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

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.

7 Comments

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.

Reply
No

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

Reply
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 https://www.heysigmund.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-adolescent-brai/.

Reply
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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
.
.
.
#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
.
.
#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This