10 Ways Depression and Anxiety Can Cause Physical Pain

At some point in your life, I’m sure there’s been someone to whom you want to give the benefit of the doubt, but they just… can’t… seem… to help being jerks? Or maybe you’ve had a co-worker who you thought wasn’t so bad, only to have them stab you in the back, pull the rug out from under you, then shove you down a flight of stairs (figuratively, of course)?

That pretty much sums up my rocky relationship with depression and anxiety for 17 years. My first bout of clinical depression occurred at the age of 22 and seemed fairly textbook in terms of how depression is portrayed in popular culture. It began in response to several sad and stressful situations, it drained me of my energy and desire to socialize or do things I typically enjoyed. Once I realized what was going on, I made an appointment and began therapy. Pretty straightforward, right?

However, the next time depression came knocking, I didn’t recognize it and neither did any of the doctors I visited. I went through several electrocardiograms (EKGs), an echocardiogram (ultrasound of my heart), abdominal ultrasounds, diagnostic laparoscopic surgery of my abdomen, plenty of blood and urine tests and chiropractic adjustments. The results? Inconclusive.

After these tests and a few speculative diagnoses, it was finally an urgent care physician who assembled my myriad of symptoms into a clear picture: depression, yet again.

In case you had no idea that a mental illness could produce physical symptoms, here are 10 ways depression and anxiety can cause physical pain:

1. Oh, my gosh, why am I getting a headache nearly every day?

Everyone gets an occasional headache, but every day? Yeah, that’s a bit excessive. Doctors determined there were no apparent neurological or physical causes for the pain. They chalked it up to stress and said to come back if things worsened.

2. “Oh, my neck, my back, my neck and my back.”*

Sure, the sudden onset of debilitating back pain could be due to the “joys” of aging but when it resolved just as mysteriously as it began, I became suspicious.

3. Cramps? But, it’s not even “that time of the month” yet!

Similar to my mysterious back pain, I’ve had occasional abdominal pain. Now I know it’s due to constantly clenching my abdomen because of anxiety, I try to remind myself throughout the day to relax those muscles and breathe.

4. Do I have early-onset arthritis?

Man, my joints are killing me today. Sometimes when I’m particularly tired or stressed, I notice my joints are more achy than usual. Since I haven’t had any recent injuries and my doctor says my joints look good, this seemed like another symptom.

5. Uh, can I get a raincheck on going out?

They probably don’t need to know it’s because I want to stay as close as possible to a bathroom. After ruling out food sensitivities, I still regularly experienced digestive issues (e.g., diarrhea or constipation). That’s certainly no fun.

6. I know I said I wanted my heart to race, but this is ridiculous!

Heart palpitations due to moderate exertion were scary. But wait, there’s more…

7. Whoo, where’d all the oxygen in the room go?

Along with the palpitations, I also struggled to draw a full breath.

8. Are you hot? I’m hot. Is it hot in here?

I’m too young for menopause, so hot flashes in concert with the palpitations and difficulty breathing were very concerning.

9. Whoa! Why is the ground tilting so much?

Just for kicks, my body threw in occasional dizziness…

10. Uh oh, I think I’m going to be sick!

…and nausea. Fun times!

Thankfully, I never had more than one or two of these symptoms simultaneously, but it still seemed like my body was falling apart. To have all of these issues when I’m a fairly healthy 30-something was frightening. I didn’t want to worry those around me, so my typical response to how I was doing was, “I’m fine.” I was anything but fine, but most people don’t really want a laundry list of ailments when they ask it’s just polite small talk.

Emotional symptoms of depression tend to creep up on me; I often don’t realize I’ve been sliding down a slippery slope until I’m already in an emotional pit. But these physical symptoms especially when more than one pops up at the same time are much harder for me to ignore. I like to think of them as my mental illness early warning system.

Of course, if you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a physician ASAP. Once physical causes have been ruled out, it’s worthwhile to visit a psychiatrist or therapist and mention the symptoms.

* Gray, F. Gary, director. “Friday.” Performances by Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, New Line Cinema, 1995.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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