Fieldwork Counselling

How Anxiety and Depression Show Up In Our Bodies

Have you ever heard of this idea before? If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. I’m not going to quote anyone here because the source of the quote seems to be the source of some controversy, but for anyone who has lived with anxiety and depression, it probably rings true.

Anxiety can leave us feeling restful, agitated, irritable, in a constant state of worry, and perpetually tired if the thoughts of the future are keeping us up at night. Depression can zap us of all of our vitality—feeling hopeless, uninterested, worthless, guilty, and lost in the ways we could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve done things differently. 

For many of us who live in cultures where mental illness is becoming more readily talked about—the appearance of these symptoms is often not hard to spot. Common symptoms of anxiety and depression are frequently recognized, regardless of whether or not a psychiatrist or medical professional has diagnosed us.

Understanding these two common mental health disorders can give us language to understand painful and complicated human experiences, and remind us we are not alone in our suffering. 

Anxiety and depression and somatic symptoms

Though many of the symptoms of anxiety and depression are ones that we can recognize in our thoughts and ways of thinking, there are many symptoms that show up in the body. These are referred to as somatic symptoms, somatic meaning, “relating to the body.” 

The thing is, if we show up to a medical professional with sleep problems, uncontrollable worry, and difficulty concentrating, anxiety will most likely be explored as a potential diagnoses. Anxiety is the explanation for our suffering.

What about when are symptoms are physiological? I don’t know about you, but if I am experiencing bodily symptoms I often want an explanation of the body. As frustrating as this may be, it just might not be possible given that:

“About 1/3 of all somatic symptoms reported in primary care remain pathophysiologically unexplainable.”

This means that if it is our somatic symptoms that bring us to seek medical help, the explanation might not be as straightforward or possible. Researchers looked at the association between anxiety/depression disorders and single somatic symptoms to help deepen the understanding and connection between the two.

What are some of the somatic symptoms associated with anxiety and depression?

Below is a list of some of the somatic symptoms studied by researchers in an article called, “Somatic symptoms of anxiety and depression: A population-based study:”

  • Feeling tired or having low energy
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea, gas or indigestion
  • Headaches
  • Constipation, loose bowels, or diarrhea

What did researchers find? Well, for one, all of the symptoms listed above were associated with risk for anxiety and depression disorder. 

The symptoms of feeling tired/having low energy, trouble sleeping, stomach pain, and nausea/gas/indigestion are particularly strong indicators for being at risk for anxiety and depression disorder. Headaches were an indicator for anxiety, and constipation/loose bowels/diarrhea an indicator for depression. 

As the number of these symptoms increases, the risk for anxiety and depression also increases. This means that even though the above symptoms might not have a pathophysiological explanation, anxiety and depression might be explanations that fit. 

The mind-body connection

The idea of the mind and body being connected is not a new one. It is, however, sometimes hard to grasp. When we feel symptoms in our body—it can be easy to assume that there must be something wrong with our body. 

Perhaps it is not all that different then when we notice uncomfortable symptoms arising in our minds—we assume there must be something wrong with our minds. Since the mind is less easily separated from who we are as people, this can often mean that we assume there is something wrong with us.

These feelings like something is wrong—whether it be with our minds or our bodies—can only pile onto the struggle. It can leave us feeling deficient, frustrated, and at war with ourselves.

I will leave you with this quote from Gabor Maté from his booked “When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Street,” as an alternative way of thinking:

“Learn to read symptoms not only as problems to be overcome but as messages to be heeded.”

Gabor Maté