It’s normal to feel down when you’re going through a stressful or difficult time, or the general ups and downs of life – we all get a ‘little-shaky’ from time-to-time. However, if you feel down for weeks on end, find yourself low on energy or motivation, or no longer enjoy doing things that used to interest you or put a spring in your step, there might be something a little more serious going on, like depression.
Depression is a word that is often used in everyday life to describe a number of feelings, including sadness, disappointment and fatigue – e.g., how often do we make a throwaway comment like “I feel so depressed”. However, depression is different from these everyday ‘low-points’ in three main ways.
“I’m down all the time. Nothing helps.”
“I don’t enjoy things the way I used to.”
“Life just feels…shit all the time”
“There’s something wrong with me. No one will want to be with me.”
“Everything is falling apart. It’s bloody hopeless.”
“Things are never going to get better.”
‘Depression’, which is often diagnosed as ‘major depressive disorder’ or ‘clinical depression’, refers to significant feelings of hopelessness, sadness or a low mood that won’t go away (2+ weeks) and start to get in the way of your everyday life – social life, school or work life (or both), home life. Depression is a condition that can only be diagnosed by a health professional.
Dr Stewart Hase: Being ‘down’ is a normal part of life and often occurs when bad things happen. There’s no need to panic when you grieve for a while after someone’s died or you feel unmotivated in a job that you hate, for example. We call this normal suffering or dealing with the normal challenges of life. Rather, depression interferes with the ability to function normally, doesn’t go away and the feeling of not being able to cope gets worse over time.
There is no single cause of depression. It seems to be due to a combination of factors, including life events (such as a death in the family, a significant relationship breakdown or prolonged periods of school or work stress) and biological factors (genetics or hormones). Having said that, there really is no simple answer for why people experience depression.
Dr Stewart Hase: You’ve probably had the experience of using a torch that gradually became dimmer and dimmer as the battery lost its power. Your brain is an electrical system. It consists of millions of cells called neurons that become active when stimulated by certain chemicals. So, when you speak or move, or sense something, that is the result of a chain of chemical reactions that create a small electric current. In depression, just like in our battery, the chemicals in the brain malfunction and do not supply enough electricity for the brain to work properly.
Depression seems to run in families and, recently, some genes have been identified that appear in about 40% of people with depression. Some people with the ‘depression gene’ will start experiencing symptoms early in life, others later. Depression can also be caused by stressful life events that seem to overpower the person or from prolonged stress. Often, people who experience depression also experience anxiety.
Everyone who experiences depression will have a different collection of signs and symptoms, but there are some common ones, which can range in intensity. Many people don’t realise that depression doesn’t just affect someone’s mood – it also affects their body. Some of the signs and symptoms of depression can be obvious and fairly easy to see, some are much less obvious and tough to identify.
Other, potentially less obvious symptoms of depression – the ‘tip of the iceberg’ or, as Luke Combs says, “What You See Ain’t Always What You Get”.
What you see:
Most people experience some of these feelings and behaviours occasionally. The difference with depression is that the symptoms are more severe, happen more often, and don’t go away over time.
Dr Stewart Hase: In depression, just like in the torch and battery example above, the chemicals in the brain malfunction and do not supply enough electricity for the brain to work properly. So, the symptoms of depression are what you’d expect if the brain is running out of power. Symptoms include feeling tired all the time, being unhappy, a lack of interest in life, not being able to think clearly, difficulty in concentrating and making decisions, memory problems, loss of appetite, being unable to sleep properly, feeling miserable and unmotivated, and just not being able to function properly. Some people with depression can feel grumpy, be agitated (anxious), and start drinking too much alcohol or use other drugs to make themselves feel better but that has the opposite effect. One feature of depression is that nothing seems to work to cheer the person up.
Daily exercise can help reduce the symptoms of depression. Do the exercise that you’ll do consistently and that you enjoy doing – as little as 20-30 minutes a day can boost your mood. Exercise can also have a protective effect – a bit like sunscreen prevents you from getting burnt – active people are less likely to become depressed.
Doing positive activities every day is a key factor in dealing with the symptoms of depression. This is where a thing known as ‘activity scheduling’ can be helpful. By planning (and prioritising) activities for the week that usually lift your spirits in a structured way, you can rebuild your engagement with the things in life that bring you joy and provide a sense of achievement.
When you’re depressed, it can be hard to keep on top of your nutrition and often you start consuming things that aren’t healthy for you. However, a good, nutritious diet is very important. Research tells us that people who eat a well-balanced diet tend to have much fewer depressive symptoms. (listen to episode #46 on our podcast if you want to learn more)
Catching up with family, friends and other people who make us feel positive, safe and supported can help with the symptoms of depression. Maintaining and building your social connections can reduce feelings of isolation, loneliness and keep you connected to other people and enjoyable activities. Talking with a good mix of people can also help you to find better solutions to some of life’s challenges.
Check out some of LIVIN’s Tips and Tricks here to help you manage yourself better.
If you think you’re experiencing depression, visit your doctor/ GP or mental health professional. There are treatments available and your doctor/ GP or mental health professional can work with you to figure out a plan that suits you.
Again, check out some of LIVIN’s Tips and Tricks here to help you manage yourself better if you aren’t ready to see a doctor/ GP or mental health professional.
Remember that everyone responds differently to treatments and strategies, so figuring out what works for you might take some time. It’s important to keep at it until you find the right fit.
Dr Stewart Hase: There are some very effective psychological treatments for depression that provide lifetime skills in managing the condition. Some types of depression require medication and this, too, is very effective. Some people use medication for a while, learn some skills from a psychologist and then can stop taking the medication. Others need to take medication for the rest of their lives. Most importantly, many people with a tendency to get depressed lead very normal and successful lives.
Depression can be different for everyone, but there are some common signs and symptoms.
If you are concerned about your mental health, you can take a free, online and anonymous depression self-test here