How Anxiety and Depression Can Take Years Off Your Life

Sickness can lead to poor mental health, yes. But the opposite is also true.

A stick figure surrounded by stressful newspaper clippings.
The body doesn't care whether pain originates from mental or physical stress. The pain is the same.
zimmytws/Getty Images

If you take a moment and think about it, the relationship between mental pain and physical pain has always been pretty obvious. When we’re anxious or depressed, those feelings manifest in tangible symptoms throughout the body. Think: headaches, queasy stomachs, pains in the chest, trouble sleeping.

But while these prodromes prove debilitating, we often either fail to associate them with our mental stress or assume that we can “beat” them — with the passage of time, by ignoring them, or (far too often) through drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

Research conducted by Dr. David Spiegel at the Stanford University School of Medicine suggests we should take a different approach. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Spiegel explains that whether bodily pain stems from physical trauma (an illness like diabetes) or mental trauma (an illness like depression) is irrelevant. “The brain is intimately connected to the body and the body to the brain,” he says. ““The body tends to react to mental stress as if it was a physical stress.”

How might the body react? Well, mental illnesses can actually lead to physical illnesses. Anxiety and depression have been linked to a host of troubles, including: asthma, eyesight problems, hypertension, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, and persistent cough.

This is a pressing issue for those who suffer from anxiety, especially — about 40 million Americans aged 18 and older — and the pandemic has only escalated the problem. When the body is overcome with anxiety, it can send the sympathetic nervous system into unnecessary overdrive. In prehistoric times, humans would use that rush of cortisol to catch food or escape a predator. These days, when activated in response to stressful Zooms, piling bills and a bad news cycle, it isn’t doing the body any favors.

There are other situations in which the interplay between mental stress and physical maladies are concerning. Someone with diabetes and depression, for instance, may see his diabetes get even worse. His sense of hopelessness may make it harder for him to eat healthy or exercise regularly. Plus, anxiety and depression can actually elevate one’s perception of pain (people with injuries or arthritis atop mental stress will experience more pain), while even creating pain (as coping skills and rational parts of the brain are disrupted, it’s possible for mysterious aches to pop up in the core, the joints, the neck and the back).

What can you do? Treat your mental trauma with professional attention, the same way you would a broken arm or an infection. The stigma is still there, unfortunately. We understand that. But pursuing treatment for your brain today — through medications, cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy — could help prevent needing treatment for your body down the line.

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