It’s a common parent observation. Your child complains of a headache, stomachache, and that nonspecific “I just don’t feel good” at the most inconvenient times - finals week, opening night of the school musical, or just before the big game. Especially for teens and young adults who are still developing their capacity for emotional identification and regulation, they may not be able to identify the feelings associated with stressful situations. Youth may not be able to say “I feel sad” or “I feel anxious”, but instead notice that their head hurts, their neck aches, or their stomach is all topsy-turvy.
What is the relationship between stress, mood, and physical symptoms? Researchers have long been interested in the mind-body connection. A study I co-authored along with Kaitlin Harding and Karly Murphy has attempted to understand how the emotional and physical are related.
In particular, the research examined whether how we think influences how we feel, and if our thinking patterns could help explain why mood and physical health are so intertwined. In this study of 321 older adolescents and young adults (ages 18-24), the research team examined how depressed mood and physical symptoms (headaches, fatigue, stomachaches, muscle tension) mutually reinforce each other.
The study yielded two interesting findings:
For many adolescents and young adults, this mood-health cycle occurs without their being consciously aware of the emotional symptoms. They may not recognize that they are feeling down, anxious, or stressed, and that it is these emotional feelings that may be contributing to their physical symptoms. If emotional stress is contributing to physical symptoms, popping an Advil or Tums may not be sufficient to address the root cause of the headache or stomach ache. Instead, here are a few practical examples for how to address physical symptoms when underlying mood symptoms may be a contributing factor:
Recognition and relaxation are important tools in developing an awareness of the mind and maintaining a calm mental state. Under uncomfortable scenarios, we may be able to maintain greater clarity and experience less stress, anxiety, depression and the physical symptoms they can bring.
You can access more of Dr. Mezulis's published research here.
Disclaimer: All recurrent, unusual, or severe physical symptoms should be evaluated by a medical doctor. This research summary is not medical advice nor is it intended to replace medical care.