What Is Depression?
Depression is a medical illness that affects both the mind and body; it affects how you feel, think and behave. Depression is more than just a bout of the blues: it is a chronic condition that usually requires long-term treatment. When feelings of extreme sadness or despair last for two weeks or more and begin to interfere with normal living, you may be a suffering from a depressive disorder. Depression is not just “sadness” or feeling down. Individuals who have depression feel helpless, hopeless, and tend to blame themselves for feeling this way. Depression can interfere with their ability to function in their daily lives, hold a job, or maintain a relationship. Some people with depression may even have thoughts of suicide or death.
The good news is most people with depression feel better with medication, psychological counseling, or another form of treatment. Understanding the signs and symptoms of depression can go a long way in finding the most effective treatment option for you. Once you can identify that you may have a depressive disorder you can begin to seek the treatment you need to find relief and start to feel like yourself again.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression
The severity, frequency and duration of symptoms will vary from person to person. However, there are some common signs and symptoms across most types of depression such as:
- A persistent feeling of deep sadness, anxiousness and worry, or emptiness that you just can’t shake regardless of what you try.
- Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A belief that nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do.
- Strong feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or being overly self-critical.
- Low tolerance for daily frustrations; generally feeling irritable, restless, or agitated.
- An overall loss in the ability to feel pleasure or joy; no longer being interested in former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex.
- Feeling physically drained or an overall sense of sluggishness. Your whole body may feel heavy, and completing a small task seems exhausting and overwhelming.
- Difficulty remembering details, making decisions, or focusing on a single activity or topic.
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or oversleeping (also known as hypersomnia).
- Overeating or loss of appetite resulting in significant weight gain or loss.
- Thoughts of suicide, or suicide attempts.
- Persistent, unexplained aches and pains such as headaches, muscles aches, cramps, or digestive problems.
- Social isolation, not wanting to be with other people, and feeling like you are alone in the world.
- Lack of motivation to complete even the simplest tasks like getting out of bed, bathing, or brush your teeth
- Not being able to keep up with responsibilities like work, preparing meals, or caring for your family.
Types of Depression
There are several types of depressive disorders, each with unique traits, causes, and effects. Knowing what type of depression you are dealing with can go a long way in helping to manage symptoms as well as select the most effective treatment program. Your doctor or therapist can make an assessment based on the severity and duration of your symptoms. The most common types are:
Major depressive disorder, or major depression, is characterized by six or more symptoms of depression that significantly interfere with a person’s ability to enjoy life and experience pleasure. The symptoms are constant, ranging from moderate to severe, and if left untreated can last up to six months or longer. Major depression can be crippling and typically interferes with a person’s abilities to carry out their normal activities. While an episode of major depression may occur only once in a person’s life for a certain time, it is often a recurring issue for many people. Major depression, while debilitating, is also treatable so that people who suffer from this condition can restore their quality of life and feel like themselves again.
Dysthymic disorder is characterized as a low-grade depression lasting at least two years or more. While not necessarily disabling, dysthymic depression can prevent a person from fully enjoying life or feeling well. In addition, people with dysthymia can experience one or more episodes of major depression (double depression) in their lifetime. Individuals that suffer from dysthymia often feel like they’ve always been depressed, or being low is “just who they are.” However, dysthymia is treatable, allowing individuals to live significantly improved lives, even if their symptoms have gone unrecognized and untreated for years.
There are several less common forms of depressive disorder that exhibit slightly different characteristics or are triggered by specific events. They include:
Atypical depression is a common subtype of major depression. It is characterized by temporary “mood lifts” in response to a positive event. However, the benefits are fleeting and the depression returns. Other symptoms include increased appetite and weight gain, excessive sleeping, a heavy feeling in the arms and legs, and increased sensitivity to criticism or rejection.
Psychotic depression is characterized by major depression accompanied by some form of psychosis, such as breaks in reality, hallucinations, and delusions. Individuals with psychotic depression may need to be hospitalized as they are often unable to care for themselves.
Postpartum depression may appear to be the “baby blues” or be caused by lack of sleep that accompanies having a newborn at first, but symptoms are more intense, longer lasting and interfere with daily tasks and the ability to care for the baby. Postpartum depression is a serious condition that requires active treatment and emotional support for the new mother. Left untreated, postpartum depression can last for a year or longer. Postpartum depression symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by the onset of depression during fall and winter and is more common in northern climates and younger people. The depression generally lifts during spring and summer when there is more exposure to natural sunlight. For some, light therapy (exposure to artificial sunlight) can help relieve their symptoms. Others require treatment with antidepressant medication and psychotherapy during the months they are affected.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is characterized by cycling mood changes lasting for several weeks at a time. Episodes of depression alternate with manic episodes of impulsive behavior, hyperactivity, rapid speech, and insomnia. When depressed, the person exhibits the usual symptoms of major depression. However, it is important to note the treatment for bipolar depression is unique and antidepressants can make bipolar depression worse.
