You don’t have to look too far to realize that your mental health and your physical health are interconnected. When your mental health declines, your physical well-being can feel a deluge of ripple effects. In fact, depressive disorders and anxiety disorders can directly affect many aspects of your physical health from immune system function and weight fluctuations to poor sleeping habits and more. This is due to a variety of reasons including the debilitating symptoms of these conditions, deep connections between the mind and body, and many more. This makes it essential to recognize and address the physical impacts of these common mental health disorders.
Are you curious about the link between these mental health conditions and your physical well-being? We’re taking a deep dive into this topic area and will discuss a handful of effective ways that you can manage the negative health impacts of anxiety and/or depressive disorders.
Understanding Depressive Disorders
Depression is a complex mood disorder that directly affects approximately 280 million people worldwide. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, this condition is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in activities. It is a debilitating condition that directly affects how you think, how you feel, and how you behave, and it can lead to a multitude of emotional and physical problems. The exact symptoms of depression can vary drastically from person to person, but the most common symptoms of depression include:
- Changes in appetite
- Poor sleep patterns
- Feelings of worthless or guilt
- Low energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of motivation
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
There are various types of depressive disorders such as persistent depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder, and each type of depression has a unique set of symptoms. Genetic, environmental, and psychological factors have been shown to contribute to the development of depressive disorders.
Understanding Anxiety Disorders
In many ways, anxiety disorders overlap with depressive disorders and these conditions can coexist with depressive disorders. While anxiety is a common and natural emotional sensation that we all experience on a daily basis, anxiety disorders are far more pervasive and debilitating conditions in which feelings of anxiety are excessive and persistent. In fact, the symptoms of anxiety disorders can be so intense and recurring that they interfere with daily life and activities.
Similar to depression, the symptoms of anxiety disorders can vary from person to person and by the specific type of anxiety disorder. That said, anxiety disorders are commonly characterized by symptoms like:
- Chronic and disproportionate worry or nervousness
- Excessive sweating or trembling
- Having a persistent sense of impending danger
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty concentrating about anything other than the present worry
And just like with depression, there are many different anxiety disorder diagnoses such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and other phobias. Each anxiety disorder comes with a unique sub-set of symptoms and all of them can significantly impact a person’s quality of life and functioning.
How Exactly Can Depression and Anxiety Affect Physical Health?
Although depression and anxiety negatively affect your mental health, these disorders can also have ripple effects on your physical health too. Believe it or not, these emotional disorders can increase your risk of developing multiple physical health conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, and chronic pain.
These increased risks are mainly due to the many physical symptoms that occur with these conditions. For instance, depression and anxiety can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, which can reduce blood flow to the heart and your body may produce higher levels of cortisol. Over time, those types of symptoms can lead to heart disease. In addition, the increased risk of these diseases is also likely due to a combination of changes in your brain chemistry and your daily behaviors and habits.
While we’ve outlined many of the mental and emotional symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders, there are many physical symptoms that can occur as well. Just to name a few, depression and anxiety disorders can lead to physical problems such as:
- Chronic fatigue
- Changes in appetite
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Sleep disturbances (e.g., insomnia, sleeping too much, etc.)
- Unexplained back pains, headaches, and/or muscle pain
- Stomach issues and gastrointestinal problems
Not only do these physical symptoms make it more difficult to focus and navigate daily life, but they can further deteriorate your physical health too. Unfortunately, this can lead to a vicious cycle of recurring physical symptoms and worsening physical health.
We should also note that these conditions can weaken the immune system too. As we briefly mentioned earlier, anxiety and depression conditions often lead to increased levels of stress hormones in the body (e.g., cortisol, adrenaline, etc.). These stress hormones are beneficial for the average person in small doses, but when those increased levels are consistent, they can make you more susceptible to infections and diseases.
And it’s important to remember that the emotional symptoms of these conditions can lead to unhealthy behaviors and habits. With depressive disorders, for instance, you may completely lose all motivation to get out of bed and get active, which increases your risk of gaining weight and the likelihood of chronic pain.
Managing Symptoms of Depression & Anxiety to Improve Physical Health
The appropriate treatment for depression and/or anxiety disorders will vary from person to person. Some individuals may benefit greatly from traditional intervention techniques like talk therapy and counseling, while others may find more value in alternative therapies like neurofeedback. In many cases, it’s best to develop a treatment strategy that includes a combination of old and new techniques.
Improving the physical and mental symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders can sometimes feel like a game of trial-and-error. If you suffer from either or both of these conditions, then it’s best to explore multiple treatment options and therapies to determine what works best for your symptom relief needs.
At the very least, you can start managing your symptoms more effectively and explore ways to improve your physical health by following these key steps.
