Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Help
Feeling down from time to time is a normal part of life. But when emptiness and despair take hold and won’t go away, it may be depression. The lows of depression make it tough to function and enjoy life like you once did. Just getting through the day can be overwhelming. No matter hopeless you feel, you can get better. But first, you need to understand depression. Learning about depression—including its signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment—is the first step to overcoming the problem.
What is depression?
We all go through ups and downs in our mood. Sadness is a normal reaction to life’s struggles, setbacks, and disappointments. Many people use the word “depression” to explain these kinds of feelings, but depression is much more than just sadness.
Some people describe depression as “living in a black hole” or having a feeling of impending doom. However, some depressed people don’t feel sad at all—they may feel lifeless, empty, and apathetic, or men in particular may even feel angry, aggressive, and restless.
Whatever the symptoms, depression is different from normal sadness in that it engulfs your day-to-day life, interfering with your ability to work, study, eat, sleep, and have fun. The feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness are intense and unrelenting, with little, if any, relief.
Signs and symptoms of depression
Depression varies from person to person, but there are some common signs and symptoms. It’s important to remember that these symptoms can be part of life’s normal lows. But the more symptoms you have, the stronger they are, and the longer they’ve lasted—the more likely it is that you’re dealing with depression. When these symptoms are overwhelming and disabling, that’s when it’s time to seek help.
Common signs and symptoms of depression
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.
- Loss of interest in daily activities. No interest in former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.
- Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.
- Sleep changes. Either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours of the morning, or oversleeping (also known as hypersomnia).
- Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
- Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
- Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
- Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.
- Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
- Unexplained aches and pains. An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.
Depression and suicide
Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The deep despair and hopelessness that goes along with depression can make suicide feel like the only way to escape the pain. Thoughts of death or suicide are a serious symptom of depression, so take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously. It’s not just a warning sign that the person is thinking about suicide: it’s a cry for help.
Warning signs of suicide include:
The faces of depression
Depression often looks different in men and women, and in young people and older adults. An awareness of these differences helps ensure that the problem is recognized and treated.
Depression in men
Depression is a loaded word in our culture. Many associate it, however wrongly, with a sign of weakness and excessive emotion. This is especially true with men. Depressed men are less likely than women to acknowledge feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness. Instead, they tend to complain about fatigue, irritability, sleep problems, and loss of interest in work and hobbies. Other signs and symptoms of depression in men include anger, aggression, violence, reckless behavior, and substance abuse. Even though depression rates for women are twice as high as those in men, men are a higher suicide risk, especially older men.
Depression in women
Rates of depression in women are twice as high as they are in men. This is due in part to hormonal factors, particularly when it comes to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), postpartum depression, and perimenopausal depression. As for signs and symptoms, women are more likely than men to experience pronounced feelings of guilt, sleep excessively, overeat, and gain weight. Women are also more likely to suffer from seasonal affective disorder.
Depression in men
While some depressed teens appear sad, others do not. In fact, irritability—rather than depression—is frequently the predominant symptom in depressed adolescents and teens. A depressed teenager may be hostile, grumpy, or easily lose his or her temper. Unexplained aches and pains are also common symptoms of depression in young people.
Left untreated, teen depression can lead to problems at home and school, drug abuse, self-loathing—even irreversible tragedy such as homicidal violence or suicide. But with help, teenage depression is highly treatable.
Depression in older adults
The difficult changes that many older adults face—such as bereavement, loss of independence, and health problems—can lead to depression, especially in those without a strong support system. However, depression is not a normal part of aging. Older adults tend to complain more about the physical rather than the emotional signs and symptoms of depression, and so the problem often goes unrecognized. Depression in older adults is associated with poor health, a high mortality rate, and an increased risk of suicide, so diagnosis and treatment are extremely important.
Many new mothers suffer from some fleeting form of the “baby blues.” Postpartum depression, in contrast, is a longer lasting and more serious depression triggered, in part, by hormonal changes associated with having a baby. Postpartum depression usually develops soon after delivery, but any depression that occurs within six months of childbirth may be postpartum depression.
