Depression is a common condition that affects millions of people each year. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, depression affects 264 million people worldwide. It’s a leading cause of disability, impacting many — physically, mentally, and economically. It is (somewhat) biased. Depression is more prevalent in women than in men, and depression can lead to suicide — or, at the very least, depression may cause someone to make an attempt.
I would know; I am one of many. I live with bipolar disorder and depressive disorder and have survived suicide twice. And yet, despite its prevalence, there are many aspects of depression that are misconstrued and understood. Depression isn’t just an emotion or “feeling.” There are very real physical manifestations and health consequences of suffering from depression, and they can be debilitating.
“Although depression is a mental illness, it can also cause physical symptoms,” Nancy Schimelpfening, a writer and administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary, tells Verywell Mind. These can include “pain, stomach upset, fatigue, and restlessness.”
Here are just a few of the ways depression can manifest in the body.
Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
While many inaccurately believe those with depression are lazy — i.e. we rest all day and sleep excessively — sometimes depression keeps us up. Insomnia is a common symptom of depression. And while the reason varies — when I’m depressed, I have a hard time silencing the negative thoughts; a tape plays on a loop, and this keeps me awake — sleep disturbances can go either way. People suffering from depression often sleep too much, but it’s just as likely they’ll have trouble getting to sleep or staying sleep, or they sleep may be restless and fitful.
One of the things I struggle with most is depression-induced fatigue. When I am in a lull, for example, my energy flatlines. I have a hard time standing up and staying up. Getting out of bed is a real chore. I also have difficulty staying awake, despite ingesting numerous cups of coffee. And it turns out I am not alone. Fatigue is one of the most commonly experienced physical symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, it also is very difficult to treat. A 2010 study found that even when taking an antidepressant, 80% of people suffering from major depression were still experiencing fatigue.
Another physical symptom of depression is brain fog, or cognitive dysfunction. “When it [brain fog] occurs in depression… it can alter your ability to function daily,” Healthline explains. But what does brain fog really feel like? Well, it feels like you’re chasing a word — one that’s just on the tip of your tongue. You know it. You’ve heard it, but the longer you think about it, the harder it becomes to place.
Back and body pain
Have you ever experienced tension in your neck or shoulder, particularly when you’re stressed? Does your back lock up and/or do your muscles ache? If so, you understand what it’s like to experience emotionally-induced pain. Stress can cause your muscles to tense or spasm, which increases pain. And the same is true of depression. A 2017 research study found a direct link between depression and backaches and pains.
Most people experience headaches. From sinus pain to tension, headaches are actually quite common. But did you know depression can cause headaches? Research has shown a strong link between head discomfort and pain and mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. That said, if you get depression-induced headaches: Fear not. They can be treated. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or other over-the-counter medications usually do the trick.
One of the more surprising symptoms of depression is blurry vision. After all, we know depression can alter the way you see the world — figuratively speaking — but visual changes are rarely tied to it. However, a 2013 study found that depression may actually affect one’s eyesight. It can cause the world to appear fuzzy and hazy, or blurry. Depression was also linked to vision loss.
From aches and “flips” to knots and spins, many experience stomach-related discomfort during a depressive episode. I do. In fact, gastrointestinal changes are something of a mood shift marker for me. But what’s the link between your stomach and sadness? How does your mental health impact your intestinal tract? According to researchers at the Harvard Medical School, depression can cause (or be a result of) an inflamed digestive system.
“The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines,” a 2021 article explains. “For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.”
Depression is hard enough on the mind, but people often forget that it’s hard on the body too. Just another reason to take good care of your mental health — your physical health depends on it.