Research on the mind-body connection tells us that emotional distress can – and often does – manifest throughout women's bodies, and that chronic pain and other physical distress can affect our mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and this week in particular (May 12–18) is Women's Health Week, so we’re taking a moment to highlight the ways those overlap and how to recognize the signs.
Women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with major depression, a condition affecting over 3 million Americans every year. Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty making decisions, insomnia, irritability, loss of interest in things once pleasurable (like sex), loss of appetite or overeating, aches and pains, digestive problems, and persistent sad or anxious feelings.
Looking over this list, you may notice that these are not only symptoms affecting our mental health; many are physical. Scientists have researched this connection for decades, and findings show that "a high percentage of patients with depression who seek treatment in a primary care setting report only physical symptoms, which can make depression very difficult to diagnose."
Those of us who have experienced any kind of emotional distress, depression, anxiety, loss, or grief can relate to this mind-body connection.
If you think about how you felt the last time you were anxious, it was probably a time when you also felt physically uncomfortable too. Anxiety originates in the mind, but can leave us with a clenched jaw, tense muscles, an upset stomach, and alertness over every little sound. The abnormally heightened sense of awareness can further magnify even minor physical pain and discomfort we had prior to our anxious feelings.
Anxiety in particular has been shown to make women more prone to vaginal infections, abnormal vaginal discharge, and increased cramping and pain. According to CalmClinic, stress can even cause itching, burning, and dryness within the vaginal wall.
When we suffer from mental health conditions, our immune system suffers too. This leaves us more susceptible to everything from catching a cold to contracting an STI or any number of other communicable diseases.
Ways to Cope with Emotional Distress
- Practicing mindfulness is a great way to keep your mental health strong in the face of physical pain.
- Finding a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a positive, long-term way to work through mental health issues. Research shows therapy is as effective as taking antidepressants for some patients, and provides a safe place to express what you're going through and feel heard.
- Boosting your immune system can help you stay strong when your body's defenses are compromised.