Evidence Depression Isn't Just 'All In Your Head'

09/24/2014 08:22 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2014

Depression touches people differently, making dealing with the condition more of a personal experience than a universal one. Some describe the illness as a dark cloud, while others liken it to being trapped in an empty space.

Regardless of how it personally feels, what many people don't know is that the illness can also take a physical toll on the body. Those symptoms, combined with the emotional side effects, have the potential to be draining.

Infographic by Alissa Scheller for The Huffington Post.


Headaches. These pains can be one of the hallmark physical signs of depression, particularly in adolescents, says John F. Greden, M.D., executive director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center. While most people report that their depression headaches are dull, sometimes the illness can cause tension headaches, Everyday Health reported. Depression can also put people at greater risk for developing migraines.

Indigestion. People with depression may experience stomach problems as well, Greden says. Additionally, digestive issues such as colitis or stomach ulcers may be worsened by extreme stress or depression, Everyday Health reported.

Lack of energy. "So many people with varying types of depressions complain of fatigue, making it one of the more common symptoms," Greden explains. Studies have also shown that depression can lead to decreased motivation and poor job performance. Without being diagnosed with the depression, many people tend to think this lack of energy is a result of other physical illnesses, like hypoglycemia or other thyroid issues, Greden adds.

Appetite and weight changes. Depression has the potential to significantly alter eating habits. This could mean eating too much or too little, and as a result, weight gain or weight loss.

Joint and muscle pain. "Depression makes pains that people have worse and it may even be associated with the onset of certain pains," Greden says. "There's an intensification of joint and muscle pains." Research suggests that there is even a strong association between fibromyalgia and depression.

Sleep loss. A change in sleep patterns is one of the most common warning signs of depression ("there's this certain restlessness that occurs," Greden says). Depression also has been linked to insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea.

Nausea. As part of the stomach problems caused by depression, people may experience queasiness and nausea, as well as diarrhea, which is also a resulting symptom of anxiety.


Anxiety. Even though they're different disorders, depression and anxiety can commonly occur together, according to the Mayo Clinic. This has the potential to yield other physical symptoms like a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and even panic attacks, Greden says.

Brooding and obsessive rumination. "The worst part of depression is that it narrows the field of vision into a very small tube so they can't see the options," Adam Kaplin, M.D., an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and neurology at Johns Hopkins University, previously told HuffPost Healthy Living. This includes obsessive focus on the bad and ignoring the good. Research has shown that relentless focus on the negative and moody reflection over what has gone wrong may have a strong link to depression.

Excess worry over physical health. With everything going on in the body, it's easy to dismiss depression as an option when everything feels so physically painful. "It's difficult to go to work, to concentrate, to laugh or focus on your assignments when you're hurting in this way," Greden says.

Tearfulness. The illness can result in tearfulness and feelings of sadness during a depressive episode. While many people associate depression with this specific emotion, it's important to note that depression and sadness are not the same thing. "Depression is a clinical term -- and a lot of times when people say they're depressed, they really mean sad. The words that we use are very powerful and it's important to make that distinction," David Kaplan, Ph.D., chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, previously told HuffPost Healthy Living.


"If people have a lot of physical symptoms, and they have associated mood changes, the clinician ought to be considering that they're linked to underlying depression," Greden says. The simultaneous occurrence of the two types of symptoms can have a life-altering effect, from feelings of anger and guilt to dangerous thoughts about suicide. It's important to pay attention to the prevalence of both the physical and the emotional signs in order to address those potential hazards, Greden adds.

"Unfortunately, in health care, we tend to split the mind and body sometimes," he says. "So if someone complains of their physical symptoms ... that's what clinicians tend to target. So, that preponderance of physical symptoms for people who also have the mood symptoms sometimes tends to overwhelm the underlying cause. But [the symptoms] go together. They hold hands. They're all part of the same syndrome."

Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Also on HuffPost:

