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How Depression Affects Your Body & Your Behaviour

Depression and The Body

Depression affects the body - it rapidly leads to dysregulation of our eating habits, sleep, and energy levels. We might not feel like eating, or we might overeat. Our sleep cycles can be disrupted. The bodily changes we experience in depression can in their turn have profound effects on how we feel and think about ourselves. If the changes in the body wind up activating old themes of how inadequate and worthless, we are, then even minor and temporary changes in the body can make our low mood deepen and persist.

Eighty percent of those who suffer from depression consult their doctor because of aches and pains in the body that they cannot explain. Much of this is linked to the tiredness and fatigue that come with depression. In general, when we encounter anything negative, the body tends to tense up. Our evolutionary history has bequeathed us a body that will prepare for action when it perceives a threat in the environment, such as a tiger, that we need to avoid or escape from. Our heart rate speeds up, our blood is shifted away from the surface of the skin and the digestive tract to the large muscles of the extremities, which tense up in readiness to fight or flee or freeze.

However, the most ancient parts of the brain make no distinction between the external threat of the tiger and internal “threats” such as worries about the future or memories from the past. When a negative thought or image arises in the mind, there will be a sense of contraction, tightening, or bracing in the bodysomewhere. It may be a frown, a stomach churning, a pallor in the skin, or a tension in the neck muscles or lower back - all part of a preparation to freeze, fight, or run.

Once the body reacts in this way to negative thoughts and images, it feeds back to the mind the information that we are threatened or upset. Research has shown that the state of our bodies affects the state of our minds without our having any awareness of it. In one study, psychologists asked people to watch cartoons and then rate how funny they were. Some of the people had to do this while holding a pencil between their teeth, so that they inadvertently tightened up the muscles used in smiling. Others had to hold a pencil between pursed lips, which prevented them from smiling. Those who watched using their smiling muscles rated the cartoons as funnier.

These and other similar experiments tell us that when we’re unhappy, the effect of that mood on our body can bias the way we evaluate and interpret things around us without our being even the slightest bit aware that this is happening. It’s not just that patterns of negative thinking can affect our moods and our bodies. Feedback loops in the other direction, from the body to the mind, also play a critical role in the persistent return and deepening of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

The close links between the body and emotion mean that our bodies function as highly sensitive emotion detectors. They are giving us moment-to-moment readouts of our emotional state. Of course, most of us aren’t paying attention. We’re too busy thinking.

Many of us have been brought up to ignore the body in the interest of achieving whatever goals we are striving to attain. In fact, if we struggle with depression, we may feel a strong aversion to any signals that our body may be putting out. Those signals may be a constant state of tension, exhaustion, and chaos in the body. We would prefer to have nothing to do with it in the hope that this interior turbulence will subside on its own.

Naturally, not wanting to deal with the aches, pains, and frowns means more avoidance and therefore more unconscious contraction in the body and the mind.

Gradually, we slow down and are less and less able to function. Depression has started to affect the fourth aspect of our lives: our behaviour.

Depression and Behaviour

When our mood begins to sink and we feel our energy is draining out of us, we may adopt a strategy of giving up our “unimportant” and “nonessential” leisure activities, which actually give us pleasure, such as seeing friends or just going out for fun. This strategy makes sense if we think we need to focus our dwindling energies (which we may see as a strictly limited fixed resource) on our more “important” and “essential” commitments and responsibilities. In giving up leisure activities that might have lifted our mood and extended rather than depleted our reserves of energy, we deprive ourselves of one of the simplest and most effective strategies for reversing a decline into depression.

This “giving up” is part of a process of drifting down a funnel of exhaustion. The funnel is created when the circles of our lives become smaller and smaller.

  • Sleep problems

  • Lack of energy

  • Aches and pains

  • Guilt

  • Joylessness

  • Depressed mood

  • Exhaustion

Those of us who continue downward are likely those who are the most conscientious workers, those whose level of self-confidence is closely dependent on their performance at work, rather than the lazy ones.

Depression makes us behave differently, and our behaviour can also feed depression.

Depression certainly affects the choices we make regarding what to do and not do, and how to act. If we’re convinced, we’re “no good” or unworthy, how likely are we to pursue the things that we value in life? And when we make choices informed by a depressive state of mind, they’re more than likely to keep us stuck in our unhappiness.

If we have been depressed before, a low mood can become easier and easier to trigger over time, because each time it returns, the thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and behaviours that accompany it form stronger and stronger connections to each other. Eventually, any one element can trigger depression by itself. A fleeting thought or failure can trigger a huge sense of fatigue. A small comment by a family member can trigger an avalanche of emotions such as guilt and regret, feeding a sense of inadequacy. Because these downward spirals are so easily triggered by small events or mood shifts, they feel as if they come out of nowhere.

*Artwork by Christian Schloe

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