Depression is the chief cause of temporary or permanent disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. In addition to negatively impacting the global workforce by increasing absenteeism, depression also affects work performance. When someone is depressed, they have difficulty concentrating on tasks, lack the motivation and energy to complete tasks properly, and may even present a danger to themselves or others due to their inability to focus on their surroundings.
Everyone knows the fundamental cognitive and emotional symptoms of depression, but the physical signs of depression may be overlooked or missed by doctors and individuals seeking help for depression. There is also the diagnostic dilemma of determining whether depression is causing a person’s health issues or if chronic medical disorders are causing depression.
Common Physical Symptoms of Depression
The Stress-Cortisol Connection
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. In addition to helping your brain and body respond to stress, cortisol also plays a key role in regulating blood pressure, metabolizing glucose for energy, and releasing insulin. When you are confronted by a stressful situation, cortisol increases your mental acuity and redirects blood flow from your primary organs to your muscles for strength.
Once you are no longer under stress, the adrenal glands stop making extra cortisol. While cortisol can help you react in situations that threaten your survival, it has negative effects on your physical and mental health if the adrenal glands keep pumping out excess cortisol.
In some ways, cortisol acts like a stimulant by keeping your cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems working overtime. Feeling constantly stressed means your body cannot return to “homeostasis” or a normal state of stability. This forces your heart, brain, lungs, and other major organs to function at an abnormally accelerated pace without rest. This type of chronic stress is associated with many mental and physical health issues, including major depression.
10 Physical Signs of Depression
Within six months of becoming moderately or severely depressed, people frequently report the following:
- Muscle tension/muscle cramping/muscle soreness
- Joint and back pain arising from constant muscle tension
- Weight gain from overeating comfort foods like cookies, chips, and ice cream.
- Headaches and migraines
- Diarrhea or constipation/abdominal soreness/stomach cramps
- Overwhelming fatigue/sleeping more than 12 hours a day
- Inability to sleep/daytime fatigue
- Brain fog/difficulty concentrating/feeling slightly disoriented at times
- Development of autoimmune disorders, such as psoriasis or thyroiditis
- Acid reflux/indigestion/ulcers
Research suggests that depression and elevated levels of cortisol enhance a person’s sensitivity to pain. This heightened awareness of pain not only contributes to the worsening of depression but may inadvertently result in a person being prescribed medications for a health problem that doesn’t really exist.
The Impact of Physical Symptoms of Depression on Daily Life
Depressed individuals often cannot focus on anything except how they feel–sad, hopeless, and inconsolable. Being so consumed by depression may affect their ability to work and take proper care of themselves. They may stop bathing or changing their clothes, cooking meals, or even getting out of bed or off the couch.
In addition, the combination of cortisol, depression symptoms, and an imbalance of brain neurotransmitters makes it nearly impossible for someone with depression to accurately perceive the world. For example, time seems to crawl by, other people’s words and actions come across as hostile, and food has little to no taste.
Loss of Employment
Feeling ill and in pain is a common cause of depressed employees taking short-term disability absences from work. Over 75 percent of disability absences involve women. One study found that depression accounted for more than 50 percent of a company’s medical plan funds paid to treat depressive disorders. This was nearly the same amount of medical plan funds used to pay for heart disease treatment.
When to Seek Professional Help for Depression
The toll that depression takes on the brain and body can be devastating. Unless someone with depression seeks professional help, it is nearly impossible to manage the physical symptoms of depression.
Depression treatment can involve cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management counseling, and medication such as antidepressants. During treatment for depression, patients may also be prescribed medications to relieve physical symptoms such as muscle tension, insomnia, back pain, headaches, and acid reflux, if necessary. Once the source of depression is clear and can be addressed with therapy, physical symptoms typically reduce in severity or may disappear altogether.