How untreated mental illness can dramatically increase your risk of becoming physically ill

It’s no surprise that when a person is diagnosed with heart disease, cancer, or other limiting or life-threatening physical illness, they become anxious or depressed. But the reverse can also be true: excessive anxiety or depression can promote the development of serious physical illness and even hinder the ability to resist or recover from it.

The potential consequences are particularly welcome, as the stress and continued disruption of the pandemic continue to wreak havoc on mental health.

The human body does not recognize the artificial separation of the medical profession between mental and physical illnesses. On the contrary, the mind and the body form a two-way street. What goes on inside a person’s head can have adverse effects on the whole body, and vice versa. Untreated mental illness can greatly increase the risk of becoming physically ill, and physical disorders can lead to behaviors that worsen mental conditions.

In studies that have followed the course of female breast cancer patients, for example, Dr. David Spiegel and colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine have shown decades ago that women whose depression was fading lived longer than those whose depression was worsening. His research and other studies have clearly shown that “the brain is intimately linked to the body and the body to the brain,” Spiegel said in an interview. “The body tends to react to mental stress as if it were physical stress.”

Despite such evidence, according to him and other experts, chronic emotional distress is too often overlooked by doctors. Usually, a doctor will prescribe treatment for physical ailments like heart disease or diabetes, to ask why some patients get worse instead of better.

Many people are reluctant to seek treatment for emotional disorders. Some people with anxiety or depression may fear being stigmatized, even though they admit to having a serious psychological problem. Many attempt to self-treat their emotional distress by engaging in behaviors such as drinking too much or abusing drugs, which only insults their pre-existing injury.

And sometimes family and friends inadvertently reinforce a person’s denial of mental distress by calling them ‘this is the way he is’ and do nothing to encourage him to seek help. professional help.

How common are anxiety and depression?
Anxiety disorders affect nearly 20% of American adults. This means that millions of people are beset by an overabundance of fight-or-flight response that prepares the body for action. When you are stressed, the brain responds by triggering the release of cortisol, nature’s built-in alarm system. It has evolved to help animals facing physical threats by increasing breathing, increasing heart rate, and redirecting blood flow from abdominal organs to muscles that help face or escape danger.

These protective actions come from the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine, which stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and put the body on high alert. But when relied on too often and indiscriminately, chronic overstimulation can lead to all kinds of physical ailments, including indigestion, cramps, diarrhea or constipation, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. cerebral.

Depression, although less common than chronic anxiety, can have even more devastating effects on physical health. While it’s normal to feel depressed every now and then, over 6% of adults have feelings of depression so persistent that they disrupt personal relationships, interfere with work and play, and impair their ability to cope. to the challenges of everyday life. Persistent depression can also exacerbate a person’s pain perception and increase their chances of developing chronic pain.

“Depression decreases a person’s ability to analyze and rationally respond to stress,” said Spiegel. “They find themselves in a vicious cycle with a limited ability to come out of a negative mental state.”

To make matters worse, excessive anxiety and depression often coexist, leaving people vulnerable to an array of physical ailments and an inability to adopt and follow needed therapy.

Treatment can counter the emotional consequences
Although persistent anxiety and depression are highly treatable with medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and talk therapy, without treatment these conditions tend to worsen. According to Dr. John Frownfelter, the treatment of any condition works best when doctors understand “the pressures patients face that affect their behavior and lead to clinical harm.”

Frownfelter is an internist and chief medical officer for a startup called Jvion. The organization uses artificial intelligence to identify not only medical factors, but also psychological, social and behavioral factors that may impact the effectiveness of treatment on the health of patients. Its goal is to promote more holistic treatment approaches that address the whole patient, body and mind combined.

The scans used by Jvion, a Hindi word for life, could alert a doctor when an underlying depression could interfere with the effectiveness of treatments prescribed for another condition. For example, patients treated for diabetes who feel hopeless may not improve because they only take their prescribed medications sporadically and are not following an appropriate diet, Frownfelter said.

“We often talk about depression as a complication of a chronic illness,” Frownfelter wrote in Medpage Today in July. “But what we don’t talk about enough is how depression can lead to chronic illness. Patients with depression may not have the motivation to exercise regularly or cook healthy meals. Many also find it difficult to get enough sleep.

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