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Mental Health

How do you know if you’re depressed?

My personal story

I was diagnosed with Major Depression about 3-4 years ago. Looking back, I should have been diagnosed decades before. I beat myself up about it a little. How could I not know. Im a therapist! I know the signs.

The problem was, I wasn’t doing much reflection. I was giving so much of myself to others, I rarely looked at how I truly was. It wasn’t until I was almost at the edge, that I knew something wasn’t right.

I sought help. I got a therapist of my own and a psychiatrist for medication. Years later, I no longer need medication and I have developed a routine that forces me to look at me, on a regular basis. I say all this to say, depression can lurk in the background, unbeknownst to its host. Anyone can experience depression, No one is immune but everyone can get better.

What is depression?

Depressed woman sitting in a chair by a window in the dark

Definition of Depression

Depression, clinically known as major depressive disorder (MDD), is a common but serious mood disorder. MDD is indicated by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in daily activities.

Unlike temporary emotional responses to life’s challenges, depression affects how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working, for an extended period, typically at least two weeks. Depression can lead to emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function in their day to day activities.

Differentiating Between Sadness and Clinical Depression

Sadness is a normal human emotion that everyone feels at times. It’s usually triggered by difficult, hurtful, challenging, or disappointing experiences or situations.Sadness is typically linked to a specific situation, event, or loss, and tends to lessen with time and coping strategies.

Clinical depression, on the other hand, is more pervasive and persistent. It’s not just a response to a negative life event or a phase of grief following the loss of a loved one. Depression involves a range of symptoms affecting mood, body, and thoughts that persist for weeks, months, or even longer. These symptoms significantly impair an individual’s ability to function in daily life.

Unlike sadness, depression can occur without an obvious trigger and does not necessarily improve in response to positive life events.

So, How Do you know if you’re depressed?

9 Depression Symptoms to Look Out For

  1. Persistent Sadness or Low Mood: This is more than just feeling blue or having a bad day. It’s a deep, pervasive sadness that doesn’t go away and can affect every aspect of life. This mood is often described as feeling empty or hopeless.

  2. Loss of Interest or Pleasure in Activities: This symptom involves losing interest in activities once enjoyed, including hobbies, social activities, or sex. It’s a significant reduction in the desire or ability to experience pleasure, known as anhedonia.

  3. Changes in Appetite and Weight: Depression can lead to significant changes in appetite, resulting in either weight gain or weight loss. This change is not related to dieting and can manifest as either a lack of appetite or overeating.

  4. Sleep Disturbances: This includes both insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep) and hypersomnia (sleeping too much). Sleep patterns may change drastically, and sleep quality may be poor, leading to feeling unrested even after a full night’s sleep.

  5. Fatigue or Loss of Energy: Persistent tiredness, lethargy, or a general loss of energy can be signs of depression. Even small tasks can feel overwhelming or require more effort than usual.

  6. Feelings of Worthlessness or Excessive Guilt: This involves harsh criticism of oneself, feelings of worthlessness, or undue guilt. It can include fixating on past failures or blaming oneself for things that are not one’s fault.

  7. Difficulty Concentrating or Making Decisions: Depression can affect cognitive functions, leading to trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things. This symptom can impact work, school, or daily activities.

  8. Physical Symptoms: Unexplained aches and pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease with treatment may be signs of depression, especially when combined with other symptoms.

  9. Thoughts of Death or Suicide: Frequent thoughts about death, suicidal ideation, or attempts, or a preoccupation with dying are serious symptoms of depression and require immediate medical attention.

Self-Assessment and When to Seek Help

Therapy session between two people

Self-Assessment Tools and Their Limitations

Self-Assessment Tools: Various online questionnaires and self-assessment tools are available to help individuals identify potential signs and symptoms of depression. These might include standardized questionnaires like the PHQ-9 (Patient Health Questionnaire-9) or other screening tools.

Purpose: These tools are designed to give a preliminary assessment of one’s mental health state, particularly regarding depressive symptoms.


Not Diagnostic: These tools are not meant to provide a clinical diagnosis. They are preliminary and cannot capture the complexity of an individual’s mental health status.

Subjectivity: Responses can be subjective and influenced by an individual’s current state of mind, potentially leading to inaccurate or misleading results.

Lack of Context: Self-assessment tools lack the context and depth that a healthcare or mental health professional can provide, such as considering personal history, medical conditions, and other factors influencing mental health.

The Importance of Seeking Professional Help

Mental health professionals can provide a thorough assessment, considering various psychological factors, that self-assessment tools cannot. Professionals are trained to differentiate between different mental health disorders, ensuring an accurate diagnosis.

They can develop a personalized treatment plan for severe depression, which may include therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of these.Professional help offers continuous support and monitoring, crucial for recovery and management of depression.

Warning Signs That Immediate Help is Needed

If symptoms of depression are severe, seek treatment, particularly if they significantly impair daily functioning or include psychotic symptoms (like delusions or hallucinations).Any thoughts of self-harm or suicide warrant immediate professional intervention. This includes making plans for suicide, giving away possessions, or other preparations.

A sudden or rapid worsening of symptoms. This includes not eating, poor personal hygiene, or not being able to perform daily tasks.Turning to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with symptoms.Feelings of aggression or acting out in a way that could be harmful to others.

Other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of depression

Stethoscope and medical writing pad

Thyroid Disorders: Both hypothyroidism (under active thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) can mimic depression. Hypothyroidism can lead to symptoms like fatigue, a significant weight loss or gain, and mood swings, while hyperthyroidism might cause anxiety, sleep problems, and restlessness, which can be confused with depression or anxiety disorders.

Vitamin D Deficiency: Low levels of vitamin D can cause symptoms similar to depression, such as fatigue, mood changes, and cognitive difficulties. This is particularly common in areas with less sunlight.

