By Ana Snyder, M.S., Exercise Physiology; CPT, FNS
How can you tell if your stress is actually depression? It’s normal to feel down once in a while, but how do you know when you should get help? Depression is one of the most common mental health illnesses in the United States, affecting about 26 percent of adults. Since it’s hard for many people to discern whether their stress is actually depression, these numbers are probably even higher. According to psychiatrists, depression is an extreme mood change that causes you to view yourself and the world differently. In order to be considered depression, this mood change must last for two weeks or longer and interfere with your ability to live your life. Obviously, this mood change also has to be negative, but sadness isn’t always a symptom. Here I’ll examine 6 different signs and symptoms of depression and help you understand what they mean.
Insomnia is one of the most common indicators of depression. In and of itself, it doesn’t cause depression, but lack of sleep can influence or be a sign of depression. When your regular sleep schedule is disrupted, you can become more irritable and tense. Depression may also cause your mind to race and make it difficult for you to sleep. Sleep gives your body the ability to rest, relax, and restore itself. Without sleep, you will become fatigued, you will exercise less, and you’ll see a rapid decline in your fitness level.
If you realize that you’re consistently not getting enough sleep, you should discuss it with your doctor to prevent further health risks. A cycle of insomnia and lack of exercise can result in both physical and mental deficiencies—the most common of which is anxiety. With so many health conditions resulting from insomnia, the importance of sleep can’t be emphasized enough.
Depression and anxiety are two different mental health disorders, but they often occur at the same time. If you tend to dwell on situations that cause you to feel depressed, for example, you will most likely also begin to experience anxious, panicked emotions. Unfortunately, about 45% of people that have mental health disorders also struggle with two or more other conditions.
Experiencing occasional anxiety doesn’t mean that you have depression. Typically, if you feel some sort of constant stress and depression building up inside you over an extended period of time, anxiety is also triggered. This anxiety can be intense and difficult to control, and it can repeatedly interfere with your life. If you find yourself constantly panicking or avoiding situations to prevent these feelings, reach out to a doctor or counselor. Symptoms to both your depression and anxiety will usually improve just from getting advice on lifestyle changes, emotional support, or even antidepressants if necessary.
If you have either condition, avoid alcohol and smoking, as they tend to increase the intensity of depression and anxiety symptoms. Instead, try to get more sleep and exercise.
Depression can also cause subtle changes in your thinking patterns. These usually develop so gradually that you won’t notice them right away. However, they limit your ability to focus, remember information, and make decisions. This lack of focus can be one of the symptoms or signs of depression.
For some people with depression, their change in mood is what affects their ability to focus. Negative thoughts or racing anxious thoughts can constantly interrupt their train of thought and prohibit them from completing the task at hand.
For other people, chemical changes in the brain may cause both their depression and limited thinking abilities. If this is the case, neurotransmitters called serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine get blocked or drop below normal levels. Although antidepressants are made to bolster these chemicals, it’s unknown if they help cognition in addition to reducing depressive symptoms.
A recent study attempted to answer this question by examining the effects of three different antidepressant medications—Lexapro, Zoloft, and Effexor-XR—on 1000 subjects. Although more evidence needs to be gathered before researchers can decide whether these medicines can help cognition, this study saw no correlation. In fact, 95% of the patients had no improvement in any cognitive impairments whatsoever. This isn’t completely surprising because, although rational and emotional thought are both regulated by neurotransmitters, they occur in different parts of the brain.
Self-isolation is one of the most dangerous depression symptoms or signs. Often, if you’re depressed, you won’t even want to get out of your bed, let alone have to face other people. Unfortunately, withdrawing from society is one of the most dangerous things you can do. It worsens your depression, loneliness, and risk for disease and premature death. Some believe it to be worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
Depression symptoms increase when people seclude themselves because they no longer have emotional support from those who care about them. In addition, when their friends and family stop inviting them to spend time with them, they will also see this as proof that no one wants them around. They may think they are a social pariah. These destructive thoughts act as a self-fulfilling prophecy—”a prediction that causes itself to be true.”
Loneliness can also directly induce depression. In fact, this is one of the biggest causes of millennial depression, which is on the rise and reaching alarming numbers. In a world more connected than ever by social media, people often spend more on their phones and less with their friends face to face. If you’re feeling lonely, try to set aside time to meet up with your friends and family!
If your feelings of loneliness persist, or if you see a friend constantly isolating themselves, you should be concerned. According to the CDC, isolation affects your health so much it drastically raises your risk of premature death. It’s also associated with higher rates of suicide.
Depression often results in a loss of energy, loss of pleasure in doing certain activities, or an increase in nausea. All these symptoms can in turn cause a loss of appetite. If you don’t have energy, for example, you may not feel up to making food, Or if you used to enjoy making and eating food, you may no longer find fulfilment in doing so.
A recent study in The American Journal of Psychiatry made another interesting discovery on the correlation between depression and aversion to food. Scientists discovered that depressed patients have distorted brain signals that influence their desire to eat and awareness of when they’re hungry. They also had less brain activity when they tasted foods than healthy patients would.
One way to improve your mental health is by simply eating a healthy diet on a regular schedule. There is no diet that is a cure-all for clinical depression, but maintaining a consistent daily schedule with healthy foods will help. Research suggests that Mediterranean diets, foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and foods high in vitamin B12 can improve your mood and your response to medication.
According to Merriam-Webster, apathy is defined as a “lack of feeling or emotion” and a “lack of interest or concern.” Usually, we all have a few things we couldn’t care less about. However, if you suddenly become apathetic about an activity you were passionate about, it’s a sign you may be depressed. Remember, depression is defined as an extreme change in mood, and it doesn’t have to result in feelings of despair. Complete numbness is also a potential symptom.
As with each of the other signs and symptoms of depression listed here, apathy is only a cause for concern when it persists and gets in the way of your everyday life. If you’re feeling unmotivated and don’t know where to start, never be afraid to ask for help! Your doctor is there to help you find the best solution, and your friends and family can also be there to support you along the way.
Different people experience depression in different ways. However, none of these symptoms should be ignored. If you overlook your depression or that of a loved one, it may become a serious health problem or result in self harm.
Always remember that, no matter how helpless you feel, you can get better! Your reality isn’t as bleak as your depression makes you feel. Reaching out to your doctor will help you understand why you are depressed and start you on the path to recovery.