Everyone feels sad sometimes – maybe even for no apparent reason. But, if you are feeling sadder than usual, or if it seems like you just can’t shake the mood, you might be wondering if you are depressed.
Usually, when you are in a funk or have “the blues,” you know it’ll pass and that you’ll feel better on the other side. But, when you’re depressed, you may have the sense that things couldn’t possibly get better. Words like helpless, hopeless or worthless may be entering your thoughts. You could even feel guilty about your bleak outlook. These are signs that what you’re experiencing is more than just a passing mood. You may be depressed.
If you’re feeling this way, you’re not alone. Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, with more than 17 million U.S. adults experiencing an episode of major depression in a given year. And there’s treatment to help you feel better.
So, how do you know if you’re depressed?
First, let’s talk about the way you feel when you’re depressed. You’re not just low or blue. It may seem like you could never possibly feel different from the way you do right now. You might think that there’s no way out. Maybe you keep dwelling on mistakes you think you’ve made or regrets from the past. You could find yourself getting angry or frustrated at things that don’t seem to warrant that kind of reaction. Or, maybe you just cry a lot, and for no apparent reason. For some people, these emotions can become so intense that they find themselves thinking about death or suicide.
A depressed mood can spill over into everything. It could rob you of any interest in the stuff that you usually enjoy. It affects your sleep and energy levels, too. Some people get a lot less sleep because of depression. You might have a hard time falling asleep. Or, maybe you fall asleep all right, but you always wake up in the middle of the night and then can’t get back to sleep. Or, it could be that you just want to sleep all the time. Getting out of bed may even feel like a chore.
Either way, these big changes in your sleep schedule can make it hard to live your life – which will only make you feel worse. When you’re awake, you could be extremely tired or just tapped out of energy. This makes it hard to get even the simplest things done – like getting yourself ready for work or running an errand. Or, it could be the opposite feeling. You’re anxious and restless all the time. That’s not comfortable either and makes it very hard to focus.
Sleep problems could be the reason that some people who are depressed also have trouble thinking clearly, concentrating, and making decisions.
It’s likely no surprise that depression can affect your appetite, too. You might have no desire to eat and notice that you’ve been losing weight without trying. Alternatively, your depression may trigger cravings that lead to overeating and weight gain.
A lot of people think of mental health and physical health as completely separate, but your mind is a part of your body. Underscoring this is the fact that depression often causes real physical pain. Things like back pain, headaches, or other pains that don't seem to have an obvious cause could all be symptoms of depression.
The key difference between depression and a passing depressed mood is time. In fact, for a doctor to diagnose depression, you usually need to show symptoms for at least two weeks.
There’s also a few different kinds of depression. The two most common – also defined by their timing – are major depression and persistent depressive disorder. Major depression describes symptoms of depression that last for two weeks or more. With persistent depressive disorder, you feel depressed to some degree for at least two years. But, over the course of those two years, you might only have bouts of severe symptoms on and off for a few weeks each time.
You can also have depression along with another condition. Anxiety and depression, for example, often go hand in hand. About 60 percent of people who have anxiety also have symptoms of depression. Eating disorders and substance use disorders can often accompany depression as well.
Depression is also connected to some physical illnesses. A serious health condition, like a heart attack or stroke, can lead to depression. And it works the other way, too. Ongoing depression may raise your risk for some serious illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Doctors don’t know for sure what causes depression. It’s probably not one single thing that causes it. Most likely, it’s a combination of things – changes in your body and the world around you.
Researchers can see physical changes in the brains of people who have depression. Chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood play a part in the condition. Hormone changes, for example, in pregnancy or menopause, could also put the wheels in motion for depression to develop. You might also inherit some risk through your genes. Depression often runs in families.
But these biological factors alone aren’t necessarily enough to cause depression. It could be that biology raises your risk, and then some event triggers the symptoms. A traumatic event, such as a death, physical abuse, a breakup, divorce, or other stressful life change – like financial troubles – could provoke depression.
Even though doctors don’t fully understand the cause of depression, they do know how to treat it. Some changes to your daily routine, talk therapy, and medication help. All three of these together or a combination may work well for you.
There’s a lot of research that shows that exercise boosts your mood and helps relieve symptoms of depression. Physical activity helps your body produce mood-enhancing chemicals. Exercise can also help you feel better about yourself.
Your brain needs healthy food to function and produce the chemicals that regulate your mood. Make sure you get plenty of fiber, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats, like those found in nuts and some types of fish. Steer clear of saturated fat and added sugars. These may seem like comfort foods, but they could actually make the symptoms of depression worse. Some coffee drinkers who have depression notice they feel a little better when they switch to decaf.
There’s a couple of reasons to avoid alcohol if you have depression. For starters, alcohol itself is a depressant. So, while you might want to drink to feel better, it could make you feel worse. People who are depressed may be more likely to develop a substance use disorder.
Make sure you get enough sleep, too. While you sleep, your brain stocks up on the chemicals it needs to help balance your mood. Too little sleep leaves you low on these important substances. Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk for depression.
Lifestyle changes alone could help you start to feel better, but they may not be enough. Talk therapy also helps. A therapist can help you adjust to the changes in your life that might have triggered your depression. And therapy will help you identify and change behaviors that could be making you feel worse. Other possible benefits include improved relationships, better coping skills, and a fresh, objective perspective on your life.
Some people benefit from medication, too. If you and your doctor decide that you’ll try medication, it may take some time to find the best drug or combination of drugs for you. There are many different kinds of antidepressants, and everyone responds to them differently. You might need to try several different ones, and sometimes it takes a few weeks before you feel a difference. So be patient with this process and don’t expect instant results.
If you think that you may be depressed, don’t wait to get help. Your first stop might be your primary care doctor, or your doctor could refer you directly to a mental health specialist.
Before your appointment, make a list of your symptoms to share with your doctor. Ask your doctor if depression is the likely cause of these symptoms and what treatment is likely to work best for you.
Be open and honest about your symptoms during your appointment. Don’t forget: Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, and there’s different treatment options to help you feel better.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, do not use a screener. Instead, call 911 or use one of these emergency resources.