It’s Not All in Your Head: When Depression Gets Physical

“It’s all in your head.”

We’ve heard that before. People say this to invalidating someone else’s mental health challenges. Problems in the brain cause mental illnesses, but that doesn’t make them any less real. It would be like saying that lung cancer is “all in your lungs” and therefore nothing to be concerned about. This saying also erases the fact that depression is a health problem that can, and often does, have physical symptoms.



physical symptoms of depression

Physical Symptoms of Depression

These symptoms include chronic joint pain, limb pain, back pain, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and migraines. For the complete list, click here. According to the World Health Organization, 69% of people who saw a doctor for these symptoms were diagnosed with some form of depression. It is possible for someone to experience only physical symptoms, without any signs of the more common mood-related symptoms of depression. For people who have multiple physical symptoms without physical explanation, it is more likely that they have an underlying mood disorder.

Causes and treatment

Neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine moderate both depression and physical pain. An imbalance of neurotransmitters causes depression; this imbalance can also effect the neural pathways that control pain in the body. However, just because this pain is “in your head” doesn’t mean that it isn’t something to worry about. Pain is pain, and if you are in pain then it is important to see your doctor. You should always take physical symptoms seriously no matter  the underlying cause. Antidepressants are a common treatment to balance your neurotransmitter levels. You can take them in combination with other treatments if that is what your doctor suggests. If you are looking to explore treatment options, check out our Resources page to get started.

In the meantime, make sure to be nice to yourself and practice self care. For more information, see our series about self care starting with Part 1, and read more about symptoms of depression here.

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