Depression and Physical Illness

What You're Feeling Is Very Real

Stressed man with headache at desk
How can stress and depression lead to physical symptoms (psychosomatic illness)?. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/MNPhotoStudios/Blend Images/Getty Images

Any illness that has physical symptoms, but has the mind and emotions as its origin, is defined as psychosomatic illness. A psychosomatic illness originates with emotional stress or damaging thought patterns, and progresses with physical symptoms, usually when a person's immune system is compromised due to stress. Depression can indeed be a cause of psychosomatic illness.

A common misconception is that a psychosomatic condition is imaginary or "all in someone's mind." Actually, the physical symptoms of psychosomatic conditions are real and should be treated quickly, as with any other illness. 

The Connection

Stress and depression can literally be expressed as pain and illness.

As an example, compare your body to a pressure cooker. If it's allowed to vent its steam, it will sit there and happily cook along. If it's not allowed to vent its steam, the pressure will build up and up until the lid blows off. People are no different, and depression can be the manifestation of that.

Now, let's say you have a cooker under pressure, but you're applying pressure to hold that lid on (the human equivalent would be holding in your emotions). What will happen? Eventually, the vessel will break at its weakest point. The same goes for people.

If one of your body systems is weakened, this is where a stress-related illness is most likely to develop. If your weakest point physically is your neck, you'll develop neck pains. Or back pain. Or ulcers. Or frequent colds and flu. You get the picture.

Diagnosis

Because your doctor is looking for a physical cause of your pain, he may find it tricky to give you a diagnosis and treatment plan, as the underlying depression (and its effects) may be under the radar.

The key is to look for a source of stress in the person's life that the person is not coping with, particularly when there are no other obvious causes of the issue. By treating the underlying stress and depression, it may be possible to heal the physical problems as well.

This is not to say that the physical symptoms you experience should only be dealt with from a mental health standpoint.

As noted, the physical symptoms of psychosomatic illness are real. The pain you feel in your neck isn't just felt in your brain, but the chemical cascades that begin with stress may lead to actual inflammation in your neck muscles.

While it's important to "go upstream" and treat the root of the problem (manage stress) it's also important to deal with the real symptoms until you have the opportunity to treat the upstream problems. You may wish to think of psychosomatic illness as the flood which occur from a river when a damn breaks. The most important step in preventing further flooding is to fix the damn. Yet it's also important to deal with the flooding which has occurred downstream while the damn is being repaired. In other words, you may need to try massage, physical therapy, or an anti-inflammatory at the same time you begin to address stress in your life.

Recognize When You're Stressed

The first step is learning to recognize when you are under extreme stress. A simple test to determine if you're feeling stressed: take both your hands and touch your neck. If your hands feel significantly colder than your neck, you are stressed. If they are warm, you are relaxed. Other signs of stress include:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Tense muscles
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Rapid heart beat.

Learn to recognize the signs of stress unique to you. With women, the signs of stress often include fatigue despite being well rested, irritability (especially with those closest to you), abdominal bloating, an even changes in your menstrual periods.

Signs and symptoms of stress in men are more likely to include chest pain, increased blood pressure, and changes in sex drive. Symptoms of stress also vary by age. Signs of stress in a teen may easily be missed during the normal angst of adolescence.

Learning Coping Mechanisms

Once you know how to recognize when you are stressed, the next step is to learn coping mechanisms.

One very important way to cope: Do not hold in your feelings! Like the pressure cooker, the pressure will find a way out. You can be like the pressure cooker that is venting steam in a controlled way or you can let the stress find your weakest point to come exploding out. The controlled way is safer and healthier for you.

In addition to considering healthy coping mechanisms for combating stress, check to see if you are using any unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress such as excess caffeine or alcohol intake.

Controlled ways you can cope include:

  • Talking to someone you trust.
  • Joining a support group.
  • Relaxation techniques (check out these stress management techniques to see what may work best for you).
  • Taking some leisure time for yourself.
  • Taking a break from the situation you're in.
  • Consider an herbal supplement for stress like Kava Kava or Valerian to help you relax (keep in mind that herbal supplements can have side effects just like prescription medications, and it's important to talk to your doctor about what is safe).
  • Try one of these stress-busting herbal teas.
  • Taking care of your health by eating right, exercising and not smoking.
  • Being honest with those around you (maintaining a lie is very energy consuming)
  • Letting go of old grudges. Here are some tips on letting go of stress and anger. Keep in mind that sometimes letting go of a relationship which stresses you is needed.
  • Doing something nice for others (if you're not accustomed to doing this) or taking some time just for you (if you are always sacrificing for everyone else).

The list is endless. Just vent that steam! Now take a peek at the 10 best self care strategies for stress reduction.

Be Willing to Let Go

The third and final component: willingness. That's right, willingness. You have to be willing to let go of your expectations about what you must do. You have to be willing to let go of old guilts and shoulds that are guiding your behavior. You have to allow yourself to just be human. It's okay for men to cry and be emotional. It's okay for women to let someone else have a turn with the household chores. It's okay to fall short of your goals if you're doing the best that you can. Some of your biggest stressors may actually come from within yourself.

Sources:

Fava, G., Cosci, F., and N. Sonino. Current Psychosomatic Practice. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 2017. 86(1):13-30.

Golbidi, S., Frisbee, J., and I. Laher. Chronic Stress Impacts the Cardiovascular System: Animal Models and Clinical Outcomes. American Journal of Physiology. Heart and Circulatory Physiology. 2015. 308(12):H1476-98.

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