Anxiety, Depression & Physical Health

Although we tend to make a distinction between mind and body, more and more research is showing a clear connection between our physical and mental health. Today there is an increasing call among healthcare professionals to consider mental wellbeing when treating conditions with physical symptoms. Poor mental health has now been recognized as detrimental to physical health, and vice versa. A more holistic approach in medical practice considers both physical and mental symptoms together for a patient’s optimal health. This article provides information on the physical effects of anxiety and depression.

Anxiety and Depression Symptoms

Both anxiety and depression are considered as mental conditions although they have differing symptoms. In order to understand the physical symptoms of both, we must first be aware of the symptoms of a true anxiety or depression diagnoses.

Anxiety is a normal emotion as a fight or flight response to danger. The feeling occurs in the amygdala, a region in the brain responsible for intense emotions. Impulses to the nervous system cause an increase in heart rate, breathing, muscle tensing, and an increased flow of blood from the organs in the abdomen to the brain. You may feel lightheaded and have an upset digestive system. Anxiety prepares the body for a crisis in the short term. However, when you experience anxiety in the absence of danger, it can interfere with daily life and greatly affect your physical health. You will have a greater risk of developing several chronic conditions. It’s estimated that around 40 million people suffer from an anxiety disorder.

Depression is a more complex mental health disorder than anxiety. Characterized by low mood and a feeling of hopelessness, symptoms can be a normal and temporary response to grief and trauma. It shares symptoms with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD)so healthcare providers must rule these out when making a diagnosis of depression. Generally, when symptoms last for more than two weeks, they indicate a serious depressive disorder. To arrive at a diagnosis of chronic depression, doctors look for at least five of the following symptoms:

  • a feeling of sadness or emptiness on most days
  • too little or too much sleep
  • changes in appetite and unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • a loss of pleasure in otherwise enjoyable activities
  • suicidal thoughts
  • inability to concentrate and make decisions
  • a feeling of worthlessness or guilt
  • a general lack of energy
  • physical agitation

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Research for anxiety as an illness is fairly new, but growing evidence suggests a link between emotions and physical health. Today, anxiety is implicated in a myriad of conditions including chronic respiratory disease, heart disease, and gastrointestinal conditions. Physical symptoms worsen when anxiety is left untreated. Anxiety has often gone unidentified as a source of substance abuse and addiction as people attempt to quell anxious feelings.

Respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease(COPD)are characterized by inflamed airways that reduce air flow through the lungs as well as a loss of elasticity in them. This causes the lungs to be unable to fill or expel air completely. Several studies have found that patients with chronic respiratory diseases have a high rate of panic attacks and anxiety symptoms.

Anxiety has also been associated with the development of heart disease as well as coronary events in those who already suffer from heart disease. One study shows that women with a high level of anxiety are almost 60 percent more likely to have a heart attack and more than 30 percent more likely to have a fatal one. Other studies have concluded that both men and women diagnosed with heart disease are twice as likely to suffer a coronary event if they also display signs of anxiety.

In functional digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and dyspepsia, or upset stomach, the nerves that regulate digestion are hypersensitive and produce symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation in IBS, and pain, nausea, and vomiting in dyspepsia. A 2007 study conducted in New Zealand found high levels of anxiety in subjects following a gastroenteric episode.

Physical Symptoms of Depression

Since depression is a more complicated mental condition it has more symptoms than anxiety. Research has established several ways it affects physical health.

Some people who suffer from depression experience appetite changes such as overeating or a lack of appetite. These changes can cause weight gain or loss that is unintended.

Excessive weight is associated with many health problems from diabetes to heart disease. Extreme weight loss can harm the heart, cause chronic fatigue, and diminish fertility.

Unexplained aches and pains in muscles and joints and headaches often occur with depression. In a vicious cycle, chronic pain can worsen depression. Likewise, chronic pain can be a source of depression.

Some research indicates that chronic depression is linked to inflammation while other studies suggest that depression is a symptom of chronic inflammation. Autoimmune disorders and inflammatory conditions such as IBS, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis are more likely to occur in those with depression. However, more research is needed to determine whether inflammation makes people more vulnerable to depression or if depression causes inflammation.

Depression can cause the same gastrointestinal symptoms as IBS and dyspepsia. A 2016 study found that chronic depression leads to changes in the way the brain responds to the stress of depression. These changes involve activity in the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.

Depression can also lead to insomnia or difficulty sleeping. Sleep deprivation is linked to a host of physical health problems including high blood pressure, weight issues, diabetes, and some types of cancer. It’s important to note that no direct correlation has been established between cancer and anxiety or depression. However, the host of other health problems caused by both can have a snowball effect that can lead to cancer.