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Depression Symptoms and Warning Signs

How to Recognize Depression Symptoms and Get Effective Help

Depression: Signs & Symptoms In This Article

The normal ups and downs of life mean that everyone feels sad or has "the blues" from time to time. But if emptiness and despair have taken hold of your life and won't go away, you may have depression. Depression makes it tough to function and enjoy life like you once did. Just getting through the day can be overwhelming. But no matter how hopeless you feel, you can get better. Understanding the signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment of depression is the first step to overcoming the problem.

What is depression?

Depression is a common and debilitating mood disorder that is affecting more and more people around the world. An estimated 350 million people of all ages experience symptoms of depression and about 13 percent of Americans take antidepressants—a figure that jumps to 25 percent for women in their 40s and 50s.

More than just sadness in response to life’s struggles and setbacks, depression changes how you think, feel, and function in daily activities. It can tire or deplete you and interfere with your ability to work, study, eat, sleep, and enjoy your life.  Severe depression can be intense and unrelenting.

While some people describe depression as sadness or “living in a black hole,” others don't feel much at all. They feel lifeless, empty, and apathetic, or men in particular may even feel angry and restless. No matter how you experience depression, left untreated it can become increasingly debilitating. In addition to medication, there are now lifestyle changes that are proving just as effective in relieving mild to moderate forms of depression.

Am I depressed?

If you identify with several of the following signs and symptoms—especially the first two—and they just won’t go away, you may be suffering from depression.

  • you feel hopeless and helpless
  • you’ve lost interest in friends, activities, and things you used to enjoy
  • you feel tired all the time
  • your sleep and appetite has changed
  • you can’t concentrate or find that previously easy tasks are now difficult
  • you can’t control your negative thoughts, no matter how much you try
  • you are much more irritable, short-tempered, or aggressive than usual
  • you’re consuming more alcohol than normal or engaging in other reckless behavior

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

Depression varies from person to person, but there are some common signs and symptoms. The more symptoms you have, the stronger they are, and the longer they’ve lasted—the more likely it is that you’re dealing with depression.

Signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities. No interest in former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.
  • Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.
  • Sleep changes. Either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours of the morning, or oversleeping.
  • Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
  • Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
  • Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
  • Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.
  • Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
  • Unexplained aches and pains. An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.

Depression and suicide risk

Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The deep despair and hopelessness that goes along with depression can make suicide feel like the only way to escape the pain. If you have a loved one with depression, take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously and recognize the warning signs:

  • Talking about killing or harming one’s self
  • Expressing strong feelings of hopelessness or being trapped
  • An unusual preoccupation with death or dying
  • Acting recklessly, as if they have a death wish (e.g. speeding through red lights)
  • Calling or visiting people to say goodbye
  • Getting affairs in order (giving away prized possessions, tying up loose ends)
  • Saying things like “Everyone would be better off without me” or “I want out”
  • A sudden switch from being extremely depressed to acting calm and happy

If You Are Feeling Suicidal...

When you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, your problems don’t seem temporary—they seem overwhelming and permanent. But with time, you will feel better, especially if you reach out for help. There are many people who want to support you during this difficult time, so please reach out for help!

Read Suicide Help or call 1-800-273-TALK in the U.S. or visit IASP or to find a helpline in your country.

If Someone You Love is Suicidal...

If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide, express your concern and seek professional help immediately. Talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life!

Read Suicide Prevention.

How the signs of depression can vary

Depression often varies according to age and gender, with symptoms differing between men and women, or young people and older adults.

Depression in men

Depression is a loaded word in our culture. Men especially associate it, however wrongly, with a sign of weakness and excessive emotion.

  • Depressed men are less likely to acknowledge feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness.
  • Instead, they tend to complain about fatigue, irritability, sleep problems, and loss of interest in work and hobbies.
  • They’re also more likely to experience symptoms such as anger, aggression, reckless behavior, and substance abuse.
  • Men are a higher suicide risk than women, especially older men. Learn more.

Depression in women

Rates of depression in women are twice as high as they are in men, partly due to hormonal factors.

  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), postpartum depression, and perimenopausal depression are unique to women.
  • Women are more likely to experience depression signs and symptoms such as pronounced feelings of guilt, excessive sleeping, overeating, and weight gain.
  • Women are also more likely to suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Learn more.

Depression in teens

While some depressed adolescents and teens appear sad, irritability is frequently the predominant symptom.

