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 illness 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,” individuals who have depression feel helpless, hopeless and tend to blame themselves for feeling this way. Some 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.

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 sadness, anxiousness or emptiness that you just can’t shake.
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A belief that nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do.
  • Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt or being overly self-critical.
  • Low tolerance for daily frustrations; generally irritable, restless or agitated.
  • A general loss in the ability to feel pleasure or joy; no longer 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.
  • 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.

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. The most common types are major depressive disorder and dysthymic disorder.

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. While an episode of major depression may occur only once in a person’s life, it is often a recurring issue for many people.

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 sub-type 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,” 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.

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.

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 Therapy
What is Depression Therapy?

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 give adequate time to a treatment plan to truly gauge its success. And, on occasion 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 is and the greater the likelihood of preventing complications from co-existing mental or physical illnesses.

A number of antidepressant medications are 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, fulfilling lives.

There are two main types of psychotherapy that have proven to be effective in treating depression: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT).

  • 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.
  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) focuses on helping people understand and work through troubled personal relationships that may cause their depression or make it 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 However, advice from friends 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.

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.

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.