Types of depression
Depression comes in many shapes and forms. The different types of depression have unique symptoms, causes, and effects. Knowing what type of depression you have can help you manage your symptoms and get the most effective treatment.
Major depression is characterized by the inability to enjoy life and experience pleasure. The symptoms are constant, ranging from moderate to severe. Left untreated, major depression typically lasts for about six months. Some people experience just a single depressive episode in their lifetime, but more commonly, major depression is a recurring disorder. However, there are many things you can do to support your mood and reduce the risk of recurrence.
Dysthymia (recurrent, mild depression)
Dysthmia is a type of chronic “low-grade” depression. More days than not, you feel mildly or moderately depressed, although you may have brief periods of normal mood. The symptoms of dysthymia are not as strong as the symptoms of major depression, but they last a long time (at least two years). These chronic symptoms make it very difficult to live life to the fullest or to remember better times. Some people also experience major depressive episodes on top of dysthymia, a condition known as “double depression.” If you suffer from dysthymia, you may feel like you’ve always been depressed. Or you may think that your continuous low mood is “just the way you are.” However, dysthymia can be treated, even if your symptoms have gone unrecognized or untreated for years.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
There’s a reason why so many movies and books portray rainy days and stormy weather as gloomy. Some people get depressed in the fall or winter, when overcast days are frequent and sunlight is limited. This type of depression is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder is more common in northern climates and in younger people. Like depression, seasonal affective disorder is treatable. Light therapy, a treatment that involves exposure to bright artificial light, often helps relieve symptoms.
Bipolar Disorder: When Depression is Just One Side of the Coin
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is characterized by cycling mood changes. Episodes of depression alternate with manic episodes, which can include impulsive behavior, hyperactivity, rapid speech, and little to no sleep. Typically, the switch from one mood extreme to the other is gradual, with each manic or depressive episode lasting for at least several weeks. When depressed, a person with bipolar disorder exhibits the usual symptoms of major depression. However, the treatments for bipolar depression are very different. In fact, antidepressants can make bipolar depression worse.
Depression causes and risk factors
Some illnesses have a specific medical cause, making treatment straightforward. If you have diabetes, you take insulin. If you have appendicitis, you have surgery. But depression is more complicated. Depression is not just the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, and is not simply cured with medication. Experts believe that depression is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. In other words, your lifestyle choices, relationships, and coping skills matter just as much—if not more so—than genetics. However, certain risk factors make you more vulnerable to depression.
Causes and risk factors for depression
The road to depression recovery
Just as the symptoms and causes of depression are different in different people, so are the ways to feel better. What works for one person might not work for another, and no one treatment is appropriate in all cases. If you recognize the signs of depression in yourself or a loved one, take some time to explore the many treatment options. In most cases, the best approach involves a combination of social support, lifestyle changes, emotional skills building, and professional help.
Ask for help and support
If even the thought of tackling your depression seems overwhelming, don’t panic. Feeling helpless and hopeless is a symptom of depression—not the reality of your situation. It does not mean that you’re weak or you can’t change! The key to depression recovery is to start small and ask for help. Having a strong support system in place will speed your recovery. Isolation fuels depression, so reach out to others, even when you feel like being alone. Let your family and friends know what you’re going through and how they can support you.
Make healthy lifestyle changes
Lifestyle changes are not always easy to make, but they can have a big impact on depression. Lifestyle changes that can be very effective include:
Seek professional help
If support from family and friends, positive lifestyle changes, and emotional skills building aren’t enough, seek help from a mental health professional. There are many effective treatments for depression, including therapy, medication, and alternative treatments. Learning about your options will help you decide what measures are most likely to work best for your particular situation and needs.
Effective treatment for depression often includes some form of therapy. Therapy gives you tools to treat depression from a variety of angles. Also, what you learn in therapy gives you skills and insight to prevent depression from coming back.
Some types of therapy teach you practical techniques on how to reframe negative thinking and employ behavioral skills in combating depression. Therapy can also help you work
through the root of your depression, helping you understand why you feel a certain way, what your triggers are for depression, and what you can do to stay healthy.