Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Anxiety, Depression and Physical Health in Adolescents – What’s the connection?

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Anxiety, Depression and Physical Health in Adolescence - What’s the connection?

With research finding ever-increasing evidence in support of the mind-body connection, there is no doubt that our mental functioning affects our physical health, and vice versa. The connection is a powerful one, and science is on well on its way to uncovering more of the detail. 

New research from Switzerland and Germany has found that in children and adolescents, certain physical diseases will be more likely to follow anxiety or depression. Similarly, particular mental health conditions happen more frequently following particular physical illnesses. 

Researchers have identified that depression tends to affect the stomach, while anxiety is more likely to affect the skin. Specifically, arthritis and diseases of the digestive system happen more frequently following depression or bipolar disorder, and skin diseases (such as atopic dermatitis) are more likely after anxiety. 

Researchers also found a strong association between epilepsy and subsequent eating disorders (including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder).

‘For the first time, we have established that epilepsy is followed by an increased risk of eating disorders – a phenomenon that had previously been described only in single case reports. This suggests that approaches to epilepsy treatment could also have potential in the context of eating disorders.’ Marion Tegethoff, lead author. 

This research is the first to explore the connection between these symptoms in adolescents, however previous research has found a similar relationship between in adults. Research involving adults has found that in people who have depression and arthritis, relieving the symptoms of depression also decreases the pain of arthritis. Similarly, people who have anxiety and atopic dermatitis report an improvement in their skin when they receive therapy for their anxiety.

In relation to the connection between eating disorders and epilepsy, the study refers to two earlier research studies, both with very small samples sizes, which have found some evidence to suggest that the connection might be because of the parts of the brain involved. When epilepsy arises from the right hemisphere, lesions in a part of the brain that has a close relationship with the limbic system may influence the development of eating disorders. At this stage, more research is needed, but it is a promising pathway for future research and possible treatment options.

The promise of this research is in widening the treatment options available to strengthen physical and mental health during adolescence. If we know there is a specific connection between certain symptoms, there is mounting evidence to suggest that treating one set of symptoms, has great potential to improve the other connected symptoms.

And finally …

Even with the strongest support, the greatest love, and the most committed and engaged parents in the world, many teens, probably all of them, will still struggle from to time. Adolescence will present itself with certain challenges to all teens. That’s the whole point of adolescence – it’s the time for them to stretch and push right up against their edges, to discover who they are, where they fit in, and how they will leave their very important mark on the world. All of our teens have it in them to be happy, thriving adults, but it’s not always easy to know exactly what they need to get there. Protecting their mental health is critical. We’ve always known that, but with our increasing wisdom on the mind-body connection, there is no doubt that when we guide and support them to stronger mental health, we are helping to strengthen them in mind, body and spirit.

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7 Comments

IBikeNYC

May I assume that “eating disorders” refers ONLY to eating too little as opposed to eating too much?

Reply
Chrissy

My understanding (and experience as a parent) of an eating disorder is that it’s all about having a wrong relationship with food; whether it’s depriving or indulging, both are symptoms of a food obsession and a food fear at the same time. A right relationship with food is what we all want; one that brings ‘disorder’ into order, so that freedom can be found in a renewed way of thinking. It’s not impossible. But it takes time, love, patience and faith!

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Yes – when this research talks about eating disorders, it is specifically talking about when those eating disorders co-occur with epilepsy. In those cases, there might be a common area of the brain contributing to the symptoms. Similarly, in instances where a teen has anxiety and skin problems, or depression and digestive problems, or eating disorders and epilepsy, it may be that they are somehow related. It doesn’t mean there will always be digestive disorders with depression, or skin problems with anxiety, or epilepsy with eating disorders, but when there is, it may be that treating one set of symptoms (as in the physical symptoms or the symptoms related to the anxiety, depression or epilepsy), may see an improvement in the other set of symptoms. It’s an interesting area of research because of the treatment options that open up when there are co-occuring symptoms, and also because of what it might mean about the possible causes of various symptoms.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Good question. The eating disorders part of the research included anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. I’ve amended the article to show this. Hope that clears things up.

Reply
No

Adolescents…adolescents…as theycontinue to wreck havoc and be wrecked havoc upon…some things never change…puzzling, why?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Ahhh yes – it’s all about what’s happening in their brains! Adolescence is a time of massive brain changes. Everything they do and everything they go through can generally be explained by these changes. It’s all part of their development towards being happy, healthy adults. Here is an article that explains it, and will hopefully make even their most confusing behaviour easier to understand http://www.heysigmund.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-adolescent-brai/.

Reply
Kristi

My 15 year old daughter suffers from JIA (Juvenile arthritis) and right along with it came depression and anxiety. She now sees a therapist that specializes in chronic disease management, medication administration and anxiety, and depression. She has seen decreased pain levels, better confidence in herself and future (self-efficacy) and an overall better outlook. Getting help was the smartest thing we ever did.

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