‘Depression isn’t about, ‘Woe is me, my life is this, that and the other’, it’s like having the worst flu all day that you just can’t kick.’ – Robbie Williams
It’s been called a beast, the blues, and the bell jar. It was the ‘black dog’ that (perhaps apocryphally) hounded Winston Churchill’s steps, and has crippled some of the greatest minds humanity has known, including Mozart, Beethoven, Van Gogh and Isaac Newton. In fact, the term ‘depression’ has become so ubiquitous in today’s culture that many people use it interchangeably with ‘sadness’. While sadness is a part of depression, it is also something naturally experienced by everyone throughout the course of their lives.
Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical condition that goes far beyond simple sadness.
If you’re feeling low or sad, you may well be wondering if it’s ‘regular’ sadness, and asking, ‘Am I depressed?’. At some point you’re bound to have dramatically proclaimed (either out loud or internally) that you’re terribly depressed. You screwed something up at work and your boss is mad at you, or a relationship has ended badly. But how can you tell the difference between feeling sad following something unpleasant, and a visit from the genuine black dog of depression?
The short answer to this question can usually be found by looking for a reasonable cause for your feelings of sadness. If you’ve experienced a major life event such as the loss of a job, a bereavement, or the breakdown of a relationship, there is a clear line between the sadness you feel and a distinct cause.
You are sad because something sad has occurred.
The longer answer is that, while there may be a clear trigger for your sadness, depression can arise as a result of ‘normal’ sadness that becomes a deeper malady, and the fact you see a clear cause for your feelings doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not suffering from depression.
It’s important to recognise the difference between sadness and depression, as well as consider other factors – such as hormonal changes – that could be contributing to your feelings of sadness, and offer an alternative explanation for intense sadness beyond a diagnosis of depression.
Am I Depressed?
Ultimately, the only way to be certain if you have depression is to have a full assessment by a qualified psychologist. However, taking the step of seeking out professional help can feel very daunting, and you may not feel it’s necessary without first answering the question yourself.
It’s very common for people to believe they are depressed when they are ‘simply’ sad, and vice versa. The two are very easily confused due to the crossover in feelings and behaviour. Both sadness and depression are predominantly characterised by a significant dip in mood. While there are a lot of other factors, this is the feature we most often associate with both. As a result, any dip in mood can be characterised as either sadness or depression, without real consideration for the crucial difference between the two.
While sadness is a natural part of life that can’t really be avoided, and will (usually) work itself out, depression is an illness, and requires treatment, or at the very least, management. It can start slowly, and sneaks up on you, making it even trickier to recognise as most people don’t fall asleep feeling fine and wake in the depths of a depressive episode. The gradual buildup of their symptoms can easily mask them, and leave them feeling there’s nothing unusual or unhealthy about the level of sadness they feel. They dismiss it as normal and wait for it to pass, without taking the necessary action to mitigate the symptoms of clinical depression.
Sadness tends to come and go relatively quickly. Whatever caused you to feel sad, whatever put you in that initial mindset, time passes, you adjust, the feeling fades. How long that takes varies considerably depending on the situation, but it will fade.
Depression is a very different animal, capable of tainting every aspect of your life, apparently for no reason at all. It also lingers, doing more than causing sadness, it invades your thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and behaviours, causing you to think, feel and act differently. These changes may be subtle – like a loss (or excess) of appetite, a sudden disinterest in something you previously loved – or they can be extreme – like an inability to get out of bed in the morning.
What Is Depression?
Depression is a common yet serious mood disorder that has a severe impact on your thoughts, feelings, work, sleep, and the way in which you perceive and interact with the world and people around you. While anyone may have an ‘off’ day of feeling like this, clinical depression sees symptoms that manifest and remain for a significant period of time – usually considered to be a two week span of feeling this way most or every day.
Some of the symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sense of sadness or anxiety, coupled with ‘empty’ moods where you feel nothing at all.
- A sense of pessimism or hopelessness about yourself, the world, and the future.
- Experiencing feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and guilt (usually for no discernible reason, or for reasons that are based in fear rather than reality).
- Losing interest in activities and hobbies you usually love.
- Low energy levels and a sense of constant fatigue.
- Finding you are talking or moving sluggishly.
- Difficulty staying still and a general feeling of restlessness.