  • Summer Weather
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is most commonly associated with winter blues, and it afflicts about 5 percent of Americans. But for less than 1 percent of those people, this form of depression strikes in the summer. Warm weather depression arises when the body experiences a "delay adjusting to new seasons," says Alfred Lewy, MD, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, in Portland. Instead of waking and enjoying dawn, the body has a hard time adjusting, he says, which could be due to imbalances in brain chemistry and the hormone melatonin. More from Health.com: 10 Tips for Dating With Depression The Most Depressing States in the U.S. Depressing Jobs: Career Fields With Hight Rates of Depression
  • Smoking
  • Smoking has long been linked with depression, though it's a chicken-or-egg scenario: People who are depression-prone may be more likely to take up the habit. However, nicotine is known to affect neurotransmitter activity in the brain, resulting in higher levels of dopamine and serotonin (which is also the mechanism of action for antidepressant drugs). This may explain the addictive nature of the drug, and the mood swings that come with withdrawal, as well as why depression is associated with smoking cessation. Avoiding cigarettes -- and staying smoke free -- could help balance your brain chemicals.
  • Thyroid Disease
  • When the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone, it's known as hypothyroidism, and depression is one of its symptoms. This hormone is multifunctional, but one of its main tasks is to act as a neurotransmitter and regulate serotonin levels. If you experience new depression symptoms -- particularly along with cold sensitivity, constipation and fatigue -- a thyroid test couldn't hurt. Hypothyroidism is treatable with medication.
  • Poor Sleep Habits
  • It's no surprise that sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, but it could also increase the risk of depression. A 2007 study found that when healthy participants were deprived of sleep, they had greater brain activity after viewing upsetting images than their well-rested counterparts, which is similar to the reaction that depressed patients have, noted one of the study authors. "If you don't sleep, you don't have time to replenish [brain cells], the brain stops functioning well, and one of the many factors that could lead to is depression," says Matthew Edlund, M.D., director of the Center for Circadian Medicine, in Sarasota, Fla., and author of "The Power of Rest."
  • Facebook Overload
  • Spending too much time in chat rooms and on social-networking sites? A number of studies now suggest that this can be associated with depression, particularly in teens and preteens. Internet addicts may struggle with real-life human interaction and a lack of companionship, and they may have an unrealistic view of the world. Some experts even call it "Facebook depression." In a 2010 study, researchers found that about 1.2 percent of people ages 16 to 51 spent an inordinate amount of time online, and that they had a higher rate of moderate to severe depression. However, the researchers noted that it is not clear if Internet overuse leads to depression or if depressed people are more likely to use the Internet.
  • End Of A TV Show Or Movie
  • When something important comes to an end, like a TV show, movie, or a big home renovation, it can trigger depression in some people. In 2009, some "Avatar" fans reported feeling depressed and even suicidal because the movie's fictional world wasn't real. There was a similar reaction to the final installments of the Harry Potter movies. "People experience distress when they're watching primarily for companionship," said Emily Moyer-Gusé, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, in Columbus. With "Avatar," Moyer-Gusé suspects people were "swept up in a narrative forgetting about real life and [their] own problems."
  • Where You Live
  • You can endlessly debate whether city or country life is better. But research has found that people living in urban settings do have a 39 percent higher risk of mood disorders than those in rural regions. A 2011 study in the journal Nature offers an explanation for this trend: City dwellers have more activity in the part of the brain that regulates stress. And higher levels of stress could lead to psychotic disorders. Depression rates also vary by country and state. Some states have higher rates of depression and affluent nations having higher rates than low-income nations. Even altitude may play a role, with suicide risk going up with altitude.
  • Too Many Choices
  • The sheer number of options available -- whether it's face cream, breakfast cereal or appliances -- can be overwhelming. That's not a problem for shoppers who pick the first thing that meets their needs, according to some psychologists. However, some people respond to choice overload by maximizing, or exhaustively reviewing their options in the search for the very best item. Research suggests that this coping style is linked to perfectionism and depression.
  • Lack Of Fish In The Diet
  • Low intake of omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and vegetable oils, may be associated with a greater risk of depression. A 2004 Finnish study found an association between eating less fish and depression in women, but not in men. These fatty acids regulate neurotransmitters like serotonin, which could explain the link. Fish oil supplements may work too; at least one study found they helped depression in people with bipolar disorder.
  • Poor Sibling Relationships
  • Although unhappy relationships with anyone can cause depression, a 2007 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that men who didn't get along with their siblings before age 20 were more likely to be depressed later in life than those who did. Although it's not clear what's so significant about sibling relationships (the same wasn't true for relationships with parents), researchers suggest that they could help children develop the ability to relate with peers and socialize. Regardless of the reason, too much squabbling is associated with a greater risk of developing depression before age 50.
  • Birth Control Pills
  • Like any medication, the pill can have side effects. Oral contraceptives contain a synthetic version of progesterone, which studies suggest can lead to depression in some women. "The reason is still unknown," says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, in New York. "It doesn't happen to everyone, but if women have a history of depression or are prone to depression, they have an increased chance of experiencing depression symptoms while taking birth control pills," Dr. Hutcherson says. "Some women just can't take the pill; that's when we start looking into alternative contraception, like a diaphragm, which doesn't contain hormones."
  • Rx Medications
  • Depression is a side effect of many medications. For example, Accutane and its generic version (isotretinoin) are prescribed to clear up severe acne, but depression and suicidal thoughts are a potential risk for some people. Depression is a possible side effect for anxiety and insomnia drugs, including Valium and Xanax; Lopressor, prescribed to treat high blood pressure; cholesterol-lowering drugs including Lipitor; and Premarin for menopausal symptoms. Read the potential side effects when you take a new medication, and always check with your doctor to see if you might be at risk. More from Health.com: 10 Tips for Dating With Depression The Most Depressing States in the U.S. Depressing Jobs: Career Fields With Hight Rates of Depression