I have dealt with generalized anxiety and panic disorder since I was about 10 years old. Like many people who battle mental illness, I have my good days, and I’m grateful for them. But I have other days, weeks, and months where my mental illness incapacitates me to the point where it becomes very difficult to function.

But I’m good at hiding it. Sometimes the only words that come out of my mouth during those dark times are “I don’t feel good.” I say it to my kids, my friends, my co-workers, even my husband. It’s not that I don’t want to be candid about my struggles, but sometimes it feels too heavy and painful to share what is actually going on.

With people I don’t know well, it becomes much easier to say, “I don’t feel good” than to open up about something so personal. And even with people I trust, it is sometimes simpler to just come up with some blanket statement — because after all, “I don’t feel good” isn’t that far from the truth.

It’s Not All In Your Head: Mental Illness Can Make You Sick

The thing is, when I tell people “I don’t feel good,” I’m not exactly lying. My anxiety often manifests in distinctive physical symptoms: upset stomach, nausea, loose stools, headaches, rapid heartbeat, and dizziness. In fact, sometimes my anxiety will present in physical symptoms before I even realize that I am in the middle of an anxiety episode or panic attack.

I am not alone. Mental illness can be as physically debilitating as it can be emotionally draining. If you don’t feel well when you are struggling with your mental illness, you are not making it up or faking it! Mental illness can truly make you feel unwell.

For example, depression, which affects 1 in 15 adults in any given year, comes along with about as many physical symptoms as emotional ones. According to the American Psychiatric Association, physical symptoms of depression can include:

  • Appetite changes
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Energy loss
  • Heightened fatigue

5 Things “I Don’t Feel Good” Might Really Mean

If you are the friend or family member of someone who is challenged with mental illness, you should know that sometimes your loved one may not want to tell you outright that they are having a tough time. It’s not your job to “decode” what they mean, but it might be helpful to know that when they use a phrase like “I don’t feel good,” something more than meets the eye may be going on.

“I don’t feel good” can be a stand-in for lots of different emotions or struggles, but here are a few things it might mean:

  1. “My mental illness is making it impossible for me to concentrate or think straight.”
  2. “My mental illness is making me feel nauseous or sick to my stomach.”
  3. “My depression is making me feel so fatigued that I need to stay in bed today.”
  4. “I’m having panic attacks and my heart won’t stop racing, my thoughts are spiraling, and I feel sick and dizzy.”
  5. “I am so overwhelmed by my mental illness that I can’t even begin to describe how I feel.”
  6. “My mental illness is making it impossible for me to leave the house today.”

When You Are Ready, Find Someone You Can Share Your Struggles With

Sometimes you just don’t want to explain what is going on with you, and that’s OK. You are allowed to take your time in opening up, and choosing who you want to share your mental health challenges with. If it’s pretty obvious that something is troubling you, but you don’t want to talk about it, using a phrase like “I don’t feel good” is actually a great way to keep your boundaries or steer the conversation in a more comfortable direction.

However, holding it inside for too long, or hiding the full truth about what is going on, can lead to even more issues. I should know: I didn’t start talking about my panic attacks for many years. Even when I first started seeing a therapist, I glossed over the truth. But what ended up happening is that the panic attacks only got worse. I started to believe that I was “going crazy” and would panic about the panic itself.

Only when I started being totally honest with my therapist (it took me a few tries to find one I liked, which isn’t unusual) did I begin to learn how to cope with anxiety and panic disorder. Speaking your truth is the first step toward healing — and there are so many compassionate and non-judgmental therapists out there, both online and in person, who are ready to help you.

So yes, by all means, take your time when it comes to sharing the truth of your mental health struggles with others. You have every right to keep as many aspects of your mental illness private. Feel free to use phrases like “I don’t feel good” or “I don’t want to discuss it at this time” with as many people as you wish.

But know that what you are feeling is nothing to be ashamed of, that mental illness is real and not “all in your head” — and that once you are ready to share a little more of your struggles, there are people out there ready and willing to help, and that there is a path to recovery and wellness ahead.