What is Depression?
Depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder that is affecting more and more people around the world. An estimated 350 million people of all ages experience symptoms of depression and about 13 percent of Americans take antidepressants—a figure that jumps to 25 percent for women in their 40s and 50s.
While some people describe depression as “living in a black hole” or having a feeling of impending doom, others feel lifeless, empty, and apathetic. Men in particular may even feel angry and restless. No matter how you experience it, depression is different from normal sadness in that it engulfs your day-to-day life, interfering with your ability to work, study, eat, sleep, and have fun.
Signs and Symptoms
If you have been experiencing some of the following signs and symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, you may be suffering from depression:
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.
- Loss of interest in daily activities. You don’t care anymore about former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.
- Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.
- Sleep changes. Either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours of the morning, or oversleeping.
- Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
- Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
- Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
- Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.
- Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
- Unexplained aches and pains. An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.
Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom. Some people experience only a few symptoms while others may experience many. Several persistent symptoms in addition to low mood are required for a diagnosis of major depression, but people with only a few – but distressing – symptoms may benefit from treatment of their “sub-syndromal” depression. The severity and frequency of symptoms and how long they last will vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness. Symptoms may also vary depending on the stage of the illness.
Causes of Depression
Depression does not have a single cause. It can be triggered, or it may occur spontaneously without being associated with a life crisis, physical illness or other risk. Scientists believe several factors contribute to cause depression:
Trauma. When people experience trauma at an early age, it can cause long-term changes in how their brains respond to fear and stress. These brain changes may explain why people who have a history of childhood trauma are more likely to experience depression.
Genetics. Mood disorders and risk of suicide tend to run in families, but genetic inheritance is only one factor. Identical twins share 100% of the same genes, but will both develop depression only about 30% of the time. People who have a genetic tendency to develop depression are more likely to show signs at a younger age. While a person may have a genetic tendency, life factors and events seem to influence whether he or she will ever actually experience an episode.
Life circumstances. Marital status, financial standing and where a person lives have an effect on whether a person develops depression, but it can be a case of “the chicken or the egg.” For example, depression is more common in people who are homeless, but the depression itself may be the reason a person becomes homeless.
Brain structure. Imaging studies have shown that the frontal lobe of the brain becomes less active when a person is depressed. Brain patterns during sleep change in a characteristic way. Depression is also associated with changes in how the pituitary gland and hypothalamus respond to hormone stimulation.
Other medical conditions. People who have a history of sleep disturbances, medical illness, chronic pain, anxiety, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop depression.
Drug and alcohol abuse. Approximately 30% of people with substance abuse problems also have depression.
Depression and Suicide Risk
Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The deep despair and hopelessness that goes along with depression can make suicide feel like the only way to escape the pain. If you have a loved one with depression, take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously and watch for the warning signs:
- Talking about killing or harming one’s self
- Expressing strong feelings of hopelessness or being trapped
- An unusual preoccupation with death or dying
- Acting recklessly, as if they have a death wish (e.g. speeding through red lights)
- Calling or visiting people to say goodbye
- Getting affairs in order (giving away prized possessions, tying up loose ends)
- Saying things like “Everyone would be better off without me” or “I want out”
- A sudden switch from being extremely depressed to acting calm and happy treatment.
Although depression can be a devastating illness, it often responds to treatment. The key is to get a specific evaluation and a treatment plan. Today, there are a variety of treatment options available for people with depression.
- Medications, including antidepressants, mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications
- Psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, family-focused therapy and interpersonal therapy
- Brain stimulation therapies, including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)
- Light therapy, which uses a light box to expose a person to full spectrum light and regulate the hormone melatonin
- Alternative therapies, including acupuncture, meditation and nutrition
- Self-management strategies and education
- Mind/body/spirit approaches, such as meditation, faith and prayer
Though depression cannot be cured, it can be treated effectively.