Important Connections Between Depression and Thyroid Disease

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Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid is not producing enough hormone. If you have thyroid disease, you may experience many symptoms that mimic depression. Although it is important to point out that depression and hypothyroidism are distinctly separate conditions, it is common for people to mistake some of the overlapping symptoms of hypothyroidism for depression. Some of the symptoms that mimic those of depression include:

  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • Weight gain
  • Foggy brain
  • Sluggishness
  • Irritability
  • Muscle weakness

"You Look Fine"

If you have thyroid disease, it can feel as if your body has turned against you. Your behaviors with regard to diet and exercise don't produce the results they used to, you feel challenged to remember tasks, find it difficult to achieve quality sleep, and feel as if you are swimming upstream just to make it through the day. When you are faced with these physical challenges and people around you question your behaviors or offer feedback that suggests you "look fine," it can leave you feeling frustrated, alone, and misunderstood.

Jen Wittman, CHHP, a Certified Holistic Health Expert, Author & Thyroid Coach, shares that symptoms of depression are common with thyroid disease. She states, "... sometimes it's a symptom related to their actual thyroid condition, sometimes it's due to the lack of care they are receiving in the traditional medical care system and sometimes it is due to information overload."

Weight Gain and Body Changes

The thyroid regulates many functions of the body, including your metabolism. When you are faced with thyroid disease it can feel that, no matter what you do to lose weight, your body will not cooperate. Weight gain is a symptom often reported as one of the more challenging aspects of living with thyroid disease, resulting in confusion and sadness as someone feels their body shape change significantly, regardless of their efforts with diet and exercise. Although the experience differs by case, it is not uncommon for someone with thyroid disease to gain a noticeable amount of weight in a short period of time.

These rapid changes in body shape and weight can leave you feeling overwhelmed and unable to gain control of what is happening. It can be a challenge to explain this to others as well, particularly if they don't understand the function of the thyroid or what it means to live with thyroid disease. In an effort to not be misjudged as careless or lacking discipline, people experiencing significant weight increase may double down on efforts to lose weight. Unrealistic goals and strict changes to diet and exercise routines can result in greater frustration and feelings of failure, in addition to potential physical complications of such extreme behavior.

Fatigue and Muscle Weakness

Adequate, quality sleep can be a challenge when you have thyroid disease, resulting in irritability and mood swings. If you have hyperthyroidism, you might find that you struggle to fall or stay asleep. Insomnia is a common symptom of hyperthyroidism.

If you have hypothyroidism, your challenge may be that you feel the need for excessive amounts of sleep or rest in order to make it through the day. Fatigue, muscle pain and weakness are hallmark symptoms of hypothyroidism.

When talking about fatigue, pain and muscle weakness, we are speaking about significant physical symptoms that people around you cannot see. The challenge of not being able to do things we used to, or work at a pace that we wish we could, can be emotionally overwhelming aspects of living with thyroid disease. You are likely trying to make it through the day while feeling as if you are running on fumes and may feel pressure to prove to others that you are not simply "unmotivated" or "lazy." What others can get done in a day can feel nearly impossible to someone with thyroid disease who is experiencing fatigue and pain from head to toe.

What Others Think

When you have thyroid disease, you are likely experiencing a variety of symptoms that leave you feeling confused, sad, and frustrated. Your mind and body may feel as if they are not cooperating with you, the aches you experience all over your body may leave you feeling unable to participate in life the way you would like, and you are likely trying to work with your medical doctor to find a treatment regimen that works for you. It is a journey that can be difficult to navigate.

Trying to explain your experience to others can present an even greater challenge. Family members, friends, and coworkers may not understand what the thyroid does, never mind what it is like to live with thyroid disease on a daily basis. In an effort to not be viewed as lazy, forgetful or tired, you may push yourself beyond your limits, causing even more pain, muscle weakness and fatigue. Proving yourself to others is not necessary and can wreak havoc on your body and mind. When we do not feel understood we often feel hurt and alone in our experience. Self-care involves not only that of your physical body but also of your thoughts and emotional experiences.

What You Can Do to Start Feeling Better

When asked what self-care tips she often suggests to clients who are struggling with depression in their thyroid disease journey, Wittman had several recommendations of things that can be helpful, including:

  • Breathing techniques. Breathe in for 5 counts, hold for 3 counts and exhale for as long as you can and repeat.
  • Calm body, calm mind. Wittman recommends a free video series by Dr. Kelly Brogan, holistic psychiatrist, that aims to help ease symptoms of depression and calm the mind.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. Start with the muscles in your face and work your way down to your feet, tensing each muscle group for 10 seconds and then release.
  • Smile, laugh and have fun. Cue a funny movie or call a friend to laugh and release happy hormones, getting our of your head and back into your smile.
  • Write it out. Grab a pen and get to work. Acknowledge and write out your feelings, what you are afraid of or what you believe is triggering your stress. For journal prompts, she recommends sites like Write To Be You if you have a hard time knowing where to start.
  • Push the "panic" button on your stereo. Put on your favorite relaxation play list or put on one of your best go-to songs that make you want to sing and dance!
  • Use aromatherapy. Calming essential oils like lavender or chamomile, or oils that are spicy and earthy can calm our bodies. She suggests mixing lavender drops with water to spray on a handkerchief. Lie down, close your eyes and place the handkerchief over your eyes while you calmly practice your breathing techniques.
  • Go on a virtual vacation. Using guided imagery can be helpful when our body is experiencing a lot of emotional energy. Close your eyes and think of a place or situation in which you feel completely at peace and relaxed.

Finding Help and Support

Support groups, both in person and online, can be a wonderful way to find comfort, support, and encouragement during an overwhelming and challenging time. Sharing of information and experiences with others living with thyroid disease can be particularly helpful as new research is conducted and treatment methods are discovered. You can find vibrant support communities online through Facebook and other social media platforms and websites.

You may choose to seek professional counseling to process the emotional challenges of living with thyroid disease. As you navigate this medical journey, you may find it helpful to process the experience with a neutral party who can help you stay present and focused on living well amid these challenges. Some therapists specialize in medical and health related concerns, helping clients to find peace and comfort while living with medical conditions like thyroid disease.

Remember to be patient with yourself, your friends, and your family members. There may be times when you feel no one around you understands what you are experiencing, emotionally or physically, and you could be right. As with other conditions, both thyroid disease and depression are conditions often misunderstood by those who are not experiencing it themselves. It can be helpful to share information about thyroid disease, as well as your emotional experience of living with the condition, with your support system.

As a suggestion for how loved ones can help, Wittman shares, "The number one thing you can do is listen. Acknowledge their experience and ask them if there's specifically any way they would like you to support them."