5 Things You May Not Know About Depression
Much like other psychological terms, the word depression is commonly heard in our society. This is in part due to the stigma around mental health disorders slowly reducing and in part due to recognition of depression as one of the most commonly experienced mental health disorders. However, people often use the word "depressed" out of context. Depression is clinical word describing a cluster of symptoms and goes beyond simply feeling sad or down for a day or two. It is completely normal for everyone to get sad sometimes. Sadness is an emotion that is part of the human experience and cannot be avoided.
So how might you differentiate between sadness and clinical depression? Below are 5 facts about clinical depression and how depression differs from sadness.
1. Depression develops due to more than just sad things happening in a person's life.
Most if not all of us have experienced a sad or difficult event (most have experienced many) that leave us feeling badly. This alone is not thought to be reason enough to cause depression. The development of depression is complex and relies on multiple factors - some genetic and some environmental. Depression affects multiple structures in the brain such as the limbic system (known for its regulation of emotion) and the prefrontal cortex (which controls higher order functions such as reasoning and decision-making) to name just two. Further, multiple neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) are implicated in the development of depression including too much/too little of neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. In conjunction with genes, communication between neurons (brain cells), and personal temperament depression can develop following stressful life events - or even when stressful life events do not take place.
All this being said, there is absolutely no doubt that depression is real disorder and one that affects the brain in tangible, measurable ways. Thus, depression is not something that someone can just "get over" or think their way out of. However, depression is very treatable and current treatments are highly effective.
2. Depression can be mild to very severe - but it is not a fleeting or quickly changing emotion.
If you experience a difficult or trying experience, it is very expected that you would feel sad. However, when sadness persists for longer than two weeks and occurs most days, throughout the day, it may be depression. Different depressive disorders can look and feel different. Some people experience mild sadness on a daily basis for years at a time where they can work and function normally, but just feel like the world around them is blah. Others experience crippling feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and even thoughts about suicide that can last a couple of weeks that can keep them from being able to work, parent, even get out of bed.
3. Depression doesn't just change the way you feel, it can also change the way you think and act.
When thinking or talking about the depression, often times the focus is on feeling sad, low, or down. All this is true and the feeling of depression is often the most difficult part of the depression for individuals to tolerate. What can be so tough about depression, is that there are neurological changes that also result in a change in thinking patterns and behaviors. For example, when someone is suffering from depression they may notice a decreased desire to be around others and a lack of motivation or interest in activities they once found enjoyable. You may notice a change in the way you think about yourself (I'm such a failure), others (No one wants to be around someone like me) and/or the world (There just doesn't seem to be much worth living for). These thoughts create further feelings of sadness, resulting in more changes in thoughts and actions. Those experiencing depression can get stuck in a cycle that looks where thoughts and emotions become more upsetting and you continue to change your behaviors as a result, leading to more negative thoughts and behaviors. This cycle can be very tough to break out of; however, it is very possible to do so in a number of ways such as psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.
4. Depression is not just mental, it can show up in physical changes as well.
When most people think of or talk about depression, the focus is on feelings and thought. People often talk about how they feel sad or blue and discuss how they cannot think clearly or are in a mental fog. However, depression affects your body in physical ways as well. Significant changes in weight is one way that depression takes a toll on the body. Due to changes in neurochemicals, appetite may be increased or decreased and even motivation to eat can be diminished resulting in rapid weight loss or gain in a short period of time. Sleep is often affected by depression as well where individuals will feel constantly tired and sleep much more than usual or feel unable to sleep at all or sleep poorly nightly. Those suffering from depression may have aches or pains or general soreness that does not seem to have a cause. Changes in sexual functioning, such as decreased sexual desire, is another common physical aspect of depression. These symptoms can be overwhelming and difficult to cope with, but are often times go unrecognized as common symptoms of depression.
5. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) effectively treats depression.
CBT is amongst the most effective treatment available for depression. Others include medication and other types of psychotherapy such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Interpersonal Therapy for Depression. Importantly, CBT is one of the most researched and well-validated therapies for depression due to its high level of effectiveness for treating depression from mild to severe cases, being relatively short term (on average 3-6 months), and adaptable for real-world situations. Medication has long been the go to treatment for depression, and with good reason too. Antidepressant medications have been found to be effective and tend to act more quickly than psychotherapy in terms of reducing symptoms. Though, medication does come with side effects, stops working when you stop taking it, and does not account for all symptoms experienced in depression for most people. In fact, research has shown that CBT in combination with medication is significantly more effective than medication alone (see research here) in terms of reducing symptoms and CBT has much longer lasting effects than medication for preventing relapse.
CBT teaches individuals how to thing and act differently to change how they feel and create new, healthy patterns in one's life. Skills and coping techniques are introduced and practiced in session and at home to make meaningful, valuable change in a person's life.
What if I've been experiencing some of these symptoms?
If you've noticed some, or many, of these symptoms as experiences you have on a daily or near daily basis for two or more weeks, you may be experiencing more than just sadness. Reaching out to a mental health professional for an evaluation could be useful for you to determining if psychotherapy would be beneficial.