A Research Paper By Amanda Norwood, Change Coach, UNITED STATES
Physiological Effects of Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression have become a part of everyday life for more Americans than ever before. According to CDC data, over 37% of American adults suffer from symptoms of anxiety and 31% suffer from depression.
If we find ourselves in a deeply depressed or anxious state, we may hear advice from well-meaning family, friends, or counselors that sounds like this:
“Focus on the positive things.”
“Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll be fine.”
Or even “Suck it up and move on!”
But for some people, the emotions are debilitating. We can feel we cannot muster even the smallest of efforts. We feel like giving up because the weight of the depression or anxiety is crippling.
How can an emotional state feel like a physical reality? Could negative emotions cause physical changes in our bodies? Changes affecting us in a way that prevents us from moving forward?
In this paper, I will explore the physiological effects of anxiety and depression, various perspectives on emotions, and ways to move through them. The conclusion will focus on when and how coaching can play a role in recovery.
Anxiety and Depression: My Experience
The inspiration to write a paper on this subject came from something that happened in my own life. There’s a trail near my house that follows the Arkansas River. A long section of the trail is nine miles of virtually pancake-flat, paved terrain. At one spot in the trail, there’s a slight slope. It is exactly 12 steps of walking. The elevation change is nothing more than a slight bump if you’re on a walk, run, or bike ride.
However, at a low emotional point in my life several years ago, I could not physically run up this slope. The minute I arrived at the base of the slight incline my throat would tighten, my heart would beat faster, my legs turned into concrete blocks and my entire body would shut down. Sometimes I would even break into tears. Every single time I reached this spot, I would have the same reaction and I would stop and walk this tiny slope of 12 steps.
I was extremely frustrated but also intrigued by this intense reaction. How could something so small and insignificant feel like a mountain? What was happening to elicit such an overwhelming physical change in my body?
Physiological Effects of Negative Emotions
I first went to a psychiatrist to ask some questions. Dr. Kahlil Saliba, MD explained that when we are experiencing stress in the form of anxiety or depression, our bodies are directly and indirectly affected in many ways.
He explained that the outward physical effects I described to him are a result of neurological changes that happen in the body when it is stressed. Saliba says, “The number of synapses firing in our bodies decreases in times of stress. Interneurons regulate the flow of chemicals to our brains, so the lack of those chemicals to the brain makes it difficult for us to react and respond in usual ways.”
He added that there are many other common physical or somatic changes that can happen during stress including decreased physical conditioning, fatigue, back pain, muscle weakness, pain, and tension.
A New York Times articleon the physical effect of depression and anxiety discusses how the activity inside a person’s head can have damaging effects throughout the body. Dr. David Spiegel of the Stanford University School of Medicine says, “The brain is intimately connected to the body and the body to the brain…the body tends to react to mental stress as if it was a physical stress.”
Spiegel says that “depression diminishes a person’s capacity to analyze and respond rationally to stress…they end up on a vicious cycle with limited capacity to get out of a negative mental state.”
In his book Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbinsexploresthe science of changes that happen when we are stuck or blocked in a particular situation. He describes it as a “neuro-association”, and says it is more than just a mental block. He describes it as a biological or physical reality.
Robbins says, “Each time we repeat the behavior, the connection strengthens. We add another strand to our neural connection. With enough repetitions and emotional intensity, we can add many strands simultaneously, increasing the tensile strength of this emotional or behavioral pattern until eventually, we have a ‘trunk line’ to this behavior or feeling.”
It is at this point Robbins says we begin to feel these feelings or behave in this way consistently. We have created what he calls a neural “super-highway” that takes us down an automatic, consistent route of behavior.
Another way Robbins describes this reality is the “pain-pain barrier”. He says if we get to the point where we feel we’re going to have pain no matter what we do, we become immobilized. Robbins adds, “Usually we choose what we believe will be the least painful alternative. Some people, however, allow this pain to overwhelm them completely.”
Opportunity for Change
In her book The Mountain is You, Brianna Wiest says the sensation of being blocked or shut down arises because of confronting repressed emotions. She says, “The first feeling you are likely to confront is resistance. This is that generalized sense of being ‘stuck’ or your body feeling so tense that it is almost ‘hard’ as though you are hitting a wall.”
Wiest suggests that reaching this point in our lives is an opportunity for transformative change. And she suggests we use this sense of resistance or shutting down as an impetus for starting a new chapter for ourselves.
“Rock bottom is very often where we begin our healing journey. Rock bottom becomes a turning point because it is only at that point that most people think: I never want to feel this way again,” Weist says.
She adds that resistance can be a warning sign that something isn’t quite right. It forces us to take a step back.“When we are experiencing resistance, there is always a reason, and we have to pay attention,” says Weist.
So, what do we do with this resistance? It’s much easier said than done to interrupt the pattern and move forward especially when it can feel like it’s out of our control.
