What Is Depression? Everything You Need to Know About This Mood Disorder

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Some feelings of sadness or changes in mood are normal parts of the human experience. However, there are times when your mood can begin to interfere with daily life. Depression is a mood disorder that includes feelings of sadness, helplessness and hopelessness that don’t go away on their own. It’s common for people who are depressed to have trouble participating in many key aspects of life — including work, school, friendships, family, sex and social relationships.

Depression is a common condition, impacting over 250 million people of all ages, races and genders all over the world. But due to social stigma and lack of access to care, experts estimate that less than a quarter of people with depression in low and middle-income regions get the treatment they need. Without treatment and support, depression carries a high risk of disability or death by suicide.

Depression can be difficult to understand and discuss, especially with friends and family. People with depression may feel lost, isolated or worried about judgment from their peers. It’s important to remember that depression is a real illness with effective treatments and that recovery is possible. Learn more about causes of depression and available treatment options.

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Depression symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Episodes of depression may be mild, moderate or severe. They can come and go, or last for months or years at a time. For most people, depression happens gradually — symptoms begin slowly and worsen over time.

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Common emotional and behavioral symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad, empty, hopeless or guilty
  • Losing interest in or pleasure from activities
  • Feeling agitated or irritable
  • Feeling very tired or sleeping too much or too little
  • Having trouble concentrating, thinking, speaking or making decisions
  • Thinking frequently about death or suicide

Depression can also cause more physical symptoms, including:

  • Changes in appetite, weight loss or weight gain
  • Back pain, headaches or body aches 

If you have depression symptoms that are interfering with your day-to-day life, talk with a doctor about getting treatment. And if you’re thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They offer free and confidential support, 24 hours a day.

Causes & Risk Factors

The exact cause of clinical depression is unknown, and people experience symptoms for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s related to a specific event. For example, you may feel sad and have trouble functioning for a short time when coping with a difficult or traumatic situation. Other people may experience depression for no identifiable reason over a longer period of time.

There are many factors that have been linked with increased risk of depression, including:

  • Biological factors: The brain’s ability to regulate moods depends on chemicals called neurotransmitters. Decreases in certain neurotransmitter chemicals (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine) likely play a role in depression for some people. 
  • Genetic factors: People with a family history of depression are more likely to experience it themselves. Further research is needed to find out which genetic changes may be involved in depression.
  • Hormonal factors: Changes in your body’s hormone levels can have an impact on your overall mood. These changes may be related to thyroid problems, or to life events that naturally impact hormone levels, like puberty, pregnancy or menopause.

In addition, the following environmental factors and life events are also linked to a higher risk of depression:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Death or loss of a loved one
  • Loss of a job or financial stressors
  • Substance use
  • Chronic illness or disability
  • Certain medications

Assessment & Diagnosis

Depression symptoms are easy to overlook. Family and friends can play an important role in noticing signs of depression, like changes in behavior. If you or someone you care about is feeling depressed, talk with a doctor. Talking about your symptoms is the first step in diagnosing the problem and finding support. 

Depression can be diagnosed by any of the following professionals:

  • Primary care providers
  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists

There are no laboratory tests or physical exams available to diagnose depression. But your doctor may order blood tests to check for other health conditions that can cause symptoms similar to depression — like thyroid problems, infections, or vitamin or hormone level changes. They may also provide screening for depression using a questionnaire tool that asks about your symptoms.

After this initial screening, your primary care doctor may refer you to a specialist, like a psychiatrist or psychologist. To diagnose depression, these specialists may ask about your personal and family health history, recent mood and behaviors, relationships, professional satisfaction, exercise habits and overall quality of life. They’ll look for any patterns that show that you may have a mood disorder. 

Depression symptoms must last for at least 2 weeks in order to get a clinical diagnosis. Some types of depression that a doctor may diagnose include:

  • Major depressive disorder: This is the clinical term for depression that can be persistent or periodic.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): SAD is a form of depression that happens during particular seasons. Most people with SAD feel depressed in the autumn and winter when the weather is cold and there are fewer daylight hours.
  • Postpartum depression: This type of depression happens after pregnancy and birth.
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder: This mood problem happens before your period each month and can involve severe symptoms of depression.
  • Bipolar disorder: This disorder involves extreme mood swings, with periods of depression as well as periods of euphoria or mania.

Treatment Options to Manage Depression

If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, there are many treatment options available. You can work with your doctor to make a treatment plan based on your symptoms and preferences. Treatment is usually outpatient, but there are also more intensive inpatient (overnight) treatment programs. Hospitalization may be necessary for people who are an immediate risk to themselves or others. 

Most often, people with depression can find significant relief from their symptoms with one or more of the following approaches:

  • Individual therapy (also called psychotherapy or talk therapy): Mental health professionals may use individual therapy to help address depression symptoms, support coping skills, or help you adjust your beliefs, behaviors and relationships.
  • Medication: Your doctor may prescribe psychiatric medications called antidepressants. These medications can take up to 4 weeks to take effect, and you may need to try multiple kinds to find one that’s right for you.
  • Brain stimulation therapy: Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can directly stimulate the brain. Your doctor may recommend this option if antidepressants and talk therapy are not effective.
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In addition to these treatment options, there are steps you can take to care for yourself and support a balanced and stable mood. This way, you may be able to address mild depression before it becomes a more serious problem.

  • Be active: Even light exercise can help you clear your mind, relieve stress and feel more balance in your life. Many people report an improvement in their mood and quality of life when working out.
  • Get your annual physical exam: When you get your yearly physical, your doctor can screen you for depression. This can be a great opportunity to assess your mood and any recent changes, and get any treatment you may need. If you don’t have a regular doctor, learn how to find a doctor near you.
  • Find social support: Find a group of friends or a community to share common interests. Make an effort to participate in activities that keep you engaged and motivated. Try volunteering or joining a club. These networks can become sources of support when you’re feeling down or depressed.
  • Get enough sleep: Healthy sleep habits can lower your risk of depression. Do your best to get a full night’s rest every night. If you have trouble falling asleep or wake up throughout the night, talk with your doctor about your sleep problems.
  • Eat healthy: Good nutrition may help improve symptoms like fatigue and irritability. A good first step is to try to eat more fruits and veggies. 
  • Avoid alcohol and drug use: Staying away from alcohol and drugs can also have a big impact on your moods. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drugs, talk with your doctor about treatment for substance use disorder.

And if you’re a parent, teach your child about warning signs of depression. Kids and teens don’t always understand what they’re feeling, and may feel ashamed to discuss their feelings openly. Try to help them feel comfortable by providing information and being a source of support.

Next Steps in Managing Depression

If you notice behavior or mood changes in yourself or a loved one that last more than 2 weeks, talk with a doctor right away. You can work together to find support and build a treatment plan to ease your symptoms.

And if you ever have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, contact a suicide prevention hotline like the National Suicide Prevention LifelineThe Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline. Trained counselors are available 24 hours a day to provide free, confidential support and connect you with the care you need.