Depression can impact every area of a woman’s life including your physical health, social life, relationships, career, and sense of self-worth and is complicated by factors such as reproductive hormones, social pressures, and the unique female response to stress. However, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Women are about twice as likely as men to suffer from depression but depression is treatable and there are plenty of things you can do to make yourself feel better.
However, while you may not have much energy, you probably have enough to take a short walk around the block or pick up the phone to call a loved one, for example—and that can be a great start to boosting your mood and improving your outlook. It’s important to also learn about the factors that cause depression in women so you can tackle the condition head on, treat your depression most effectively, and help prevent it from coming back.
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms of depression in women vary from mild to severe (major depression) and are distinguished by the impact they have on your ability to function.
Common signs of depression include:
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. You feel as if nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.
- You don’t care anymore about former hobbies, pastimes, and social activities you used to enjoy.
- Appetite changes often leading to significant weight loss or weight gain.
- Changes in your sleep pattern.
- Feeling angry, agitated, restless.
- Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and drained of energy.
- Trouble concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things.
- Increase in aches and pains, including headaches, cramps, breast tenderness, or bloating.
- Suicidal thoughts.
Women also tend to experience certain depression symptoms more often than men. These include:
- Depression in the winter months (seasonal affective disorder) due to lower levels of sunlight.
- Symptoms of atypical depression, where rather than sleeping less, eating less, and losing weight, you experience the opposite: sleeping excessively, eating more (especially refined carbohydrates), and gaining weight.
- Strong feelings of guilt and worthlessness. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
Causes of depression in women
Women report experiencing depression at much higher rates than men. This gender disparity may be explained by a number of social, biological, and hormonal factors that are specific to women.
Premenstrual problems. Hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle can cause the familiar symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), such as bloating, irritability, fatigue, and emotional reactivity.
For some women, symptoms are severe and disabling and may warrant a diagnosis of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). PMDD is characterized by severe depression, irritability, and other mood disturbances beginning about 10 to 14 days before your period and improving within a few days of its start.
Pregnancy and infertility. The many hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy can contribute to depression, particularly in women already at high risk. Other issues relating to pregnancy such as miscarriage, unwanted pregnancy, and infertility can also play a role in depression.
Postpartum depression. It’s not uncommon for new mothers to experience the “baby blues.” This is a normal reaction that tends to subside within a few weeks. However, some women experience severe, lasting depression. This condition is called postpartum depression and is thought to be influenced, at least in part, by hormonal fluctuations.
Menopause and perimenopause. Women may be at increased risk for depression during perimenopause, the stage leading to menopause when reproductive hormones rapidly fluctuate. Women with past histories of depression are at an increased risk of depression during menopause as well.
The female physiological response to stress. Women produce more stress hormones than men, and the female sex hormone progesterone prevents the stress hormone system from turning itself off as it does in men. This can make women more susceptible to developing depression triggered by stress.
Body image issues which increase in girls during the sexual development of puberty may contribute to depression in adolescence.
Thyroid problems. Since hypothyroidism can cause depression, this medical problem should always be ruled out by a physician.
Medication side effects from birth control medication or hormone replacement therapy.
Health problems. Chronic illness, injury, or disability can lead to depression in women, as can crash dieting or quitting smoking.
Other common causes of depression include:
- Loneliness and isolation; a lack of social support.
- Family history of depression.
- Early childhood trauma or abuse.
- Alcohol or drug abuse.
- Marital or relationship problems; balancing the pressures of career and home life.
- Family responsibilities such as caring for children, spouse, or aging parents.
- Experiencing discrimination at work or not reaching important goals, losing or changing a job, retirement, or embarking on military service.
- Persistent money problems.
- Death of a loved one or other stressful life event that leaves you feeling useless, helpless, alone, or profoundly sad.
biology and hormone fluctuations can play such a prominent role in affecting a women’s depression, it may be helpful to make use of more coping strategies at hormonal low points during the month. Try keeping a log of where you are in your menstrual cycle and how you are feeling—physically and emotionally. This way you will be able to better anticipate when you need to compensate for the hormonal lows and reduce or avoid the resulting symptoms.
It is important to remember that depression, at any stage in life and for any reason, is serious and should be taken seriously. Just because you’ve been told that your symptoms are a “normal” part of being a woman does not mean you have to suffer in silence.
There are many things you can do to treat your depression and feel better.
Reach out for social support You can make a huge dent in your depression with simple but powerful self-help steps. Feeling better takes time and effort when you don’t feel like making an effort. But you can get there if you make positive choices for yourself each day and draw on the support of others.
Support your health In order to overcome depression, you have to do things that relax and energize you. This includes following a healthy lifestyle, learning how to better manage stress, setting limits on what you’re able to do, and scheduling fun activities into your day.
Eat a healthy, depression-fighting diet What you eat has a direct impact on the way you feel. Some women find dietary modifications, nutritional supplements and herbal remedies can help aid in the relief of depression symptoms.
Get a daily dose of sunlight Sunlight can help boost serotonin levels and improve your mood. Aim for at least 15 minutes of sunlight a day. Remove sunglasses (but never stare directly at the sun) and use sunscreen as needed.
Challenge negative thinking Depression puts a negative spin on everything, including the way you see yourself and your expectations for the future. When these types of thoughts overwhelm you, it’s important to remember that this is a symptom of your depression and these irrational, pessimistic attitudes known as cognitive distortions aren’t realistic.