For me personally, the phenomenon on the slope sparked a massive shift. However, the growth didn’t happen right away. I didn’t have the mental resources until I got to a more stable place with the help of medication.
But once I started asking questions about why my blockage kept happening, I realized that my reaction to the slope was a warning sign I needed to “stop and walk” in all aspects of my life. My mental and physical health was suffering severely because I refused to slow down.
To Coach or Not to Coach
As a coach, we have the responsibility to recognize whether we can help someone or should guide them to other professionals first. If a client is in a deeply depressed or highly anxious state, they are probably not physically or emotionally ready to be coached.
If a client is experiencing a level of anxiety that makes it difficult for them to function or if they have “an intense or extreme sense of fear or dread about everyday situations or tasks,” they may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. In this case, they could benefit from a variety of therapies or medications before they are ready for coaching.
A client may be suffering from severe or prolonged depression, also known as debilitating depression.Medical News Today, as well as other medical resources, suggest that anyone experiencing debilitating depression should talk to a doctor.
Debilitating depression or “major depressive disorder” can restrict a person’s ability to function and complete simple daily tasks. Similar to extreme anxiety, various therapies, and medications should be considered for clients with major depressive disorder.
In both cases above, the neural super-highway (as Tony Robbins describes it)may be so ingrained that the individual is powerless to change on their own. Coaching will be much more productive if the client receives other interventions first.
Coaching Through Resistance
Through my own experience I learned that once we are in a stable mental and emotional state, there is hope through coaching.
The Power Tool I developed for my coaching practice is “Stillness vs. Running”. My theory is that to obtain optimal personal growth, a person must slow down long enough to explore the inner workings of their mind and soul. Sometimes we can do this by choice but other times, our body forces us to.
When developing my Power Tool, I borrowed a concept from Peter Senge’s famous book The Fifth Discipline in which he says, “Faster is slower”.
According to Senge, “For most American[s] the best rate of growth is fast, faster, fastest. Yet virtually all natural systems, from ecosystems to animals to organizations, have intrinsically optimal rates of growth. The optimal rate is far less than the fastest possible growth.”
Using the “Stillness vs. Running” Power Tool in coaching, the client takes the time to step back and examine the intense emotions that have physically hindered them and discover what part of their life may be calling out for nurture and growth.
Brianna Wiest says when we reach our “rock bottom” naturally, our body slows down for us because we have reached a critical point. She calls this a warning sign that we need to step back and regroup.
Her solution lends itself well to coaching. She suggests making multiple tiny changes or “micro shifts” that can build up over time, overcoming the negative patterns.
Wiest cites science philosopher Thomas Kuhn: “We don’t change our lives in flashes of brilliance but through a slow process in which assumptions unravel and require new explanations. It’s in these periods of flux that micro shifts happen, and breakthrough-level change begins to take shape.”
As a coach, we can help a client make these small, seemingly insignificant changes every moment of their lives until they become habits. Ideally, those habits are healthier than those which led them to an insurmountable “slope”.
James Clear refers to a similar practice in his popular book, Atomic Habits. He says small changes over time can lead to big transformations.
Clear acknowledges that sometimes depression can leave us with a limited capacity to get out of a negative mental state. His solution to this negative and unhealthy pattern is to break or interrupt it with positive, ongoing habits.
He says if we do this for long enough, the neural connection will weaken and atrophy, and the emotionally negative behavior will also disappear.
The Process of Moving Through Anxiety and Depression
To be completely honest, I began writing this research paper eight months ago. Once I got the idea, to start with an example from my own life, the words flowed easily for a page or so. After that, I got stuck. I couldn’t mentally and emotionally relate to that low point in my life, so the subject matter felt foreign. For months, I came back to the paper again and again to complete it but just couldn’t.
Recently, I hit some emotionally turbulent waters and found myself in a bit of a low place. That was when I remembered what it was like to feel helpless and hopeless. Like there was more darkness than light. More stop than go. More walls than doors.
Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” I had been through an emotional hell before and worked hard to move out of it. And I was going to do it again. I was ready to finish my paper.
I have used all the tools described above to reach a much more positive and healthy place, so I know they work. It was extremely valuable to see in action the powerful role coaching can play in the process of moving through depression and anxiety.
As for that slope, I run that part of the trail almost every day. And I am happy to report that most of the time I don’t even think twice as I cruise effortlessly over it.
 “Depression and Anxiety Escalate during COVID”, American Psychological Association Website, 2021
“the Devastating Ways Depression and Anxiety Impact the Body”, NY Times, Jane E. Brody, 2021
 “The Devastating Ways Depression and Anxiety Impact the Body”, NY Times, Jane E. Brody, 2021
Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins, 1991
the Mountain Is You, Brianna Wiest, 2020
 “How to Recognize and Treat Debilitating Anxiety”, Medical News Today
 “What to Know About Debilitating Depression”, Medical News Today
the Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, 1990
the Mountain Is You, Brianna Wiest, 2020
Atomic Habits, James Clear, 2018