Persistent Sadness & Loss of Interest in Life
What Is Depression?
Being depressed often feels like carrying a very heavy burden, but you are not alone in this struggle. Millions of Americans suffer from some form of depression every year, making it one of the most common mental disorders in the country.
Gaining a deeper understanding of depression can help begin the journey to recovery. Taking some time to learn more about the causes and symptoms of depression will assist you greatly when it comes time to consider methods of treatment.
Depression is more than just feeling sad. Everyone feels upset or unmotivated from time to time, but depression is more serious. It is a mood disorder characterized by prolonged feelings of sadness and loss of interest in daily activities. If these symptoms persist for a period of at least two weeks, it is considered a depressive episode.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States.1
Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that in 2017, an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States reported having at least one major depressive episode in the previous 12 months. That’s 7.1% of all US adults ages 18 and older. Adult females have a higher prevalence of experiencing a major depressive episode than their male counterparts—8.7% compared to 5.3% in adult males. Depression in the adolescent population (ages 12 to 17) has also increased. An estimated 3.2 million adolescents had at least one major depressive episode—a number that represents 13.3% of the adolescent population.
Not only is depression prevalent, but it also creates the heaviest burden of disability among mental and behavior disorders. According to a 2010 World Health Organization (WHO) report, depression accounted for 3.7% of all U.S. disability-adjusted life years and 8.3% of all U.S. years lived with disability.
Causes of Depression
There is no one cause for depression, as it depends on a unique combination of an individual’s genetic makeup and environmental conditions. There are many factors to take into account:
- The brain’s physical structure or chemistry
- History of depression in the family
- History of other disorders (anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder)
- Stressful, traumatic events (abuse, financial issues, death of a loved one)
- Hormone changes (menstrual cycles, pregnancy)
- Certain medications (sleeping aids, blood pressure medication)
Types of Depression
Just as there is no one cause for depression, there isn’t only one type of depression. It can take many forms. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders lists nine distinct types:
- Major depression, as we discussed, is the most common type of depression. Often, people with major depression experience recurrent episodes throughout their lives.
- Dysthymia is a persistent low mood over a long period of time, even a year or more. It could be described as feeling like you’re living on autopilot.
- Some people are more sensitive to the lower amount of light in the wintertime. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression brought on from a lack of natural sunlight.
- Those with Atypical Depression often report feeling a heaviness in their limbs. They may suffer from irritability and relationship problems, as well as be prone to overeating and oversleeping.
- Bipolar Disorder is also called Manic Depressive Disorder because it involves alternating between mania and depressive episodes.
- Sometimes depressive episodes can get so severe that hallucinations or delusions are present, the person becomes catatonic, or they feel stuck in bed. This is known as Psychotic Depression.
- Postpartum Depression occurs after giving birth. Mothers may feel disconnected from their new baby or fear that they will hurt their child.
- Severe depression that shows up during the second half of the menstrual cycle is called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. It affects the individual’s ability to function normally.
- Situational Depression is triggered by a life-changing event. It could be anything, from losing your job to the death of an immediate family member.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Though there are multiple types of depression, many of them have similar recognizable symptoms. This list scratches the surface, but it provides a general idea of what comprises depression:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, or emptiness
- Irritability, frustration, or restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that used to be enjoyable
- Difficulty sleeping, sleep disturbances or sleeping too much
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Difficulty thinking clearly, remembering, concentrating, or making decisions
- Appetite or weight changes
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or back pain
Experiencing some combination of these symptoms for a period of at least two weeks likely signifies that you are in the midst of a depressive episode. See 7 Surprising Symptoms of Depression.
Any treatment for depression should coincide with a healthy diet and a regular sleep schedule. It may sound simplistic, but the importance of taking care of your body cannot be overstated.
There are various methods you could use to sooth the symptoms of depression. All of us could stand to exercise more often, but exercise is especially helpful for the depressed mind. It enables you to better handle stress, and the endorphins released during exercise give you a mental boost. Aside from the mental health benefits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that physical activity helps you sleep better at night.
Yoga is a more accessible form of exercise, because it doesn’t require equipment and because many of the moves and poses do not require much effort. Meditation is a highly effective way of clearing your head and calming your body. It’s also easy to do, with guided meditations available through phone apps, online in text and videos, and in books.
If you enjoy keeping a journal, you may find that it helps to express your thoughts on paper instead of bottling them inside. It’s helpful to have close friends and family who you can confide in, but they’re not always available or may be dealing with stress of their own. This makes keeping a journal a good idea to have an alternate way to vent.
Therapy with anyone from a guidance counselor to a certified therapist can work wonders, and many may prefer therapy over the medication route. Situational depression especially can be relieved by having a way to get everything off your chest and receive practical advice.
For a more hands-on approach, try experts like psychiatrists or psychologists. They offer many types of therapy, from light therapy for Seasonal Affective Disorder to cognitive behavioral therapy that works to change your thought processes.
Other alternatives include drinking special teas or taking supplements. The properties of green tea and chamomile tea give them a calming effect, and some have found success drinking St. John’s Wort tea to treat depression. It can also be taken as a supplement. While there is no proof that St. John’s Wort improves depression symptoms, fish oil, and SAM-e are supplements with a proven impact.
There is no shame in taking medication to manage your depression. People routinely take medication for physical ailments, and having a mental illness isn’t any different. If you’re worried about the possible side effects, call your doctor to discuss them. Any medication can be tapered down or ceased, and there are different types available to suit your individual needs and chemistry.
Remember that recovery is a journey, not a destination. Bad days will still come, but with well-targeted treatment, you should be able to overcome extreme lows. While science has yet to find a cure for mental disorders such as depression, it is entirely possible to live a happy and fulfilling life in spite of it.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, or someone you love is in danger, we strongly suggest that you reach out to to a qualified mental health professional. To aid in your search please consider our directory of emergency mental health resources.