Depression Can Affect You Physically

We usually think of depression as a mental illness, but the symptoms don’t stop there


Most of us are familiar with the typical symptoms of depression—fatigue, irritability, and a deep feeling of sadness.

But did you know that depression can manifest itself physically as well? In fact, some physical symptoms associated with depression are so integral to the disorder that they are part of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis.

Here are six symptoms to look for:

  1. Aches and pains. That chronic back pain isn’t in your head—but it could be connected. According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, “Physical symptoms are common in depression, and, in fact, vague aches and pain are often the presenting symptoms of depression.”

    This is because serotonin and norepinephrine—the neurotransmitters that influence mood—also influence pain. If you see your doctor for physical pain and he or she doesn’t find a physical cause, check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling emotionally. It could be a sign of depression.

  2. Sleep disturbances. Sometimes, when you wake up in the middle of the night, it doesn’t matter how many sheep you count, there’s just no going back to sleep. Interrupted sleep is a common sign of depression. You also may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or have trouble staying awake.

    Unfortunately, lack of sleep actually contributes to depression, so it’s a vicious cycle. If you’re experiencing insomnia or middle-of-the-night awakenings (or other sleep concerns), talk with your doctor about options like sleeping aids or even guided imagery recordings. The National Sleep Foundation also offers these tips
  • Keep a regular sleep/wake schedule.
  • Get some form of exercise every day.
  • Avoid afternoon naps if you’re struggling with insomnia.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol.
  1. Headaches. There are few things as bad as a blinding headache popping up and bringing your day to a halt. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, as many as 40 percent of patients who have migraines also suffer from depression.

    Depression can cause you to tense muscles in your neck and back without realizing it, which can result in sometimes excruciating tension headaches. If over-the-counter medications don’t help, try a relaxing bath, a quiet rest in a dark room, or meditation.

  2. Exhaustion. For someone with clinical depression, just getting out of bed in the morning can feel impossible. The fatigue can feel crushing.

    Many describe this fatigue as “the feeling of having a wet blanket thrown over them, requiring much more effort to complete basic activities such as getting out of bed or walking across the room.” If you find yourself constantly drained, share this with your doctor and consider being screened for depression.

  3. Changes in appetite. It’s more common for people to lose interest in eating when feeling depressed, but others—with what’s called atypical depression—can experience increased hunger or desire to eat. If you experience a sudden change in your appetite, let your doctor know.
  4. Tummy trouble. Feeling nauseated before a presentation. Getting butterflies before a big date. Our stomach can tell us a lot about how we’re feeling. When someone is depressed, they may experience digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, or even persistent nausea.

If you are dealing with these physical conditions, make sure to mention them to your doctor, and consider asking him or her to screen you for depression. There is no substitute for a professional assessment. It is important to seek the care of a medical or mental health professional if you notice a pattern of these symptoms. 

For more information on mental health and available services, call the 24-hour, toll-free, confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to