Anemia: Anemia, especially iron-deficiency anemia, can lead to symptoms like fatigue, weakness, and irritability, which can be mistaken for depression.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS): Characterized by extreme, unexplained fatigue, CFS also includes symptoms like pain, difficulty concentrating, and unrestful sleep, which overlap with depressive symptoms.

Sleep Disorders: Conditions like sleep apnea and insomnia can lead to fatigue, cognitive impairments, and mood changes, mimicking depression.

Fibromyalgia: A chronic condition characterized by widespread pain, fibromyalgia also includes symptoms like fatigue, sleep problems, and cognitive difficulties, which can resemble depression.

Adrenal Disorders: Adrenal disorders, such as Addison’s disease, can cause symptoms like fatigue, muscle weakness, and mood changes, often confused with depression.

Diabetes: Fluctuations in blood sugar levels in diabetes can affect mood and energy, leading to symptoms that can be mistaken for depression.

Heart Disease: Individuals with heart disease often experience fatigue and reduced physical function, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.

Hormonal Imbalances: Fluctuations in hormones, such as during menopause or due to conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), can cause mood swings and fatigue, mimicking depression.

Medication Side Effects: Certain medications, particularly those for high blood pressure, birth control, and even some acne treatments, can have side effects that mimic depression.

Substance Abuse and Withdrawal: The use and withdrawal of substances like alcohol, prescription medications, and recreational drugs can lead to mood swings and depressive symptoms.

Chronic Pain Conditions: Living with chronic pain can lead to depressive-like symptoms due to the constant management of pain and the limitations it creates in daily life.

Grief and Bereavement: While a normal response to loss, prolonged or complicated grief can resemble depression in terms of persistent sadness and withdrawal from usual activities.

Overcoming the Stigma Surrounding Mental Health

Man on bench, with head down and between his hands, seemingly sad

Mental health stigma can manifest in various forms, including societal misconceptions, prejudice, and discrimination against those with mental health issues. It often stems from lack of understanding, fear, and stereotypes. Stigma can lead to people feeling ashamed or embarrassed about their condition, preventing them from seeking help. It can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Ways to Approach and Talk About Depression with Loved Ones

Choosing the Right Time and Place:

Find a quiet, private space where you feel safe and won’t be disturbed.

Be Honest and Direct:

Clearly express what you are experiencing. Using simple and direct language can help in conveying your feelings and needs.

Educate Them:

Many people lack understanding about depression. Sharing information from reliable sources can help them understand what you’re going through.

Express Your Needs:

Let them know how they can support you. This might be listening, helping with certain tasks, or accompanying you to appointments.

Prepare for Different Reactions:

Be prepared for a range of responses, and try not to take negative reactions personally. Some people might need time to process the information.

Importance of Support Systems

  1. Emotional Support: Having people who listen and provide emotional support can significantly impact coping and recovery. It reduces feelings of isolation and can provide a sense of belonging.

  2. Practical Help: Support systems can offer practical help, like assistance with daily tasks, which can be challenging during depressive episodes.

  3. Accountability and Encouragement: A supportive network can encourage you to stick to treatment plans, attend therapy sessions, and engage in healthy activities.

  4. Diverse Perspectives: Different people can offer various perspectives and coping strategies, which can be beneficial in managing depression.

  5. Professional Support: Apart from friends and family, professional support from therapists, counselors, or support groups is crucial. They offer a safe space to discuss feelings and experiences and provide expert guidance.

Common Treatments for Depression

  1. Therapy

    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This is a popular form of therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to depression.

    • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT): IPT focuses on improving interpersonal relationships and communication patterns, recognizing their role in the onset and continuation of depressive symptoms.

    • Psychodynamic Therapy: This therapy delves into how unconscious emotions and past experiences shape current behaviors and feelings.

    • Group Therapy: Offers a supportive environment where individuals can share experiences and coping strategies under the guidance of a therapist.

  2. Medication

    • Antidepressants: These include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and others. They work by altering the brain’s chemical balance to improve mood and stress resilience.

    • Mood Stabilizers: For those with bipolar depression, mood stabilizers can be effective.

    • Other Medications: In some cases, doctors might prescribe other medications like anti-anxiety drugs or antipsychotics, depending on specific symptoms.

Lifestyle Changes and Self-Care Strategies

  1. Regular Physical Activity: Exercise can significantly boost mood and reduce symptoms of depression due to the release of endorphins and other neurochemicals that enhance well-being.

  2. Healthy Diet: A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and omega-3 fatty acids can have a positive impact on mental health.

  3. Adequate Sleep: Establishing a regular sleep pattern and ensuring enough quality sleep is crucial for mental health.

  4. Stress Reduction Techniques: Practices like mindfulness, journaling, meditation, yoga, or tai chi can help in managing stress and reducing symptoms of depression.

  5. Social Support: Maintaining social connections and engaging in social activities can provide emotional support and reduce feelings of isolation.

  6. Avoiding Alcohol and Drugs: Substances can worsen depression and interfere with the effectiveness of medications.

  7. Regular Health Check-ups: Monitoring and managing any chronic health conditions is important, as physical health significantly impacts mental health.

The Wrap Up

Combating depression effectively involves a multifaceted approach. While therapy and medication are cornerstone treatments providing significant relief and improvement in symptoms, incorporating lifestyle changes and self-care strategies plays a crucial role in managing depression.

These lifestyle adjustments complement medical treatments, enhancing their effectiveness and contributing to overall well-being. Adopting a holistic approach to depression treatment, which includes professional medical care, psychological support, and personal health and wellness practices, offers the best opportunity for individuals to overcome depression and lead fulfilling lives.

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