

Therapy has helped me manage my OCD better so that I engage in my compulsions less. This means I’m slowly putting less strain on my hands, as I’m able to recognize my obsessions and reduce my compulsion.

This is a direct example of how mental self-care can help your physical health.

And the reverse is also true: Taking care of your physical health can affect your mental health.

Being in pain is distressing in itself. Pain can often add to feelings of anxiousness and depression, especially when you’re struggling to find relief.

My hand aches, for example, were extremely frustrating for me: I fell behind on work, couldn’t engage in my creative outlet, and even needed help with things like carrying grocery bags.

Another example of how your physical state affects your mental state is exercise.

When I started struggling with my mental health, I was often given the unsolicited advice to “just exercise” — usually in a condescending, dismissive way — which only made me hate the idea of exercising more.

I truly hate to admit it, but regular exercise is the best way for me to destress and the only way I can prevent my lower back pain from taking over my life.

Of course, it’s not easy to get into an exercise routine when you’re dealing with the symptoms of mental illness, but if you’re able to squeeze in a walk or a stretch every so often, that’s better than nothing.

I never really cared much about my physical health until I developed polycystic ovaries and Hashimoto’s disease.

Then, the pain and exhaustion demanded I take care of my body, which included exercising, eating regularly, and getting enough sleep.

Although dealing with those two chronic illnesses was difficult, there was a bright side: those three things created a foundation for better mental health.

Amazingly, it’s easier to manage your mental illnesses when you’re not overtired and hangry all the time!

Many of us forget the connection between our bodies and our minds.

We often say that our worries and anxieties are “all in our heads,” forgetting that those emotions spill over into our muscles, gastrointestinal system, and lungs, affecting everything from our cardiovascular health to our fertility.

We’re not just brains that are walked around by bodies, and we’re not just bodies that are steered by brains. We’re both our bodies and our minds, both physical and mental beings.

Often, it’s only by remembering the connection between body and mind that we’re able to take care of both.