Mental health awareness is more prevalent in the 21st-century than it ever has been before, and cases of depression are at an all-time high.
Yet, regardless of the widespread recognition of mental illness, few of us truly understand what depression is, how it affects people and what can be done to alleviate its symptoms.
Indeed, we might know a few facts. We may know that depression is recognized by the presence of intense feelings of sadness, and that sufferers are prone to suicidal ways of thinking.
As far as the specifics go, though, most of us could do with sharpening up our knowledge. Understanding the basics of depression and how it can be treated is essential in a world so heavily plagued by mental illness — in order to protect both ourselves and those around us.
It can be confusing at first, but don’t worry. This article will teach you just about everything you need to know about it.
What is Depression?
Most of us feel sad from time-to-time. Sometimes our sadness has a direct cause, but sometimes feelings of sorrow can crop up out of nowhere for reasons unbeknownst to us.
When feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness persist for extended periods of time, that might signify more than just a momentary dip in mood.
Those could be the early signs of clinical depression.
But what exactly is clinical depression? Depression is, in essence, a condition characterised by a prolonged disturbance in mood.
‘Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.
For a more personalised view, Matt, long-term depressive and author , describes depression like this:
‘It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.’
Depression, in essence, makes it incredibly difficult for us to feel happy.
The Difference Between Depression and Grief
It’s normal to feel unhappy after a traumatic event, like losing a loved one or being made redundant. Such feelings might not necessarily denote depression, but rather a natural, healthy response to difficult circumstances.
In grief, for instance, painful emotions tend to come in waves. Feelings of sadness come and go, and bright, happy moments pierce holes in the black canvas that envelops us after the death of somebody close.
Grief is different to depression, although the two are sometimes mistaken for one other
‘The grieving process is natural and unique to each individual and shares some of the same features of depression. Both grief and depression may involve intense sadness and withdrawal from usual activities.’
Memories of those lost come and go, but a person’s self-esteem and sense of purpose usually remain intact at least somewhat when grieving. The same can rarely be said about a person suffering with clinical depression.
grief can bring about Depression.
This is sometimes referred to as ‘complicated grief’, since the normal, transitory grieving process becomes prolonged.
Again, there is a stark difference between normal grief and complicated grief or depression. As the American Cancer Society writes,
‘If the grieving person begins to abuse alcohol or drugs, neglects personal hygiene, develops physical problems, or talks about suicide, it may be a sign of complicated grief or depression.’
Although there is indeed some overlap between the symptoms of grief and depression, the two remain markedly different.
Understanding these differences is important. Mistaking them could lead to a misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment.
what actually causes depression?
The direct cause of depression can vary greatly from person-to-person. It can affect anybody — even those with no discernible reasons for feeling unhappy.
Factors that might play a role in causing depression include:
- Biochemistry: For some people, depression is a biologically-driven condition. Differences or imbalances in neurotransmitters such as serotonin may contribute to symptoms of depression.
- Genetics: Sometimes, depression can be a hereditary condition that runs in families. Identical twins, for instance, have a 70% chance of having depression in their lifetime if their sibling does.
- Personality: Personality can also play a role in depression, affecting people with low self-esteem, those that find it difficult to deal with stress or even people with a generally pessimistic outlook on life.
- Environmental factors: As discussed previously, sometimes, troubling events can increase the chances that a person will suffer from depression. Exposure to violence, neglect, poverty and others are all factors that can increase these chances.
Do I Have depression?
We all feel down from time-to-time. Depression isn’t just about sadness, though. There are a number of other symptoms that medical professionals use to identify depression in their patients.
Common symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling sad
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite; weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
The difficulty in diagnosing depression is that any one of us may experience some of the above symptoms but not necessarily have clinical depression. So how long should these symptoms last before alarm bells start to ring?
Treatments for depression
Globally, doctors and scientists agree that depression is, undoubtedly, a curable mental illness. If you’re suffering from depression or worry that you may at some point in the future, you can rest assured knowing that there’s always a way out of the other end of the tunnel.
Between 80 and 90 percent of depressives respond well to treatment eventually, even if results take a while to show, and almost all patients gain some sort of relief from symptoms with treatment.
But how exactly is depression treated? What options are available to those suffering? Well, there are quite a few.
As discussed earlier, brain chemistry can sometimes play a role in depression. Imbalances in neurotransmitters alter the way a person feels, making it difficult for them to remain happy despite their greatest efforts.
