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.

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

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IBikeNYC

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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