Depression and the Mind-Body Connection

There is a strong possibility that when a patient goes to the doctor with depression, to be treated within the medical model, they may underplay or not even mention physical symptoms, thinking that “they’re all in the mind” — meaning not real, not worthy of attention. In fact, pain is felt in all kinds of ways, and when doctors and patients alike recognise that, research shows that treatment works better.

The mind-body connection is something which most people agree exists, yet it is open to a variety of interpretations. Where painful conditions and depression occur together we could say we are in a chicken and egg situation. The very fact that we use the same word ‘pain’ to cover the sensation of having a physical injury and the end of a love affair is telling.

As a therapist I am acutely aware of the way pains of all kinds get stored and held within the body, protected and looked after there. In the same way in which we injure our backs and then start to walk strangely in order not to disturb the hurt area and cause pain, we can protect ourselves from emotional pain by avoiding triggers and getting stuck in certain ways of relating or being that at first are artificial and then seem to ‘be us’. The problem is that both the physical and emotional problems can then become chronic.

Furthermore, the more research is done on the way the central nervous system and neural pathways work, the more it seems that emotions and physical pain move in similar ways, and are often experienced together due to their sharing a neurological pathway[1].

There is still a strong possibility, though, that when a patient goes to the doctor with depression, to be treated within the medical model, they may underplay or not even mention physical symptoms, thinking that “they’re all in the mind” — meaning not real, not worthy of attention. In fact, pain is felt in all kinds of ways, and when doctors and patients alike recognise that, research shows that treatment works better.

The World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) and WONCA, The World Organization of Family Doctors, have recently conducted the Mind-Body Connection Survey, an international online survey of 252 adults who have received at least one prescription treatment for depression in the past year and 501 GPs or family doctors.

Findings from the Mind-Body Connection Survey suggest that when doctors initiated discussion about both emotional and physical symptoms, there was a positive impact on depression management and recovery. Patients who discussed the mind-body connection with their doctor had more understanding of how the treatment worked (82% rather than 67% in those who did not discuss the matter), and believed that treating both physical and emotional symptoms was of importance. In fact I would say that the discussion, maybe the sheer fact of having an open discussion with the doctor, promoted a feeling of wholeness in the patients. Positive feelings and understanding of treatment are also likely in themselves to help the process of healing along.

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Those who had a deeper understanding of the mind-body connection themselves were much quicker (a year quicker) in going to the doctor in the first place and asking for help. Understanding of the wholeness of mind and body seems associated with being more proactive and maybe on an underlying level more positively valuing the self. It also seems that the more awareness there is of the reality of someone’s experience, and the more communication there is between the helper and the helped, the more strongly the healing process is initiated. It looks, in fact, as though the therapeutic method occurs, and is effective, right within the medical model of treatment for distress.


[1] Bair MJ et al. Depression and Pain Comorbidity. A Literature Review; Archives of Internal Medicine: Vol. 163 No, 20, November 10 2003.

Basbaum AI and Fields HL. Endogenous Pain Control Systems: Brainstem Spinal Pathways and Endorphin Circuitry. Ann. Rev Neurosci. 1984 7:309-38

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