Reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Chronic depression can be a chronic pain in the ass, but can it also be a chronic pain in the back?
Physical pain and physical symptoms linked to depression may sound like pseudoscience at work, but mood disorders can affect every element of your life — and that includes every part of your body.
Whether you’re trying to explain away your sudden weight gain or wondering if your headaches are a symptom of depression, the answer is yes — physical pain is sometimes related to certain types of mental illness.
Whether your stomach aches last week were because of bad leftovers or a sign of depression isn’t something we can tell you, but what we can say is that it’s definitely worth understanding the link between them.
Depression is a mood disorder identified by recurring down, sad or low feelings. The word “recurring” is important here — you have to feel these emotions in a pattern, nearly every day and for at least a couple of weeks to meet the “depression” definition.
Different types of depression carry different patterns — seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may only hit you during the cold winter months, whereas major depression (MD) is not correlated to particular seasons or events.
Major depression is a more extreme form of depression than persistent depressive disorder, which can last for years with varying severity.
We don’t know everything about what causes depression, but genetic, environmental, psychological and biological causes have all demonstrated some link — it’s possible that depression can be caused by more than one thing. And like the causes, depression can also cause multiple effects, including physical symptoms.
Depression has a lot of symptoms, and you may exhibit some but not others. Mood issues like anger, exhaustion or irritability are common for depression sufferers, but there are also physical ailments associated with depression.
Depression has been linked to sleep issues, bad decision-making, reckless behavior and even increased risks for substance abuse. And, in certain circumstances, it can cause you to have suicidal thoughts.
While those things definitely affect your body, some other depression symptoms can even mimic different “sick” feelings, like stomach issues.
A stomach in knots paired with occasional feelings of hopelessness doesn’t sound like a great time for anyone, and physiological symptoms like headaches, cramps and others can further hinder your functioning.
So yes, depression can make you sick.
It’s helpful to see a list of these symptoms laid out for you — if you experience some of these in your daily life, it may be a reason to talk to a healthcare professional.
This is not an exhaustive list of the physical symptoms of depression, but here are the common examples of sickness associated with mood disorders like depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health:
Depressed people may experience the inability to sleep on a normal schedule, and experience both hypersomnia and insomnia.
Aches, pains and cramps are a generic catch-all for literal pain caused by depression.
It’s unclear how these symptoms manifest for a depressed body, but sudden onset of these symptoms without any other identifiable sources is a good cue to head in for a check-up.
Same goes with headaches.
Gaining or losing weight rapidly can affect many depression sufferers regardless of age.
While society might tell you that weight loss is a good thing, sudden unintentional weight loss is definitely a reason to speak with a healthcare professional.
Cramps, constipation and other digestive issues are a common physiological manifestation of depression for many people, though these issues tend to affect middle-aged people more.
Middle aged people and those in their later years may experience decreased libido for a variety of reasons, but a loss of interest in sexual activities for no particular reason is a key signal that something is wrong.
If you have other symptoms, this may be a signal that your depression has overstepped its bounds and needs to be checked.
With that list in mind, you’re probably wondering exactly how you treat depression symptoms?
Obviously the right medication (whether over the counter or prescribed) for the physical symptoms will be a big help, but once a healthcare professional has linked your symptoms to depression, depression is what you should focus on treating.
It’s the systemic problem responsible for the trickle-down aches and pains, after all.
Here’s where you should start:
If your weight is fluctuating, you may want to add exercise and dietary changes to your routine.
This isn’t groundbreaking advice, but it’s a good example of how many symptoms may be addressed in the immediate by direct treatment.
Experiencing headaches? Over-the-counter painkillers and staying hydrated can make a huge difference.
Healthcare providers will likely advise you to implement lifestyle changes such as diet and eliminating unhealthy activities to address issues such as weight gain, high blood pressure and more.
They may also recommend exercise, which can be as effective as drugs in some cases, according to research.
The next thing you should do is find a therapy professional to talk to about your depression.
We know talking about these things can be hard for some people, but the benefits outweigh the initial awkwardness you may feel when talking to a therapist.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a system for addressing mood disorders. CBT helps patients recognize unhealthy patterns of thought and learn to reframe those thoughts from a healthier perspective — a great way to contextualize and regain control over those negative thoughts and feelings.
Other therapeutic forms are great, too — and if you don’t want to sit in a room talking about your parents, online counseling and meditation practices have also shown benefits for depression sufferers.
Lastly, you may want to consider medication with the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Antidepressants work in different ways, often by managing levels of different chemicals in your brain, which can help you manage your depression more effectively.
Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressant — they cause relatively fewer side effects, though the FDA cautions that SSRIs and other antidepressant medications may elevate your risk of suicidality, especially if you’re under twenty-five.
It is therefore important to only take these medications under close monitoring from your healthcare provider.
The connection between depression and physical illness isn’t perfectly understood, but it does exist. If your depression is not well managed or treated, you’ll want to get it in line sooner rather than later.
Our advice? Depression is much scarier when you deal with it alone. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member about what you’re feeling — you can go a step further and contact a mental health professional about your depression for personalized advice and treatment.
Do one, or the other, or both, but don’t wait. Treating your depression now is the best way to feel free of its symptoms — physical or otherwise — tomorrow.