When we think of anxiety and depression, we typically think about the psychological symptoms. Symptoms most often associated with depression include sadness, loss of motivation, irritability, disturbed sleep, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, and persistent thoughts of suicide and death. Anxiety is characterized by worries about the future, worries about social situations, intrusive thoughts, rumination, and disturbed sleep. All of these symptoms are bad enough in themselves. They can make you miserable and severely disrupt your life. However, if left untreated, they can also damage your health. Here’s how.
Weakened immune system
Both anxiety and depression are forms of chronic stress, which can impair your immune system. When you feel threatened, your sympathetic nervous system or your “fight or flight” response is activated. This has two consequences that are immediately relevant to your immune system. First, as long as you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your body doesn’t want to use resources to fight infections or heal injuries. It’s getting signals that there are more urgent matters and it needs every available resource to deal with the emergency. When you have depression or anxiety, pretty much everything feels like an emergency, so your immune system is usually offline. Second, when you’re threatened, your body anticipates that it might have to fight an infection from an injury in the near future, so it gets ready. We experience this as inflammation and recent studies suggest that it’s a major factor in depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, it also plays a role in health problems such as heart disease and autoimmune disorders.
Digestive problems such as stomach cramps, nausea, and diarrhea are common symptoms of anxiety and depression. Anyone who has ever been nervous before a competition or a date knows the feeling of butterflies in the stomach. Typically, these pass without causing too much trouble, but if you have depression or anxiety, they may occur frequently and with no apparent cause. Nausea is especially common in people with anxiety disorders.
Various aches are common in people with anxiety and depression. People with anxiety disorders may experience more headaches as a result of persistent muscle tension. Headaches are a common symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. People with depression often experience physical aches with no apparent cause. The reason appears to be that low serotonin, which is thought to contribute to the bad moods associated with depression, is also involved in how we experience pain. People with depression often have aches in their limbs, back, and chest. Sometimes these pains are what lead to a diagnosis of depression. This is especially true in men, who are less likely to seek help for depression but may go to the doctor about chest pain.
Fatigue is a common symptom of both anxiety and depression. People with anxiety are often perpetually tense, which can be exhausting. Even constant worrying without the physical tension that typically goes along with it can be tiring, as you constantly feel like you are preparing to face a threat. People with depression also frequently feel fatigued. The inflammation associated with depression causes a reaction very similar to a cold or flu, and just like when you have a cold or flu, your body wants to preserve resources to fight the infection. As a result, you have very little energy for doing other things, and may not even be able to get out of bed. This fatigue also has secondary effects that may lead to worse health outcomes. For example, if you’re too exhausted to exercise or prepare healthy food, you are less likely to be healthy overall.
Both anxiety and depression can keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. It’s hard to sleep when you are constantly worried about potential problems. And while depression is often associated with sleeping too much, it’s actually more likely to cause insomnia, especially during the early morning hours. This is thought to be caused by a weak circadian rhythm. Insomnia is miserable in itself, but it can also lead to other problems. Studies have found that lack of sleep significantly increases your feelings of anxiety. Sleep is also the time when your body fights infections and repairs injuries, so lack of sleep due to depression or anxiety can harm your health.
Both anxiety and depression increase your risk of heart disease. Anxiety puts extra strain on the heart by increasing heart rate and blood pressure. Depression has found to be strongly associated with heart disease too. About twenty percent of people who have heart attacks are found to have depression and people with depression are also at higher risk for heart attack. Depression may lead to heart disease in several ways. People with depression often experience a high level of stress, which may increase levels of hormones like cortisol and put strain on the cardiovascular system. It’s also likely that the fatigue and lack of motivation make it harder to live a healthy lifestyle as noted above. People with depression who are already at risk for heart disease may find it very hard to summon the motivation to comply with their doctors’ recommendations for reducing their risk.
Both anxiety and depression can have a major impact on your weight, but it might be hard to predict exactly what that impact is. Since anxiety commonly leads to digestive problems, someone with an anxiety disorder might lose her appetite or severely restrict her diet in order to avoid nausea or diarrhea. On the other hand, some people find that indulging in food temporarily relieves their anxiety and might end up gaining weight quickly. Similarly, depression can cause either weight loss or weight gain. Weight loss is more common, as loss of appetite is a typical symptom of depression. Just as you lose your appetite when you’re sick in order to preserve energy to fight the infection, you often lose your appetite when depressed because your body thinks you’re sick. On the other hand, some depressed people cope by eating. Eating too much and too little are both bad for your health. The former can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes, while the latter can lead to malnutrition, and possibly eating disorders.
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