The Costs and Blessings of Depression: Physical Effects

Depression not only affects the mind, it affects the body, too. Before I was diagnosed with clinical depression I was beset with headaches. After going to the doctor I learned I was having cluster headaches. Little did I know, and the doctor did not tell me, that cluster headaches are a symptom of depression and stress.

About four months later I started having severe intestinal pain. I was in and out of the hospital for an ultrasound to look at the gallbladder, then for an endoscopy, later a colonoscopy. Nothing! After doing some research, I suggested to the doctor that I had IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and he agreed. Again, no one told me IBS is a sign of depression and stress. Only later did I find out “depression can cause headaches, chronic body aches, and pain that may not respond to medication.”

A study by Harvard Medical School concluded, “Pain is depressing, and depression causes and intensifies pain.” For a year I experienced excruciating pain daily without relief. My doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist who then placed me in a clinical trial. I was told this new drug was “the best thing since toilet paper” for IBS. It had no effect. Finally, the gastroenterologist sent me to another gastroenterologist who was reportedly the best in the state.

Within a couple of days I was in the new doctor’s office. His first words to me were that someone must have pulled some strings to get me in to see him so soon. He told me he had seen worse, which was of very little comfort to me. I was praying to die because I could not bear the pain and my dear parents thought I was dying. He prescribed me a medication and dismissed me back to my family doctor.

The pain went away. If I was ever lost on a deserted island, I decided, this medication had to be there, too. But, after the headaches were gone and after the IBS was under control, I was left with my deep, deep depression. No one had to diagnose me with depression; it was all over me from the core of my very being to all the things that I touched. The emotional pain was greater than the physical.

Depression has physical side-effects. They include insomnia or hypersomnia. I have had both. Hypersomnia affected my relationships and my work. Insomnia affected my sanity. The appetite can change. A doctor warned me of my weight gain, I told her that food was my only friend. After several years of depression I was 112 lbs. overweight. My last episode of severe depression my appetite vanished and I lost 80 lbs.

Constant fatigue, loss of energy, and persistent lethargy can dog the person with depression. In the throes of my first clinical episode my family wanted me to go Christmas shopping with them. I did not make it through J.C. Penny before all my energy was gone. I spent the shopping day sitting on a couch in the common area of the mall. Two hours of physical activity is about all I can take these days.

Depression affects memory, concentration, and decision making. I definitely experienced short-term memory loss. Muscle aches, arthritis, headaches, migraines, back pain, complications to and/or worsening of other illnesses can all be symptoms of or the result of depression. “It is easy to dismiss these symptoms as stemming from another condition, but they are often because of depression.” It is reported that two out of three people with depression will report an increase in aches and pains. Depression can suppress the immune system. It has been linked to heart disease. “Sixty-six percent of suicides are depression related.”

“Where are the blessings?” you may ask. The weight loss is a blessing. Depression is not the preferred method to reduce body mass, but I have maintained for nearly two years now. Eight inches from around the waist and two inches from the neck are gone. As I shed the pounds, I also decided to eat healthier. I feel and look much better.

Another blessing came as I learned to listen to my body. It is my warning whistle. If my sleep is too much or too little, or I start to have back problems, or my IBS flares, I know depression is at the door. My body faithfully tells me if I am slipping into another severe depressive episode. It is as though my body and I have joined together to keep me healthier and free from the dark dungeon of depression.

Finally, I learned compassion and empathy for those with severe mental and physical illnesses. While visiting a quadriplegic man in the hospital I sensed that he was despairing and asked to kiss him on the forehead. After we prayed he told me that I was one of the most compassionate men he had ever met. As I was walking out of the hospital, I breathed a prayer of thanksgiving to our LORD for allowing me to genuinely touch the soul of another hurting person.