It’s Not All In Our Head: Physical Symptoms of Depression

Depression is a mental illness, but we may experience physical symptoms as part of our condition.

In this post we outline the most common physical problems associated with depression, and share some tips for managing them.

It's Not All In Our Head Physical Symptoms of Depression

Aches and Pains

Depression can cause aches and pains all over our body. It can seem like there is no reason for them. But depression and pain share nerve pathways in the spinal cord – and also share chemicals in the brain. This could explain why there is often a link between the two.
 
Heat packs can be very relieving when have muscle pain, as can treatments like deep heat. On the other end of the thermometer, we can try ice packs. If our aches and pains feel unmanageable, it’s important to discuss them with our GP. They can help us put a pain management plan in place.

Digestion

Cortisol, a stress hormone, can increase when we are unwell – pushing our bodies into ‘fight or flight’ mode. When this happens, our blood directs away from our digestive organs, because they’re not involved in the ‘fight or flight’ response. Over an extended period of time, this can cause digestive issues.
 
Our appetite can also change when we have depression. This can be due to the illness itself, and or medication side effects.
 
It’s important to try and keep eating a balanced diet at regular intervals. Sleep can make a big difference, too, because it gives our bodies time to rest and recover.
 
If we’re really struggling with digestive issues we can try eating foods that feel easier to digest. Light exercise may also help: it lowers anxiety, reducing the amount of cortisol in our bodies. Exercise can also help our bodies to digest food.

Heart Health

Depression is a risk factor for heart disease. There is still research being done around exactly why there is a link – but stress and hormone changes are likely to be involved.

To try and lessen this risk, it’s important to look after ourselves as best we can. We need to try and avoid smoking, or drinking too much, and eat a balanced diet and exercise as much as we feel able to.

Immune System

Depression can weaken all aspects our immune system and make us more prone to picking up bugs. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness (both of which can come with depression) also weaken our immune system.
 

Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep all boost our immune system. Paying attention to hygiene – for example, when washing our hands or preparing food – also helps.


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Moving and speaking slowly

When we have depression we often feel very tired and everything can feel heavy and thick. It can feel like our brains have slowed down and it can be hard to process information. This can cause us to move and speak more slowly than usual.

There are a number of things we can try to help our memory and concentration. It’s absolutely okay to take things a little slower if we need to.

Muscle Tiredness

Depression can cause tiredness all over. It drains energy out of our body, including our muscles. It can affect our diet, which can also contribute to the health of our muscles.
 
Additionally, the exhaustion that comes with depression can make us move less – and when we don’t use our muscles, they deteriorate. This can make it harder to exercise or walk long distances without our muscles complaining.
 
Exercise isn’t always possible when we’re depressed – we may well feel exhausted, and exerting ourselves can further increase our cortisol levels.  However if we feel up for it, gentle exercise like yoga or short walks can help keep our muscles in shape.

Weight Changes

Depression can affect our appetite. It can decrease our appetite, causing us to lose weight. It can also increase our appetite – or our drive to eat for comfort – and cause us to gain weight.  In addition, our tiredness and mood may reduce our motivation to cook: leaving us reaching for quick snacks or pre-prepared food. This too can have an impact.
 
Many of us struggle with our feelings about food and our weight – especially as society puts a lot of pressure on us to be ‘in control’ of these things. But there is no need to feel shame about our eating – especially when depression is affecting it.  That said, eating a balanced diet can really help our mood, so where possible we should aim to eat a good range of foods.

Other physical symptoms

Depression may impact other parts of our bodies, too – including our blood glucose levels, bone density, menstrual cycle, sex drive, and sleep. Additionally, any medication we take for depression can also have physical side effects.
 
If we’re troubled by any of our physical symptoms, it’s worth consulting our GP. They can offer peace of mind by checking there’s nothing else going on. They can also offer advice on managing the pain and discomfort that may come with our symptoms.


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