Identify Triggers for Symptoms & Stressors in Daily Life
Do your anxiety symptoms skyrocket in certain situations? Are there any specific triggers that can spark a depressive episode for you? When are your symptoms most intense in your daily life? To effectively mitigate any symptoms of depression or anxiety disorders, it’s important to determine the most common triggers and stressors of your mental health condition(s).
Triggers can vary from person to person because they depend on a person’s upbringing and a multitude of other factors. As such, it’s essential to individually identify each trigger. Once you have a good understanding of what triggers your symptoms the most, you’ll be able to spot a depressive episode or an anxiety attack from miles away and you can have action plans ready to go when symptoms strike.
Develop Coping Strategies to Address Symptoms
Before you can improve your physical health, you must focus on your mental health first. Again, everyone is different and the coping strategies that work well for others may not work well for you. Nevertheless, it’s worth trying out some of the following six coping techniques to effectively manage your symptoms:
- Mindfulness meditation: This is a powerful technique that involves staying focused on the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment. It can significantly reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance emotional stability. When you feel symptoms bubbling under the surface, take a few minutes for some mindful meditation.
- Deep breathing exercises: Simple, yet effective! Taking slow, deep breaths helps activate the body’s relaxation response, which helps decrease feelings of anxiety and increase one’s sense of calmness.
- Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and emotions in a journal can provide a healthy outlet for self-expression and reflection. We recommend taking 10 minutes each day to journal to get those thoughts on paper.
- Regularly engage in hobbies or creative outlets: Set aside time each week for activities that you enjoy like painting, playing a musical instrument, or gardening. Or take time to explore new hobbies that have always interested you! These hobbies can act as distractions and bring joy, easing the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Seek support from others: Connecting with trusted friends, family members, or support groups for even a few minutes each day can be invaluable as you navigate your mental health journey. Peer support provides validation, encouragement, and a sense of belonging, which can help through difficult times and alleviate symptoms.
- Practice self-care: It’s obviously important to get enough sleep and maintain a balanced diet. But, don’t forget about other self-care activities that you enjoy, like massage therapies, music sessions, or spa days. Those self-care activities can have a net positive impact on your overall mental health.
Seek Professional Help from a Mental Health Counselor
When you speak with a mental health professional, they can help you develop a better understanding of your diagnosis, talk through your issues in a safe space, and develop personalized treatment plans to help improve your symptoms. These professionals provide an invaluable service that can be a great support piece for your emotional condition(s).
Whether you participate in cognitive behavioral therapy or traditional counseling, those mental health interventions can dramatically improve your quality of life and provide resources and tools to effectively manage symptoms.
Find Ways to Increase Physical Activity for Improved Well-Being
We know that it can be challenging to get active and focus on your physical health when you are afflicted with depression or an anxiety disorder. These conditions can make it feel impossible to leave your home, get active, and stick to a consistent fitness routine. But if you strive to prioritize your mental health and follow through with the strategies outlined above, exercise will likely come more easily to you.
Physical exercise can provide dividends for your mental and physical health. When you exercise, “feel-good” hormones like dopamine are released into the brain, which can improve your mood and alleviate many symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders.
Ideally, you should aim for 2 and 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week. But, that is easier said than done. It’s okay if you don’t reach that goal each week; even a little bit of exercise is better than none at all.
If you can’t set aside time to get physically active and/or hit the gym a few times a week, there are many other ways that you can incorporate physical activity into your daily routines. For instance:
- Set daily micro-challenges for physical activities to maintain motivation (e.g., take the stairs instead of the elevator, do 2 minutes of lunges during lunch, park a few blocks away from your event to squeeze in some extra steps, etc.)
- Start and end each day with 10-15 minutes of active stretching
- Take a nature walk each week with a loved one to incorporate the great outdoors into your exercise regiment
- Try a new activity altogether like swimming, a workout with mobile fitness instructor, or a guided exercise class
- Ask your peers how they prioritize their physical health each day. It’s likely they’ll have plenty of tips and tricks to share with you
It’s clear that depression and anxiety have a significant impact on your physical health. From a weakened immune system to an increased risk of heart disease, these mental health conditions should not be taken lightly. It’s important to put your mental well-being first and seek help when needed.
Remember, you are not alone in this journey. Don’t let depression and anxiety stop you from living your best and healthiest life.
Author’s Byline: Nellia Melnyk is a researcher, and content creator who has a keen interest in neuroscience and psychology. She has developed an impressive collection of articles and blog posts focused on improving cognitive function, overcoming mental health issues, and enhancing overall brain health. Nellia is committed to helping individuals harness the power of their brains and live their best lives.