Can hurt feelings actually hurt?Research says yes. Here’s what you need to know about the physical effects of mental malaiseBy Margaret LittmanCTW FeaturesWhen I was in junior high, we watched a film in health class called “Cipher in the Snow” (BYU, 1973). The short flick was based on a true story about a kid who steps off the school bus and drops dead in a snow bank. In the movie folks discover that rather than having a heart attack or another physical illness, the boy had no friends, no support system and, literally, had died from loneliness.For more than two decades this 24-minute movie has stuck with me. From my teen years, it was a powerful reminder that the old “sticks and stones” expression may not be true. Words and other nonphysical thoughts and feelings can, indeed, break our bones. While people may use the expression “you hurt my feelings” from the time they are old enough to speak, few people think that kind of hurt can maim.Julie Totten wishes she had known about that kind of mind-body connection earlier. In 1990, Totten’s brother complained of not feeling well. He mentioned nonspecific ailments, such as headaches and stomachaches, but nothing that led her or anyone else to think there was a serious a problem. After he took his own life, Totten threw herself into research.“I felt like I could have saved him, but this was before all the ads and information about depression came out,” says Totten, who founded the Waltham, Mass.-based Families for Depression Awareness to help prevent other families from missing the signs. Armed with research on the link between physical pain and mental illness, Totten was able to help get her father treatment for depression that had previously been diagnosed.If you watch TV, you’ve heard these two words: Depression hurts. Commercials for the depression prescription medication Cymbalta draw the link between physical pain and mental illness, something Totten feels has helped her organization’s mission. Perhaps it should be no surprise that anger, shame and frustration, as well as sadness and depression can trigger physical symptoms. Most of us know anger and shame, from an insult or doing something embarrassing, can cause stomach pain, increased heart rate, sweating – all physical manifestations of what’s going on in our brains. Medical research suggests that depression is caused by an imbalance of two brain chemicals, serotonin and norepinephrine. If there’s a shortage or surplus of chemicals, it can impact the ways in which your body experiences physical sensations, such as pain. Cymbalta and Effexor are brand names for two selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors that may help moderate the chemical changes as well as the physical symptoms they cause.Venus Nicolino, Ph.D., a psychologist in Beverly Hills, agrees with Totten that the physical symptoms of depression are too often overlooked or misunderstood. Among the most frequent physical symptoms she sees are:
Headaches While headaches can be caused by everything from tumors to listening to your kid whine, they are fairly common among those with depression. Those with migraine headaches may experience them with increased frequency or intensity.
Back painOne of the great mystery symptoms in medicine, the causes of back pain are often difficult to nail down. But it is another existing symptom that can be aggravated with depression.
Chest pain Obviously, it’s very important to get chest pain checked out by an expert right away. It can be a sign of serious heart problems. But chest pain also is associated with depression, panic and anxiety.
Digestive problems Queasiness or feeling nauseous, having diarrhea or chronic constipation can be related to illness, ranging from eating too many onion rings to ulcers. Ninety-five percent of serotonin is in the digestive tract, so it is no surprise that changing serotonin levels can cause irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive ailments.
Exhaustion and fatigueNo matter how much they sleep, many people with depression still feel tired and may have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.
Dizziness or light-headedness Marcia Reynolds, author of “Outsmart Your Brain” (Covisioning, 2003) believes the body is “only designed to handle spurts of stress.” Mental illness, be it depression or anxiety, can place ongoing stress that can lead to physical symptoms. Biofeedback, yoga and other techniques may help control the mind-body connection, but as Totten learned and “Cipher in the Snow” taught, sometimes professional medical treatment is needed for both the cause and the symptoms.
It isn’t all in your headIf you have the onset of physical symptoms and cannot pinpoint the cause, talk to your doctor about whether or not they can be triggered by mental ailments. Remember, just because a physical symptom is caused by a mental illness, it doesn’t mean it is all in your head. These are real, physical symptoms that may require real, physical treatment. For more information, consult these Web sites:Depression Hurts www.depressionhurts.com Families for Depression Awareness www.familyaware.org Effexor XR www.effexorxr.com National Institute of Mental Healthwww.nimh.nih.gov