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How depression and anxiety influence physical symptoms

Updated: Mar 05, 2011, 17:49 PM IST

Washington: For decades, researchers have hypothesized that negative emotions lead to inflated reports of common physical symptoms.

However, a new study has suggested that two negative emotions - depression and anxiety - influence symptom reporting in different ways.

It showed that people who feel depressed report experiencing a higher number of past symptoms. People who feel anxious, by contrast, report more symptoms in the present moment.

Understanding how factors such as mood influence symptom reporting is important because physicians make diagnosis and treatment decisions based on the symptoms patients report, how intense they are, and how frequently they occurred, said study author Jerry Suls, a professor of psychology in the University of Iowa.

"Our data suggest that a person who walks into a physician’s office feeling sad will tend to recall experiencing more symptoms than they probably really did," he said.

"If a person comes into the physician’s office feeling fearful, they’re more likely to scan their body and read any sensations they’re experiencing at that moment as something wrong. We believe this is because depression is associated with rumination and exaggerated recall of negative experiences, while anxiety is associated with vigilance for potentially negative things in the present time," he added.
In the first part of the study, 144 undergraduate students completed questionnaires to assess their level of ``depressive affect``, and indicated which of 15 common physical symptoms they’d experienced in the past three weeks.

Even after factoring out physical signs of depression, like appetite changes or sleep loss, researchers found that people who felt more depressed believed they had experienced more symptoms.

Another phase of the study examined current symptom reporting. A sample of 125 undergraduates was assigned to groups.

To induce a specific mood, each group wrote in detail for 15 minutes about an experience that made them feel angry, anxious, depressed, happy or neutral. They then completed a checklist to indicate which of 24 symptoms (weakness/fatigue, cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal) they currently felt.

Participants in the anxious mood category reported higher numbers of physical symptoms.

Researchers repeated the writing exercise with another group of 120 students -- only this time they asked participants to report both current and retrospective symptoms.

On average, people in the anxious group reported five current symptoms, while those in the depressed and neutral groups only reported one or two.

Reflecting on the past three weeks, the sad participants reported experiencing seven symptoms on average, while the other groups only recalled about three.

The age of participants was a limitation of the study, though the authors intentionally chose healthy college students to reduce confounds.

ANI