What Is Depression? The Symptoms and Treatments
Depression is something that many people confront during their lives, whether it's having a down day or two or fighting a lingering mood. Losing a loved one, financial woes, relationship troubles, and many other life events can trigger depression. When depression is fleeting, it is a regular part of life. When it is ongoing or extreme, you might need to see a doctor for help.
What Is Depression?
Depression is a feeling of sadness, hopelessness, or despondency. It is entirely natural to feel depressed during very stressful times and situations. When depression worsens or continues for extended periods of time, it may indicate a serious mood disorder. Clinical depression, including conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder, requires treatment. Without help, major cases of depression can lead to suicide or other forms of self-harm.
Stages and Types of Depression
Depression is a term that covers a lot of ground. From a medical standpoint, depression is a lot more than just feeling sad. Depending on the severity of the issue, depression can present concrete, physical symptoms. These are some of the most common types of depression, but there are many more.
- Major depression: Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is one of the most common forms of mental illness in America. More than 15.7 million adults (6.7%) had at least one major depressive episode in 2014. MDD lasts for at least two weeks and may include thoughts of suicide and hopelessness.
- Dysthymia: Ever had a day where you couldn't get excited about anything and had trouble concentrating? Most people do, but when every day is a bad day, it is a warning sign. When your mood is persistently low for two years or more, it could be a form of depression called dysthymia.
- Postpartum depression: The post-birth blues can strike days or months after labor, but the massive hormonal cocktail of childbirth and sudden life change may lead to a deepening depression.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder: Appropriately shortened to SAD, this condition comes and goes with the change of seasons, affecting most people in fall and winter. As the days get shorter, someone with SAD might experience a lack of energy, irritability, and weight gain, among other symptoms. A small subset of people have SAD that occurs in the spring and summer instead, with symptoms including insomnia, weight loss, and anxiety.
- Situational depression: When life gets you down, and major changes strike, it might take a while to adjust. During the adjustment period, you could have situational depression.
These are just a few of the depressive disorders out there. Depression comes in a lot of different forms, so watch for all of its potential symptoms, not just those typically associated with major depression.
Symptoms and Causes
The ultimate cause of depression is a change in brain chemistry, but the motivating force causing the change can be as unique as the individual. Drug use, stressful situations, brain injury, illness, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, and many other behaviors and life events can lead to depression. You might also inherit it. Studies show that there is frequently a hereditary component to depression. There also may not be an apparent reason for someone's depression; sometimes it's a chemical imbalance that happens on its own. If you think you might be depressed or worry about a loved one, look for these signs:
- Withdrawal from fun activities
- Lack of concentration
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes to appetite
- Thoughts of suicide
Prevention and Risks
While there is no guaranteed way to prevent depression, you can manage the symptoms and minimize the risk of relapse. Learn how to identify your common warning signs of depressive episodes so you can try to manage them before they worsen. Changes in appetite are a common symptom of depression, so eat well and regularly to give your body energy. Get moving with an exercise you usually enjoy, since movement and exercise help release endorphins that can provide you with a relaxed feeling. Getting a good night's sleep is also important. Lack of sleep can cause many of the same symptoms as depression, and depression itself can disrupt one's sleep schedule, so go to sleep on time as much as possible. Seek immediate medical help if you or a loved one:
- Start having thoughts of suicide.
- Hurt yourself purposefully.
- Stop talking to friends and family.
- Start planning for death.
Diagnosis and Tests
When you have an illness, your doctor might draw blood or take a urine sample. When you have depression, the path to a diagnosis is a bit more complicated. Often, the best diagnostic tool is a conversation. Your doctor might ask about your sleeping habits, mood, diet, exercise, and social activities. A full physical exam with a complete set of tests can rule out other problems that might look like depression. For example, a vitamin D deficiency comes with many of the symptoms of depression, but treatment is a simple supplement and more time spent out in the sun. An underactive thyroid can also cause depression and can be treated with medication. After ruling out a physical cause, and gathering a list of symptoms, you might get a diagnosis of depression and a referral to a therapist.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
Not everyone with depression needs medication. Many people with depressive disorders respond well to talk therapy. Yoga is another therapy option that can help you control some of the symptoms of depression. Light exercise, rhythmic breathing, and social activities can provide moments of relief from anxiety. Conditions such as MDD and bipolar disorder often call for the addition of prescription drugs. Antidepressants can help balance your brain chemistry, improving your mood. However, not every medication works well for every patient, so be prepared to go through a period of trial and error to find a drug that works for you.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
If you feel good physically, you are more likely to feel good mentally. Eating well and avoiding foods with a crash, like carbs and sweets, can help even out your mood. Regular exercise gives you a positive way to deal with stress and helps give you a general feeling of well-being.
If you feel sad, apathetic, uninterested in life, or don't really feel anything at all, you might be battling depression. You don't have to fight alone. Therapy, and medication, if necessary, can help you break the bonds of depression.
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- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: Depression Statistics
- National Institute of Mental Health: Major Depression Among Adults
- World Health Organization: Depression
- Here to Help: Preventing Relapse of Depression
- Everyday Health: 9 Depression Types to Know
- Mayo Clinic: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Web MD: Tips for Summer Depression