- Teenagers are often still learning to identify and regulate their emotions, but they may notice that they don't feel well physically.
- For young people, feeling sad, down, or hopeless exacerbates physical symptoms, and vice versa, according to research.
- As people become more sad or depressed, they are more likely to engage in negative thinking habits that reinforce physical symptoms.
- For many adolescents and young adults, this cycle occurs without their awareness. Addressing the underlying emotional symptoms can help.
“I just don’t feel good.”
It’s a common parent observation. Your child complains of a headache, stomachache, and that nonspecific “I just don’t feel good” at the most inconvenient times — finals week, opening night of the school musical, or just before the big game. Especially for teens and young adults who are still developing their capacity for emotional identification and regulation, they may not be able to identify the feelings associated with stressful situations. Youth may not be able to say “I feel sad” or “I feel anxious,” but instead notice that their head hurts, their neck aches, or their stomach is all topsy-turvy.
The link between emotional distress and physical symptoms.
What is the relationship between stress, mood, and physical symptoms? Researchers have long been interested in the mind-body connection. A study I co-authored along with Kaitlin Harding and Karly Murphy has attempted to understand how the emotional and physical are related.
In particular, the research examined whether how we think influences how we feel, and if our thinking patterns could help explain why mood and physical health are so intertwined. In this study of 321 older adolescents and young adults (ages 18-24), the research team examined how depressed mood and physical symptoms (headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, muscle tension) mutually reinforce each other.
The study yielded two interesting findings:
- As depression symptoms went up, so did physical symptoms. And vice versa! Participants reported a mutually reciprocal relationship between mood and physical health, such that as they felt more sad, down, or hopeless, they also experienced more physical symptoms. And the reverse was true as well – as they experienced more physical symptoms, their mood became more sad and depressed. This downward mood-health cycle increases both negative feelings and physical symptoms.
- The link between mood and physical health was thinking patterns. As individuals became more sad or depressed, they were more likely to engage in negative thinking habits. Specifically, as mood became more depressed, participants reported more dampening (discounting positive events and feelings) and more brooding (focusing on negative events and feelings). More dampening and brooding predicted more focusing on physical symptoms, which increased those symptoms. This makes sense – if we focus on that twinge of a headache, we direct attention to it and it magnifies into a full-blown headache; if we start to wonder or worry if our stomach will feel nauseous or uneasy, then we think about it to the point it starts to feel bad. Not surprisingly, as stated above, as participants felt worse physically, they felt worse emotionally. And so the downward mood-health cycle continued.
Young people are often unaware of the mood-health cycle.
For many adolescents and young adults, this mood-health cycle occurs without their being consciously aware of the emotional symptoms. They may not recognize that they are feeling down, anxious, or stressed, and that it is these emotional feelings that may be contributing to their physical symptoms.
If emotional stress is contributing to physical symptoms, popping an Advil or Tums may not be sufficient to address the root cause of the headache or stomach ache. Instead, here are a few practical examples for how to address physical symptoms when underlying mood symptoms may be a contributing factor:
- Body scanning can be a great way to learn to recognize physical cues and connect them to emotional experience.
- Body-based relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation are often accessible strategies for reducing physical symptoms.
- Practice recognizing and labeling emotions such as "anxious," "sad," or "stressed." This both normalizes emotional experience and helps build a better connection to one’s own emotional states.
Recognition and relaxation are important tools in developing an awareness of the mind and maintaining a calm mental state. Under uncomfortable scenarios, we may be able to maintain greater clarity and experience less stress, anxiety, depression and the physical symptoms they can bring.
This article also appears at Joon Care.
Disclaimer: All recurrent, unusual, or severe physical symptoms should be evaluated by a medical doctor. This research summary is not medical advice nor is it intended to replace medical care.
Mezulis, A. et al. “Cognitive Mechanisms Reciprocally Transmit Vulnerability between Depressive and Somatic Symptoms.” Depression Research and Treatment 2015 (2015): n. pag.