By Jane Brody
It’s no surprise that when a person gets a diagnosis of heart disease, cancer or some other life-limiting or life-threatening physical ailment, they become anxious or depressed. But the reverse can also be true: Undue anxiety or depression can foster the development of a serious physical disease, and even impede the ability to withstand or recover from one. The potential consequences are particularly timely, as the ongoing stress and disruptions of the pandemic continue to take a toll on mental health.
The human organism does not recognize the medical profession’s artificial separation of mental and physical ills. Rather, mind and body form a two-way street. What happens inside a person’s head can have damaging effects throughout the body, as well as the other way around. An untreated mental illness can significantly increase the risk of becoming physically ill, and physical disorders may result in behaviors that make mental conditions worse.
In studies that tracked how patients with breast cancer fared, for example, Dr. David Spiegel and his colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine showed decades ago that women whose depression was easing lived longer than those whose depression was getting worse. His research and other studies have clearly shown that “the brain is intimately connected to the body and the body to the brain,” Dr. Spiegel said in an interview. “The body tends to react to mental stress as if it was a physical stress.”
Despite such evidence, he and other experts say, chronic emotional distress is too often overlooked by doctors. Commonly, a physician will prescribe a therapy for physical ailments like heart disease or diabetes, only to wonder why some patients get worse instead of better.
Many people are reluctant to seek treatment for emotional ills. Some people with anxiety or depression may fear being stigmatized, even if they recognize they have a serious psychological problem. Many attempt to self-treat their emotional distress by adopting behaviors like drinking too much or abusing drugs, which only adds insult to their pre-existing injury.
And sometimes, family and friends inadvertently reinforce a person’s denial of mental distress by labeling it as “that’s just the way he is” and do nothing to encourage them to seek professional help.
Anxiety disorders affect nearly 20 percent of American adults. That means millions are beset by an overabundance of the fight-or-flight response that primes the body for action. When you’re stressed, the brain responds by prompting the release of cortisol, nature’s built-in alarm system. It evolved to help animals facing physical threats by increasing respiration, raising the heart rate and redirecting blood flow from abdominal organs to muscles that assist in confronting or escaping danger.
These protective actions stem from the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine, which stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and put the body on high alert. But when they are invoked too often and indiscriminately, the chronic overstimulation can result in all manner of physical ills, including digestive symptoms like indigestion, cramps, diarrhea or constipation, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Depression, while less common than chronic anxiety, can have even more devastating effects on physical health. While it’s normal to feel depressed from time to time, more than 6 percent of adults have such persistent feelings of depression that it disrupts personal relationships, interferes with work and play, and impairs their ability to cope with the challenges of daily life. Persistent depression can also exacerbate a person’s perception of pain and increase their chances of developing chronic pain.
“Depression diminishes a person’s capacity to analyze and respond rationally to stress,” Dr. Spiegel said. “They end up on a vicious cycle with limited capacity to get out of a negative mental state.”
Potentially making matters worse, undue anxiety and depression often coexist, leaving people vulnerable to a panoply of physical ailments and an inability to adopt and stick with needed therapy.
A study of 1,204 elderly Korean men and women initially evaluated for depression and anxiety found that two years later, these emotional disorders increased their risk of physical disorders and disability. Anxiety alone was linked with heart disease, depression alone was linked with asthma, and the two together were linked with eyesight problems, persistent cough, asthma, hypertension, heart disease and gastrointestinal problems.
Although persistent anxiety and depression are highly treatable with medications, cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy, without treatment these conditions tend to get worse. According to Dr. John Frownfelter, treatment for any condition works better when doctors understand “the pressures patients face that affect their behavior and result in clinical harm.”
Dr. Frownfelter is an internist and chief medical officer of a start-up called Jvion. The organization uses artificial intelligence to identify not just medical factors but psychological, social and behavioral ones as well that can impact the effectiveness of treatment on patients’ health. Its aim is to foster more holistic approaches to treatment that address the whole patient, body and mind combined.
The analyses used by Jvion, a Hindi word meaning life-giving, could alert a doctor when underlying depression might be hindering the effectiveness of prescribed treatments for another condition. For example, patients being treated for diabetes who are feeling hopeless may fail to improve because they take their prescribed medication only sporadically and don’t follow a proper diet, Dr. Frownfelter said.
“We often talk about depression as a complication of chronic illness,” Dr. Frownfelter wrote in Medpage Today in July. “But what we don’t talk about enough is how depression can lead to chronic disease. Patients with depression may not have the motivation to exercise regularly or cook healthy meals. Many also have trouble getting adequate sleep.”
Some changes to medical care during the pandemic have greatly increased patient access to depression and anxiety treatment. The expansion of telehealth has enabled patients to access treatment by psychotherapists who may be as far as a continent away.
Patients may also be able to treat themselves without the direct help of a therapist. For example, Dr. Spiegel and his co-workers created an app called Reveri that teaches people self-hypnosis techniques designed to help reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep, reduce pain and suppress or quit smoking.
Improving sleep is especially helpful, Dr. Spiegel said, because “it enhances a person’s ability to regulate the stress response system and not get stuck in a mental rut.” Data demonstrating the effectiveness of the Reveri app has been collected but not yet published, he said.
Jane Brody is the Personal Health columnist, a position she has held since 1976. She has written more than a dozen books including the best sellers “Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book” and “Jane Brody’s Good Food Book.”