Seana Speaks

The effects of depression and anxiety aren’t just in your head. Studies have shown that emotions and mental health can, and often do, have an impact on your physical health. If you are one of the many Americans living with a mental health disorder, your lived experience is very likely showing you the same.

“I attribute the heart palpitations I get to my anxiety, as well as my digestion problems and some of my general physical pain,” says Katie Czermerys, an NVU-Johnson senior, who has been diagnosed with multiple anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder. “Something is always hurting me.”

Leah Horrigan, another NVU-Johnson senior, deals with stomach and digestive issues as a result of long-term anxiety and depression. Her anxiety also causes her muscles to be unable to properly relax. “I’m in physical therapy due to certain muscles being so tight they’re causing damage. I also clench my jaw so much that sometimes when I attempt to chew food the initial pain of moving my jaw is intense.”

Many of us with a mental health disorder could share stories of our own, stories of debilitating fatigue, body pain, digestive upsets and more. Some of us have adamantly insisted there was a link between the health of our bodies and the health of our minds, and others have not made that connection at all. Still others have wondered if their physical complaints can be real if the problem starts in their head. But what of those studies I mentioned? What does science say about all of this? Most importantly, are those of us with mental health disorders destined to lives of overall poor health? Well, not necessarily.

There is an entire body of research to support the truth that the health of our brains does indeed play a pivotal role on the health of our bodies. Research indicates that depression is linked to inflammation within the body which may change the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight infection. People with depression are more likely to have autoimmune disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes and arthritis.

As seen in the cases of Czermerys and Horrigan, people with depression and anxiety often talk about stomach and digestion problems. This may be due to depression changing the brain’s response to stress by suppressing activity in the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands, according to research published in 2016. Or, if you have anxiety, your stomach may be producing too much acid leading to gastrointestinal issues.

Studies have shown that people with depression feel much stronger levels of pain than those without depression and two out of three people with depression suffer from increased aches and pains. People with depression may experience joint or muscle pain, breast tenderness and headaches.

The list goes on from here. Fatigue, sexual health problems, weight gain or loss, worsening of chronic health issues and heart disease. The connection between mental health disorders and physical health complications is well-researched and scientifically verified. So where does this leave us?

Fortunately, mental health disorders are treatable conditions and in treating these conditions we can work to undo any damage they may have already caused and to prevent further complications. Understanding that the word “treatment” can be a frightening word to those hesitant to medicalize their mental health, I’m happy to report there are a variety of options available to get you started.

One of the most widely recommended starting points for both mental and physical health is daily exercise. Grab a friend and head to the gym or enjoy a vigorous walk on the campus trails. Second after that is to be mindful of your diet – less junk and more nutrition, please! Speaking of being mindful, spend more time doing just that. Take a regular yoga class, learn how to meditate and practice mindful breathing techniques. Visit the Wellness Center on campus and discover the room designed just for this purpose. All of these techniques have scientifically evidenced benefits for both your body and your mind.

While you’re at the Wellness Center you can meet one of the mental health counselors for a chat and get some direction on what to do next if you’d like. If you feel like your anxiety and depression aren’t improving enough there are herbs and supplements that can help or, if you prefer, there are numerous pharmaceutical medications that have been shown to be incredibly helpful.

According to the World Health Organization, health is the state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Not just one or the other. Our bodies have shown us that they are intricately connected. Science has told has how. Let’s not let ourselves get in the way of our best health.