  • A depressed teenager may be hostile, grumpy, or short-tempered.
  • Unexplained aches and pains are also common symptoms.
  • Left untreated, teen depression can lead to problems at home and school, drug abuse, self-loathing—even homicidal violence or suicide.
  • With help, teenage depression is highly treatable. Learn more.

Depression in older adults

The difficult changes that many older adults face—such as bereavement, loss of independence, and health problems—can lead to depression, especially in those without a strong support system. However, depression is not a normal part of aging.

  • Older adults tend to complain more about the physical rather than the emotional signs and symptoms of depression, and so the problem often goes unrecognized.
  • Depression in older adults is associated with poor health, a high mortality rate, and an increased risk of suicide, so diagnosis and treatment are extremely important. Learn more.

Postpartum depression

Unlike the “baby blues,” postpartum depression can be a more serious form of depression.

  • Postpartum depression is triggered, in part, by hormonal changes associated with having a baby.
  • Postpartum depression usually develops soon after delivery but can occur within six months of childbirth. Learn more.

Types of depression

Depression comes in many shapes and forms. Knowing what type of depression you have can help you manage your symptoms.

Major depression

Major depression is much less common than mild or moderate depression and is characterized by intense, relentless symptoms.

  • Left untreated, major depression typically lasts for about six months.
  • Some people experience just a single depressive episode in their lifetime, but more commonly, major depression is a recurring disorder.
  • There are effective steps you can take to support your mood and reduce the risk of recurrence.

Dysthymia (recurrent, mild depression)

Dysthmia is a type of chronic “low-grade” depression.

  • More days than not, you feel mildly or moderately depressed, although you may have brief periods of normal mood.
  • The symptoms of dysthymia are not as strong as the symptoms of major depression, but they last a long time (at least two years).
  • The symptoms make it very difficult to live life to the fullest or to remember better times.
  • Some people also experience major depressive episodes on top of dysthymia, a condition known as “double depression.”
  • If you suffer from dysthymia, you may feel like you’ve always been depressed. Or you may think that your continuous low mood is “just the way you are.”
  • Dysthymia can be treated, even if your symptoms have gone unrecognized or untreated for years.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is characterized by cycling mood changes.

  • Episodes of depression alternate with manic episodes, which can include impulsive behavior, hyperactivity, rapid speech, and little to no sleep.
  • Typically, the switch from one mood extreme to the other is gradual, with each manic or depressive episode lasting for at least several weeks.
  • When depressed, a person with bipolar disorder exhibits the usual symptoms of major depression.
  • The treatments for bipolar depression are very different. In fact, antidepressants can make bipolar depression worse.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

While the onset of winter can cause many of us to experience a drop in mood, some people actually develop seasonal depression, otherwise known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

  • SAD can make you feel like a completely different person to who you are in the summer: hopeless, sad, tense, or stressed, with no interest in friends or activities you normally love.
  • A less common form of the disorder causes depression during the summer months, but SAD usually begins in fall or winter when the days become shorter and remains until the brighter days of spring. Learn more.

Depression causes and risk factors

While some illnesses have a specific medical cause, making treatment straightforward, depression is more complicated. Depression is not just the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be simply cured with medication. Depression is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. In other words, your lifestyle choices, relationships, and coping skills matter just as much—if not more so—than genetics.

What causes depression?

Risk factors that make you more vulnerable to depression include:

  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Lack of social support
  • Recent stressful life experiences
  • Family history of depression
  • Marital or relationship problems
  • Financial strain
  • Early childhood trauma or abuse
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Unemployment or underemployment
  • Health problems or chronic pain

The cause of your depression helps determine the treatment

Understanding the underlying cause of your depression may help you overcome the problem. For example, if you are depressed because of a dead end job, the best treatment might be finding a more satisfying career, not taking an antidepressant. If you are new to an area and feeling lonely and sad, finding new friends will probably give you more of a mood boost than going to therapy. In such cases, the depression is remedied by changing the situation.

Depression recovery

Recovering from depression requires action, but taking action when you’re depressed can be hard. The key is to start with a few small goals and slowly build from there, trying to do a little more each day. Feeling better takes time, but you can get there by making positive choices for yourself.

Reach out for support

Isolation fuels depression, so the first step is to reach out to friends and loved ones, even if you feel like being alone or don’t want to be a burden to others. The truth is that most people are flattered if you trust them enough to confide in them.

