What is depression? The short answer is that depression is a mood disturbance, typically experienced as significantly lower than normal mood for an extended period of time. Mood is a sustained, pervasive emotion that colors our view of the world and determines how we respond to events.
In assessing whether you or a loved one is depressed, it’s important to distinguish between normal and abnormal mood fluctuations. Everyone experiences some degree of depression throughout their lives – and, for that matter, euphoria, as well. We all have “down” days and “up” days. But these mood swings do not necessarily indicate a psychiatric condition; nor do they necessarily indicate that treatment is required.
For most of us, these extreme feelings are transient, and typically pass within a day or two. It’s when these feelings linger, consuming our thoughts day in and day out, that the condition becomes clinically significant; i.e., require treatment. But for a person suffering from depression, these mood swings are so invasive that they interfere with daily life.
Below are some warning signs to look for…
Psychological (mental and emotional) symptoms of depression may include:
- persistent low mood
- low self-esteem and low self-confidence
- pessimism and negative outlook
- a sense of despair
- hopelessness and helplessness; feelings of worthlessness
- thoughts of suicide
- irrational feelings of guilt
Depressives also typically suffer anhedonia, or loss of pleasure in activities they used to enjoy. Somatic (biological and physiological) symptoms might include:
- fatigue and lack of energy
- an inability to concentrate or make decisions
- sleep difficulties; either too much or too little sleep
- sexual dysfunction, such as loss of sex drive
- change in appetite, weight gain or loss
- psychomotor activity changes, such as slower movements or speeded up, agitated movements
A laundry list of symptoms cannot paint a lifelike portrait of true depression. At its worst, depression is a bleak, black existence that feels inevitable, insurmountable and eternal. Depression is a lonely place, devoid of hope and joy. Depressives ultimately stop expecting positive outcomes. And even when something good happens, they’re often unable to recognize it, and too numb to enjoy or appreciate it.
For the depressive, the world is painted gray. Receiving that big promotion you’ve worked so hard for may not feel much different from getting a good parking place at the mall. And conversely, losing that promotion may not feel much worse than burning your toast at breakfast.
One of the least discussed aspects of severe clinical depression is that the deepest, darkest depression is not experienced as melancholy or sadness. The most severe – and most dangerous – depression is numbness, a complete absence of feeling and a loss of concern for yourself and others.
It is important to remember that there can be many levels of depression. People may fall into the “severe” clinical depression described above,or they may also be mildly depressed where they exhibit the symptoms above on a lower scale. If they are mildly depressed, called dysthymia, for a number of years, it may be hard for them to recognize that there is a problem because they have probably adapted their life to the depression and now see it as normal.