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No, depression is not all in your head


Susan cringes visibly when remembering a conversation with her new sister-in-law, Debbie, ten years ago.

Recently diagnosed with epilepsy and diabetes, Susan was in an emotional spiral, and couldn’t shake her constant sadness.

“I was in a haze for most of that year, even though most of my family rallied around me and supported me through appointments and medical bills and new ways to live and eat and survive and basically think,” she remembers. “But I was definitely changed… if I look back, was I grumpy and miserable a lot? Did I think everything and everyone was out for me? Yeah, I did.”

One evening after a family dinner, Susan overheard Debbie in the hallway talking on the phone.

“I’m still not sure who she was talking to, but I heard her say my name, so I stopped,” says Susan. “Then I heard, ‘She’s so dramatic. It’s all in her head. I don’t know why she’s so (expletive) miserable.”

Susan was crushed.

Unfortunately, despite rising support for mental health and awareness about mental illness, there are still so many who don’t understand depression – a clinically proven disorder that is marked by emotional pain which includes crying, hopelessness, insomnia, restlessness, misery, and a host of other negative symptoms. Although there’s growing conversation around mental illness, many people still don’t recognize it or understand it when they see signs of it in others.

But here’s the twist: Susan believed her sister-in-law.

“I really did think she was right for a long time,” says Susan. “I thought, you know, millions of people have all kinds of disorders and illnesses, even terminal… like who was I to think I was in such pain? I tried to convince myself for a long time that it wasn’t real.”

The fact is, many of us do dismiss depression, whether it’s happening to us or not. Physical pain, because it can be explained or viewed, is so often taken more seriously than mental or emotional pain. But here’s the thing: for so many, physical pain manifests as a result of or an extension of emotional pain. It’s important not to dismiss any symptoms of depression, because all of it can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing, especially when left untreated for any period of time.

Here are some physical symptoms you may experience (and yes, a headache is one of them):

Lower tolerance for pain. It could be that a paper cut feels like a knife has sliced straight across your skin; it could be that what you might have considered a minor stomachache once upon a time now feels like a death sentence.

Studies have shown that people who are experiencing depression also feel significantly decreased pain tolerance levels, and that depressed people who experience pain are much more impacted than those who are otherwise happy. It isn’t necessarily that the pain causes the depression, but that depression can cause much more pain. In some cases, medication is prescribed to alleviate the physical and emotional symptoms.

Headaches. You can get a headache after a disappointment. You can get a headache looking at the computer too long. You can get a headache after eating the wrong foods. Headaches are so common they’re often dismissed as just something everyone experiences.

But if you’re depressed, you could be experiencing headaches much more frequently or much more severely than others.

Depression-related headaches don’t usually cause us to lose function like migraines can; they usually feel more like throbbing tension headaches that just don’t want to go away. Even mild, they’re irritating, which could increase your sadness and decrease your energy levels.

Stomach pain. You’ve likely experienced that “sinking feeling,” or the “pit at the bottom of your stomach.” It might be mildly uncomfortable, brought on by stress, or it could be full out constipation or diarrhea.

When stomach pain increases in frequency or severity, like headaches, it could be a sign you’re dealing with depression. There have been published studies that have found inflammation in the digestive system is caused by depression, thanks to the fact that the stomach is considered the body’s second brain. When your mind feels it, so does your belly. Anxiety, sadness and irritability can do a number on our guts.

Aching, tired muscles. Do you get back pain? Do your knees feel week? Do you just feel achy all over?

Again, it can be another sign of depression. Emotional stress can certainly cause chronic pain, even though studies are still being conducted on their connection.

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