Physical Effects of Anxiety and Depression
Are there physical effects of anxiety and depression? Heck yes!
The physical effects of anxiety and depression are proof that mind and body communicate with one another. In other words, anxiety and depression are not all in your head. Mind and body are linked; whatever your mind thinks, your body feels. And what your body feels, your mind automatically interprets in various ways.
In the 17th century, mind and body were considered separate entities. Remember Rene Descartes famous line, “I think therefore I am?”
Fast forward to the 21st century. We now know there’s no dichotomy between the mind and the body. They work in tandem. They’re connected.
Whenever you feel anxious or depressed, you automatically feel the effects, despite their mental origin.
Research backs this up. In fact, a 2019 study found that among over 15,000 retirees, anxiety and depression predicted poor physical health over time. Medical problems (e.g. heart disease, stroke, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes) and physical symptoms (gi problems, shortness of breath, dizziness, back pain, headache, ) were assessed twice over four years. The negative impact of anxiety and depression on health were as strong as or stronger than those of smoking.
Mind and body synergy results in emotions, thoughts, and sensations. Anxiety and depression affect people’s whole system.
So of course there are physical effects.
Ahhh! The pure brilliance of our mind and body. We could even call it our “mindbody”. The interconnectedness is nothing short of exquisite.
How common are anxiety and depression?
Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health problems in this country.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 40 million U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates over 17.3 million adults suffer from depression. About 50% of people diagnosed with depression also suffer from an anxiety disorder. That means they are that much more susceptible to physical symptoms.
There are different forms of anxiety, including worry, fear, and nervousness.
Starting a new job or going on a first date, for example, are naturally stressful situations. They elicit a “what will happen next?”/apprehension type of stress.
Occasional, situational anxiousness is completely normal.
Even in fleeting occurrences, however, you’ll experience physical signals of anxiety.
Think back to the last time you felt a bit of “stage fright” before facing an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation. Did your heart speed up? Your legs tremble? Your mouth feel dry?
You may have even felt a bit nauseous.
Who doesn’t experience at least some anxiety or depression at various points in life (hello, global pandemic)? Under certain circumstances, anxiety is a healthy, normal “fight or flight” response to help navigate a stressful situation. It’s also perfectly normal to feel lonely, sad, or disinterested at times in life, especially when facing difficulties in life.
But when anxiety and depression interfere with daily life and feelings of overwhelming sadness or emptiness persist, it’s no longer normal. It’s a mental health disorder.
There are also different forms of depression, including sadness, loneliness, lack of motivation, and feeling blue.
But depression is so much more than feeling sad. It is not the situationally appropriate sense of sadness in response to negative experiences or loss.
Depression is more like a fog that pervades your mind and makes you feel sad, hopeless, and uninterested in things you used to enjoy.
It can also show up as irritability, crabbiness, lethargy, and fatigue.
“Depression” is actually an umbrella term for many different mood issues.
Physical symptoms of anxiety and depression
When you feel anxious, neurotransmitters send information to your sympathetic nervous system. Your muscles then contract and your heart rate and breathing increase. Blood flow is redirected from organs in your torso to your brain. This is commonly known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.
Common physical symptoms include:
- rapid pulse
- sweating/feeling flushed
- stomach pain
- ringing in the ears
- digestive problems (leading to gas pains, diarrhea, or constipation)
- heart disease (Having an untreated anxiety disorder increases the risk of heart disease. For people who already have heart disease, constant anxiety increases risk of another heart attack, or stroke)
Untreated depression takes a toll in many ways, including on physical health.
Common physical symptoms include:
- chronic pain, such as headaches, migraines, back pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia pain. In fact, depression can cause and worsen physical pain, and chronic pain is depressing
- sleep disorders
- substance abuse disorders
- respiratory illnesses
- thyroid problems
Is there anything I can do to manage physical effects of anxiety and depression?
Yes! Anxiety and depression often worsen without treatment. But both anxiety and depression are highly treatable.
Treatment can help you reclaim your life and preserve your long-term physical health. General guidelines are to experience the symptoms and not resist or otherwise try to avoid them.
That doesn’t mean allowing the anxiety or depression to take over and cause a downward spiral. It does mean learning techniques for recognizing and guiding yourself through the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
In some cases, anxiety and depression can be “self-treated”. This approach may be less effective for severe or long-term anxiety and depression.
For milder, more focused, or shorter-term anxiety and depression, these ideas may help to manage symptoms in the mind and body:
- Stress management: Learn to manage stress to limit triggers. Organize upcoming pressures and deadlines, compile lists to make tasks more manageable, and take breaks from study or work.
- Relaxation techniques: Techniques including meditation, deep breathing exercises, long baths, resting in the dark, yoga, and being in nature can help sooth mental and physical signs of anxiety.
- Exercises to reframe negative thoughts: Make a list of negative thoughts. Then write down another list with accurate, believable, perhaps neutral thoughts to replace the distortions. Challenge distortions! Create an image of successfully facing and conquering challenges.
- Support network: Talk with people who are supportive. Support group services may also be available, even online.
- Physical Exercise: Physical exercise can improve self-image and release chemicals in the brain that trigger positive feelings. Strength training, cardio, or an activity like barre or yoga may be helpful.
A standard way of treating anxiety and depression is psychological treatment. This may include psychotherapy (e.g. Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, Affect Centered Therapy), medication, or a combination of therapies.
I often recommend that people try both self-management techniques and psychotherapy to address physical effects of anxiety and depression.
Your mental and physical health are both important.
Mind and body automatically interconnect through the highs, lows, and stressors of life.
Taking care of your mind and mental health means you’re simultaneously doing the same for your body and physical health.
Recognizing the mind-body connection provides you with the ability to change the way your body reacts to thoughts and feelings.
A healthy mind and healthy body go hand in hand.
May you find peace of mind and body.
Dr. Elayne Daniels is a Boston based psychologist and coach specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, body image distress and mood disorders. Her expertise in working with Highly Sensitivity People informs her treatment approach with all her patients. For more information, contact her here.