  • The simple act of talking to someone face to face about how you feel can be an enormous help.
  • The person you talk to doesn’t have to be able to fix you; he or she just needs to be a good listener, someone who’ll listen attentively without being distracted or judging you.
  • If you don’t feel that you have anyone to turn to, it’s never too late to build new friendships and improve your support network.

Get moving

When you’re depressed, just getting out of bed can seem like a daunting task, let alone exercising. But regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication in countering the symptoms of depression. It’s also something you can do right now to boost your mood. Take a short walk or put some music on and dance around. Start with small activities and build up from there.

  • Aim to exercise for 30 minutes or more per day—or break that up into short, 10-minute bursts of activity.
  • You don’t need to train at the gym or run mile after mile. Pick an activity you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick with it.
  • The most benefits for depression come from rhythmic exercise—such as walking, weight training, swimming, martial arts, or dancing—where you move both your arms and legs.
  • Adding a mindfulness element is particularly effective, especially if your depression is rooted in unresolved trauma. Focus on how your body feels as you move—the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the wind on your skin.

Eat a healthy diet

What you eat has a direct impact on the way you feel. 

  • Eat more Omega-3 fatty acids to give your mood a boost. The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. 
  • Try super-foods rich in mood-enhancing nutrients, such as bananas (magnesium to decrease anxiety, vitamin B6 to promote alertness, tryptophan to boost feel-good serotonin levels) and spinach (magnesium, folate to reduce agitation and improve sleep).
  • Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these “feel-good” foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy.
  • Reduce your intake of foods that can adversely affect your mood, such as caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, and foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones.

Make additional healthy lifestyle changes

What you eat has a direct impact on the way you feel. 

  • Eat more Omega-3 fatty acids to give your mood a boost. The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. 
  • Try super-foods rich in mood-enhancing nutrients, such as bananas (magnesium to decrease anxiety, vitamin B6 to promote alertness, tryptophan to boost feel-good serotonin levels) and spinach (magnesium, folate to reduce agitation and improve sleep).
  • Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these “feel-good” foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy.
  • Reduce your intake of foods that can adversely affect your mood, such as caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, and foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones.

Seek professional help

If support from family and friends and positive lifestyle changes aren’t enough, seek help from a mental health professional. Treatments for depression include:

  • Therapy can help you better understand your depression and help motivate you to take the action necessary to prevent it from coming back.
  • Medication may be imperative if you’re feeling suicidal or violent. But while it can help relieve symptoms of depression in some people, it isn’t a cure and is not usually a long-term solution. Medication also comes with side effects and other drawbacks so it’s important to learn all the facts to make an informed decision.

If stress or poor relationships are contributing to depression, FEELING LOVED can help.

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Resources and references

Signs and symptoms of depression

Signs and Symptoms of Mood Disorders – Lists the common signs and symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder. (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance)

Real Stories of Depression – Read personal stories of depression, review the signs and symptoms, and learn how to get help. (National Institute of Mental Health)

What Does Depression Feel Like? – Provides a list of signs and symptoms and ways you might feel if you're depressed. (Wings of Madness)

When Depression Hurts – Article on the painful physical symptoms of depression, including what causes them and how treatment can help. (Psychology Today)

Male Depression: Don't Ignore the Symptoms – Learn about the distinct symptoms of depression in men and the dangers of leaving them untreated. (Mayo Clinic)

Types of depression

The Different Faces of Depression – Discussion of the different subtypes of depression, including atypical depression, melancholic depression, and psychotic depression. (Psychology Today)

Atypical Depression: What's in a Name? – Article on the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of atypical depression. (American Psychiatric Association)

Dysthymia: Psychotherapists and patients confront the high cost of “low-grade” depression – In-depth look at the causes, effects, and treatment of dysthymic disorder. (Harvard Health Publications)

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Winter Depression – Guide to seasonal affective disorder and its symptoms, causes, and treatment. (Northern County Psychiatric Associates)

Depression causes and risk factors

What Causes Depression? Page 1 & Page 2 – Learn about the many potential causes of depression, including genes, temperament, stressful life events, and medical issues. (Harvard Health Publications)

Depression and Other Illnesses – An overview of the mental and physical illnesses that often co-exist with depression, and how this impacts treatment. (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance)

Co-occurring Disorders and Depression – How medical disorders can affect depression and vice versa. (Mental Health America)

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