Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Depression is fairly common, and will affect about 1 in 6 people at some time during their life.
And, let’s be honest, we all experience some low moods from time to time, but depression is different. Depression occurs for weeks or sometimes months before someone seeks help, it affects a person’s social life, work, and education, and can have a serious impact on self-esteem.
"We know you’re tired, tired and scared. Happens to everyone, okay? Just don’t let your feet stop." - Haruki Murakami
Some scientists think our ability to become depressed may have been an adaptation meant to help solve problems. This thinking comes about as individuals with depression often think and move slower, and think deeply about a problem, with a keen focus on the negative. Exactly the kind of thinking that may help with a tricky issue. However, this type of thinking becomes a problem when people engage in this thinking even when there are no solutions to be had, or they do not act on the solution and continue to ‘mull’ it over.
While depression can affect anyone, you are more likely to experience depression if a family member has had depression, you have low self-esteem, are often pessimistic, or feel overwhelmed by stress easily, or if you are exposed to violence, neglect, or abuse
With that in mind, what exactly is depression?
Depression is more than a feeling, it is a way of feeling, thinking, and being. People describe the feelings of depression as that of downheartedness, being blue, sadness, and being unhappy. However, depression can also show up as irritability, pessimism, and feeling hopeless, worthless, and irrationally guilty.
A person’s thinking becomes sluggish, like thinking through sludge, and at the same time deep. A person can ponder the same problem deeply and from many, many different angles, over and over, till it takes up all their mental space and time. People with depression often say they struggle to concentrate and make decisions. And, it is common to think about suicide, self-harm, and about death more generally.
Depression affects how someone acts in their world. They will withdraw from friends and stop doing the things they used to love, either because they’ve lost interest or pleasure in those things, or because of a bone wearying fatigue. They may change the way they are eating and accompanying changes in weight (gains or losses). Sleep can be affected, and the person either doesn’t want to get up or can’t sleep. And, they may start to act out purposeless activities or move slowly.
If a Psychologist is assessing, they’re going to want to know if these feelings, thoughts, and behaviour changes have been present for 2 weeks or more.
They’re also going to be checking if these symptoms are due to medical conditions or caused by drugs or medication.
It’s noteworthy that some or many of these feelings and symptoms can accompany sadness and grieving. Sadness and grief are a normal part of life. Some experiences, such as death of a loved one, moving house, or loss of a job can be stressful and painful and it is natural and normal for someone to develop feelings of sadness or grief. Some people will even say that they feel ‘depressed’.
However, depression is different. Some important differences to note are that in grief the feelings will come and go, often intermixed with positive feelings and memories, and that self-esteem is usually not affected.
Fortunately, depression is treatable.
The two most common treatments are medication, in the form of antidepressants which help to change brain chemistry, and psychotherapy, which aims to help with environment, behaviour and thinking changes.
If you want to know more about medications, your GP or psychiatrist can be a wealth of knowledge.
Your psychologist is the person to put the squeeze on about psychotherapy, for which there are a number of forms shown to improve depression symptoms, including cognitive behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy, and behavioural therapies. Where cognitive behavioural therapy will attempt to help with thoughts and behaviours that are unhelpful, behavioural therapy will have a distinct focus on changing behaviours, interpersonal therapy will help with isolating problems in relationships, and mindfulness based therapies help you to focus your attention where you want it to go and accept distress.
If you can identify with anything we’ve talked about in this article and want to look for a psychologist you may want to try asking you GP for their recommendations, or checking out catalogues of local Psychologists, like these held by Psychology Today and the APS Find a Psychologist website.
But what else can you do?
While you’re speaking to your family GP or getting in touch with your psychologist you may also want some things that you can start to implement now. And, there are activities you can bring into your everyday life that science suggests can improve your mood. Here are just a few:
Sit in the sun. Sunlight is a natural mood booster. We have known for quite sometime that sunlight and seasons affect the expression of pre-existing psychiatric symptoms, in fact even the diagnostic manuals have a specifier, “with seasonal pattern”. While it’s clear that serotonin (a happy hormone) likely mediates the relationship between sunlight and better mood, less anxiety, and less self-harm, we’re not entirely sure why.
Get moving. Exercise helps your brain grow and improves your mood. Many of us are familiar with the term ‘joggers high’, in which high intensity exercise releases happiness inducing endorphins, but even low intensity exercise maintained over time appears to help people get better at mood management.
Smile! Smile for a little mood boost. Smiling signals to your brain that you and your world are good by releasing a cascade of happy hormones: endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. Listen here as Ron Gutman talks about the hidden power of smiling.