When Mental And Emotional Pain Becomes Physical: Depression's Effect On The Body

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Depression can impact a person in a lot of different ways. Many people recognize the mental and emotional effects of depression, but those aren't the only symptoms and side effects. There are mental, emotional, and physical depression symptoms. To overcome depression, or even to recognize that you have it, it's important to understand what this looks like.

Despite what you may have heard, feelings of depression are not all in your head. Yes, it can have an impact on the way that you think, your motivation levels, and your emotions, but there can be much more to it than that. Depression brings with it a wide array of physical symptoms that can make daily life challenging.

The effects of depression can be difficult to manage

Physical symptoms of depression

While there haven't been many peer-reviewed studies on humans, there have been studies on animals that have shown the impact and connection between gut health and mental health. These studies suggest that what you eat and how healthy you keep your gut might impact your mental health. It's also believed that it works the other way as well; your mental health may impact your physical body.

This might explain many of the physical symptoms that come with being depressed. It can also help explain why paying attention to your self-care, including eating right and exercising, can have a positive impact on your mental health.

Chronic pain

It's believed that depression relates to the way that your nerve cell networks process your emotions. What this means is that emotional pain from depression can cause physical pain as well.

This may look different for each person. Some people with depression experience headaches on a regular basis, for example. There are others who experience back pain when they're depressed, or even muscle aches and joint pains.

Another chronic pain commonly connected to depression is chest pain. While many people jump to thinking that it could be a heart attack that they're experiencing or more serious problems, it could also be a symptom of depression. This is especially true of those who experience anxiety and panic attacks along with depression.

Digestive problems

It's common for people who are experiencing depression to also have problems with their digestive system. Some people experience constipation or diarrhea. Others may feel nauseous on a regular basis.

If the studies are correct that there is a connection between mental health and gut health, then this makes a lot of sense scientifically. People who are depressed may also experience a change in their appetite, which is related to digestion. Some people are not able to continue eating a balanced diet as a result of depression. They may fall into eating convenience foods that are highly processed, and their body might struggle to digest them. Or they may have difficulty eating anything at all, which can then cause digestion problems when they do eat. 

Problems sleeping

It's common for people experiencing depression to also experience a change in their sleep habits. Some people may find that they are sleeping a lot more than normal. With symptoms of depression, it's difficult to motivate themselves to even get out of bed. This can result in them getting a lot more sleep than they're used to.

Other people who are experiencing depression may find it very difficult to sleep. They may be bothered by anxiety or negative thoughts constantly running through their head. This can make it difficult to get the rest that they need each night.


When someone feels depressed, it's not uncommon for them to also feel fatigued and exhausted. Regardless of how much sleep they're able to get each night, they may not wake up feeling rested.

Mental and emotional symptoms and pain can cause someone who is experiencing depression to feel hopeless. This can make it difficult to feel excitement for life, motivation, or other positive feelings that might help get them going for the day. As a result, they may give into exhaustion, and even small tasks can become difficult for them to accomplish.


Other symptoms

While these symptoms are the most common physical depression symptoms, there are also others. Some of these can include eye problems such as reduced vision, lightheadedness, or dizziness.

If you're experiencing physical symptoms that you don't understand, it could be that they're related to your mental health. These are important to discuss with a professional.

The cycle of physical depression symptoms

Physical symptoms of depression alongside mental and emotional symptoms can create a vicious cycle. When you experience feelings of depression, it might be easy to feel unmotivated to do the things that you need to take care of yourself. This includes eating a nutritious diet and exercising. When you stop doing these things, you may start to experience more of the symptoms of depression.

When you are not properly taking care of yourself, your physical symptoms could begin to influence your mental and emotional symptoms as well. For example, if you have feelings of depression and you find that you are less motivated to get out of bed in the morning, you probably decide not to exercise for the day. Since you're feeling so bad you aren't that concerned with eating, you don't take in the number of calories that you need.

Not getting exercise and not eating enough then causes you to feel more fatigued and exhausted. When you're not able to do the things in daily life that you're used to doing, it can cause you to feel guilty and ashamed. Eventually, as the cycle continues, it can cause you to feel like the situation is hopeless and you'll never be able to regain control of your day, your energy, and your thoughts.

The effects of depression can be difficult to manage

Treatment options

Depression is a treatable mental health disorder. Talking with a licensed therapist can help you sort through where your depression is coming from. It can also help you learn how to address any symptoms that you're experiencing. Therapists can teach you important coping strategies that you can use to overcome depression and regain interest in activities you used to enjoy. They can even help you to recognize symptoms that you may not have connected with your depression and learn how to address those as well. 

There are many different treatments for depression. These include different types of therapy, medications, and many holistic options such as acupuncture and aromatherapy. Whichever option you pursue, it's important that you also maintain proper self-care. Taking care of your body can help you with taking care of your mind and vice versa.

Finding a therapist

There are many places where you can find a therapist to meet with. You can ask your general practitioner for a referral, or you can check with your health insurance company or your religious organization.

The very symptoms you’re trying to alleviate can sometimes get in the way of seeking treatment for depression, though. Physical and emotional/mental pain both have the potential to keep you couped up at home instead of going out in public for daily tasks like doctor’s or therapist’s appointments. In these cases, you might be better off scheduling sessions with an online therapist. Internet-based counseling enables you to meet with your mental health care provider from the comfort of home. Plus, you can schedule an appointment during a time that’s most convenient for you, whether day or night. 

There's not one right or wrong way to treat depression. The research shows that online therapy is a suitable alternative to in-person counseling for treating a variety of conditions, including depression. One meta-analysis confirmed that the results of internet-based therapy are comparable to those associated with more traditional, office-based therapy. 


Depression can cause all sorts of pain, both physical and emotional, but it doesn’t have to. There are effective ways to treat this serious mental illness, including online therapy. Reach out to BetterHelp, and we’ll match you with a therapist trained to help you alleviate painful symptoms of depression.
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