Though the hallmark symptoms of depression are emotional (such as feelings of sadness and hopelessness), depression may also come with physical symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea, pain, and weight changes. Too often, however, people simply dismiss these health issues or fail to seek proper treatment because they don’t realize what’s going on. “I’ve had folks who were referred to me by the ER because that’s where they went for their symptoms,” says Robin Haight, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in Vienna, Va.
Don’t ignore possible physical symptoms of depression: Pain and other changes in your health can actually be the first signs of depression, and knowing about possible physical effects of depression may help you get diagnosed and treated earlier. Do you have any of these warning signs?
Stomach problems are common in people with depression or anxiety, especially in children and adolescents. “Lots of kids have tummy problems and when you look into them, you find they’re often related to school anxiety or their peer relationships,” Haight says. Adults with depression also may have digestive issues, such as queasiness, nausea, and diarrhea. Some digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, colitis, or ulcers, can be worsened by stress and depression.
Headaches can have many causes, and sometimes they can be signs of depression. Headaches that are related to depression are usually dull and generalized. Also, people with depression often report their headaches are worse in the morning and in the evening. They are likely tension headaches, which occur when the muscles in your neck and scalp become tense or contract. “When people are depressed, they may be tensing this muscle group — not realizing it and creating a lot of head pain,” Haight says.
Trouble sleeping is one clue to diagnosing depression. People with depression can have difficulty falling asleep or they may wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. “Everyone has stress and can’t sleep now and then,” Haight says. “But if your problems sleeping go on for more than a few weeks, you need to start thinking about whether it’s an emotional difficulty that needs to be addressed.” About a third of people with depression may sleep much more than normal.
Back or muscle aches can be another physical sign of depression. “There’s a relationship between how well people take care of themselves and depression,” Haight says. “People with depression tend to exercise less and are less likely to focus on healthy eating. When you don’t treat your body in the most healthful ways, you may have more physical pain, possibly in your back and muscles or joints.” Also, if you’re already living with any kind of chronic pain, depression can make it worse.
Exhaustion And Fatigue
Exhaustion and fatigue or lack of energy are classic hallmarks of depression, Haight says. Depression and fatigue tend to feed off each other, so much so that in many people with depression, it’s hard to say what came first, their depression or their fatigue. When people treat their anxieties and depression, “it’s amazing how much more alive they feel and how much more energy they have,” Haight says.
Changes In Appetite
Are you eating too much and gaining weight? Or have you lost interest in food and are losing weight? Any change in appetite can be a sign of depression. “People often use food to deal with emotional stress and feelings of sadness,” Haight says. If your change in appetite lasts for more than a few weeks, talk to your doctor to find out if it’s related to depression or another medical problem — or both.
Change In Weight
Fluctuations in weight can be related to changes in your eating habits and activity level. “Sometimes people with depression sleep a lot — as much as 12 hours a day — and so they’re not as active,” Haight says. “Because they’re not as active, they may gain weight.” On the other hand, if your appetite has changed and you aren’t eating enough, you may experience weight loss. If you have unexplained weight loss or gain, talk to your doctor as it could be a sign of depression or another health condition.
If you experience chest pain, don’t delay seeking medical treatment. Chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack or other serious heart condition. However, chest pain also can be related to your emotional health. “Chest pain is often associated with panic attacks, which is an anxiety issue,” Haight says. “When people are having a panic attack, they can have heart palpitations and have difficulty breathing, just like they were having a heart attack.” If your doctor concludes that your chest pain is not indicative of a heart attack or other heart condition, ask whether it could be a sign of depression or anxiety.
Doctors tend to look for basic depression symptoms — sadness, crying, lack of energy or interest — when diagnosing depression. But if you have any of the physical symptoms described here that last for more than a few weeks and that can’t be explained by another health condition, talk to your doctor about whether your symptoms could have an emotional root. You should be able to find relief and treat your depression with a combination of talk therapy, lifestyle changes, and medication.