In such cases, medications like antidepressants can be used in an attempt to alter neurochemistry and boost happiness. Such medications aren’t addictive, in contrast to the stigma sometimes attached to them.
Though antidepressants can sometimes alleviate symptoms within the first couple of weeks, full benefits might not be seen for two or three months.
Medication is helpful when it comes to reducing the symptoms of depression quickly, but it isn’t usually an effective treatment by itself. For that reason, other methods are usually used in conjunction with tablets.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is sometimes used alone as the sole treatment for milder cases of depression. If cases are more severe, psychotherapy is usually used alongside medication in an attempt to deal with the root cause of the problem whilst managing immediate symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is usually used as a psychological treatment for depression. CBT involves teaching patients how to recognise distorted thinking and arming them with tools they can use to counteract it, working to form healthier thinking patterns overtime.
Self-Help Treatments for Depression
Medication and CBT are methods used most commonly by doctors and practitioners. Both have been scientifically proven to be effective in managing and treating depression.
As well as these, though, there are a wealth of different practices individuals can use to alleviate the symptoms of depression on their own. These include:
Mindfulness is, simply put, the act of being present. It’s the practice of focusing on this moment and disconnecting from thoughts.
Consider your state of mind when you woke up this morning. Did you spend the first few minutes of your day listening to the birds, feeling the sunshine on your face and sipping your morning coffee peacefully?
Or did you, like most people, wake up late, rush to make it to work and arrive feeling stressed-out and unhappy?
The first instance is an example of mindfulness. When we’re mindful,
we’re focused on nothing other than the present moment.
Depression is an illness characterised by excessive thought and detachment from reality. It forces us to think of the negative elements of our lives and our troubled past rather than the positive aspects of each new day.
Many people sufferers from it claim that mindfulness has had profound benefits on their state of mind. But what exactly does it mean to be mindful?
Well, as Mark G. Williams, author of ‘The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness’, puts it,
‘Being mindful means that we suspend judgment for a time, set aside our immediate goals for the future, and take in the present moment as it is rather than as we would like it to be.’
It’s about letting our thoughts settle, even if just for a few minutes a day, and reconnecting with reality. Whenever feelings of sorrow or negative thoughts arise, try asking yourself this: am I being truly mindful right now?
If the answer is no, take a long, deep breath. As you breathe out, just notice the world around you — the sounds, sights and sensations in this present moment.
That’s what mindfulness is all about — noticing, and it can be an incredibly effective tool when it comes to finding clarity when symptoms arise.
Take Care of Yourself
When feeling depressed, one of the first things to fall to the bottom of the priority pile is our health. The moment we start to feel down, many of us abandon our workout plan, let our sleeping pattern run wild and resort to eating junk food as a coping mechanism.
The irony of these behaviours is that, in an attempt to relieve our pain, they actually make us feel worse in the long-run.
Resisting the urge to succumb to these temptations will help to keep your symptoms from piling on top of you. It’s difficult, but it is possible. As Andrew Solomon, author of ‘The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression’, writes, you should:
‘Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.’
In essence, you should do all you can to keep on track, upholding the pillars that you know are important to your health and wellbeing. Doing so will also help to alleviate the symptoms of depression.
Exercise, for example, can have many positive effects on your mood. As you may already know, when you exercise, your body releases hormones known as endorphins, which relieve pain and stress and boost happiness.
Simply moving more often, whether it’s through running, yoga or weightlifting, can help to mitigate the symptoms whilst increasing your overall health and well-being.
Avoid Drugs and Alcohol
Although it can be tempting to resort to drugs and alcohol when seeking to manage the symptoms of depression, this is never a good idea. Neither recreational drugs or alcohol will make your depression better — only worse.
As Healthline puts it,
‘While these substances may help you forget your condition temporarily, drugs and alcohol can actually make depression worse. On top of this, many antidepressant drugs react negatively with drugs and alcohol, which can put you in danger.’
If resisting drugs or alcohol is difficult for you, you should seek help from a therapist. In the absence of recreational drugs and with the help of a therapist, your depressive symptoms may improve overtime.
Depression is never a welcome guest in our lives. Thankfully, it’s a highly-treatable mental illness that can be cured with the right support and treatment plan.
By learning how to identify symptoms of depression, understanding it’s causes and then finding the appropriate therapy for you, depression doesn’t have to impede on your happiness forever. It takes time and effort, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
To finish, I’ll leave you with a quote from Matt Haig. If you’re suffering with depression at the moment, I highly recommend that you read his book, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’.
‘Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.’