Treatment for Depression
Depression, even the most severe cases, typically responds very well to treatment. Many individuals who seek treatment go on to lead healthy, productive lives. The specific treatment approach used will depend on the type of depression, its severity, and personal preferences. In general, most depressive disorders are treated with psychotherapy or counseling, medication, or some combination of the two.
Sometimes people feel they have “failed” at therapy or that treatment didn’t work. However, it is important to be patients and give adequate time to a treatment plan to truly gauge its success. Many medications can take six to eight weeks before they fully begin to work and psychotherapy typically requires ongoing sessions before a person with depression begins to see an improvement in how they’re feeling. In many cases, individuals may need to try several different treatment combinations before they find the right one for them.
Before a treatment can be administered, a patient will need to be evaluated by a physician to determine if the symptoms of concern are caused by depression or another medical condition. In addition, individuals with depression commonly struggle with additional mental or physical illnesses, including anxiety, anger management, eating disorders, or substance abuse which can lead to increased risk for suicide. The earlier treatment can begin, the more effective it will be and the greater the likelihood of preventing complications from co-existing mental or physical illnesses.
There are many antidepressant medications available to treat depression. Antidepressants are generally categorized by which chemicals in your brain (serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine) they affect in order to change your mood. Medication is most effective when combined with behavioral therapy. Medication will not cure depression, but can help keep symptoms under control while the person receives counseling. With treatment, many people with depression lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
There are a wide variety of antidepressants available and a person may have to try several types before they find the right medication for them. Your doctor will guide you through finding the medication, or combination of medications, that are right for treating your depression.
There are two main types of psychotherapy that have proven to be effective in treating depression:
- Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) focuses on helping people change negative styles of thinking and behaving that may contribute to their depression and correcting or re-purposing the thinking process toward a more positive response. CBT challenges the automatic internal beliefs a person has about themselves and teaches people to view themselves through a more realistic and positive lens.
- Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) focuses on helping people understand and work through troubled personal relationships that may cause their depression or make it worse. Addressing issues in past and current relationships can be useful in helping a person remove themselves from toxic situations that may make their depression symptoms worse.
Self Help Strategies
Social Support Network – A compassionate and understanding social support network can be instrumental in the recovery of a person with depression. Close personal relationships with family, friends, and the community is directly linked to a person’s general sense of well-being. Positive feedback and support can help motivate a person to stay the course of treatment. In addition, many people with depression benefit from joining a support group or online support community. Swapping stories of success and failure can lead to some very important self-awareness improvements and inspiration. Since many people with depression isolate themselves from others, having someone they can reach out to who understands their struggles can be very beneficial. However, advice from friends or support groups should never be used as a substitute for care from a psychologist or mental health counselor.
Healthy Lifestyle – Eating well, avoidance of drugs and alcohol and getting plenty of regular exercise can provide significant relief from depression symptoms. A person’s physical well-being is directly linked to their mental and emotional well-being. Even on days when a person doesn’t feel like it, making the effort to get fresh air, drink water, eat well, and do some light exercise like walking or stretching can make an impact on a person’s depression symptoms, even if it’s only for a certain period. For people with depression, even a small break from their symptoms can be a tremendous relief.
Find a Therapist for Help with Depression
With treatment, many people with depression lead healthy, fulfilling lives. Search TherapyTribe for a psychologist or mental health counselor specializing in depression and learn more about treatment options for depression. TherapyTribe can connect individuals with therapists online or to professionals located near where they live.
If you are thinking about harming yourself, or know someone who is, please call your doctor or 911 immediately. And make sure you or the suicidal person is not left alone. If ever you are feeling hopeless, suicidal, or simply in need of speaking with someone, there are numerous free and anonymous hotlines with trained operators available. Click here for a list of hotlines.
Depression Treatment Articles:
Depression: How Psychotherapy Helps People Recover from Depression: Psychotherapy offers people the opportunity to identify the factors that contribute to their depression and to deal effectively with the psychological, behavioral, interpersonal and situational causes.
How Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Be Used to Treat Depression: CBT has some of the highest success rates of any depression treatment other than medication, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This comes in part because CBT is so hands on.
What is CBT? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Treatment: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a blend of two types of therapy: cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy. The premise behind cognitive therapy is to focus on a person’s thoughts and beliefs, and how they influence a person’s mood and actions.