- Trouble sleeping, including an inability to fall or stay asleep, waking very early in the morning, or oversleeping.
- Changes to your appetite and weight.
- Suicidal thoughts or a preocupation with death, as well as actual attempts at self-harm and suicide.
Not everyone experiencing depression will have all of these symptoms, and may experience additional signs of the disorder. In addition the severity and frequency of symptoms varies widely from person to person – like most mental health conditions, depression is unique to the individual experiencing it, despite being an affliction shared by many.
How Is Depression Diagnosed?
Because of the individual nature of depression, every person ‘wears’ it differently. For some it results in crying all day, every day. For others, it leaves them feeling flat, empty, and as if the world has been muffled and dulled.
Part of the hopeless sensation that accompanies depression is the belief that seeking treatment is pointless. It feels impossible that anything could help, or that there could ever be an end to the way you’re currently feeling. But seeking proper diagnosis and treatment is essential, and the sooner you do so the sooner you will start to see improvements.
While there’s no physical test that can be run to check for depression, a trip to your GP is still beneficial as a first port of call. They may run blood or urine tests to rule out physical issues as the cause of your symptoms – such as a hormone imbalance, or an underactive thyroid. They can also refer you to a psychologist for assessment. Alternatively you can seek a private psychologist to assess you – this is often the most expedient way of getting a real diagnosis and effective help.
Remember, a GP can refer you for further assessment, but only a trained psychologist or psychiatrist is in a position to accurately diagnose any mental health condition.
Depression is generally diagnosed through careful questioning about your general health, well-being, and how you’ve been feeling. These questions lead you to consider the mental and physical effects of your symptoms, as well as how long they have lasted, and whether there are any trigger events.
As you answer, try to be as open minded and honest as possible. It’s easy to feel embarrassed when admitting the extent to which you’re struggling as a result of your symptoms, as well as guilt and shame. Try to remember that these feelings are actually part and parcel of depression, and you will not be judged for your answers.
What Should You Do If You’re Depressed?
First things first, get a proper diagnosis. Many treatments for depression include medication and therapies that can only be conducted by a trained professional once you’ve got a formal diagnosis.
That being said there is a lot you can do to manage depression once you’re aware you have it. Meditation, journalling, and learning more about your condition are all effective ways you can be an active agent in your treatment and recovery. Regular exercise (by which I mean a minimum of four cardio activities lasting at least 20 minutes each per week) is a great way to manage depression. Not only does research indicate this can alleviate symptoms, it’s also been shown to prevent episodes in the future.
They sound like basic pieces of advice, but getting eight hours of sleep each night (rather than struggling by on one or two, or sleeping to excess), and eating a balanced, healthy diet really do help. Too little or too much sleep affects your mood, thoughts and behaviour, while irregular and unhealthy eating disrupts your blood sugar levels and the natural rhythms of your body.
The worst thing you can do is mope around your house in your PJs all day. It may be the only thing you feel like doing a lot of the time, but all it does is allow you to marinate in your negative mental state, and cause it to deepen and intensify.
Establish a routine, push yourself to participate in activities you used to enjoy, even if you’ve lost enthusiasm for them. Leave the house at least once a day. Spend time with other people. Look at the negative psychological factors at work in your life, such as dissatisfaction or stress at work, toxic individuals who drag down your mood, or money worries, and look for ways of mitigating them. This is easier said than done, but simply having a plan that will ensure a situation improves in time will help you feel more positive and less stressed.
The more you can do to keep your mind and body balanced, the better able you will be to manage your symptoms, break the cycle of depression, and prevent (or at least minimise) recurrences.
Breaking The Cycle Of Depression…
While depression has a tendency to linger, and isn’t likely to clear up in a day or two like a bad cold or the flu, you are in control of your recovery. By taking positive action on a daily basis, practicing self-care, and monitoring your moods and progress you can retake control and break the cycle.
The Zen Buddy app has been specifically designed to aid individuals experiencing depression, anxiety, and other damaging mental health issues to do exactly that. Our mindfulness and meditation sessions will help you establish a routine and practice that all-important self-care every day, while the unique interactive and journaling features of the app enable you to monitor your progress and choose the activities most likely to improve your specific mood at the time of using the app. Signup below to be first in line to benefit from a free trial of the Zen Buddy app when it’s released later this year…