Depression is a mood disorder that causes feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or despair for an extended period of time. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people will suffer at least one bout of depression in their lifetime and for most, the problem will be recurrent.

Depression affects not only your mood and mind, but also your body, health, relationships, work, and enjoyment of life. In severe cases, depression can cause people to be unable to function normally or to become suicidal.

Causes of Depression

Depression is not simply “feeling blue.” It is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The exact mechanism is unknown, but bouts of depression can be triggered by sad or stressful life events, hormonal changes, disease, or certain medications. At other times, there is no obvious trigger.

Certain types of depression seem to run in families, and people with low self esteem, a pessimistic outlook on life, or unusual sensitivity to stress seem to be particularly prone to depression. Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men as the result of hormonal changes resulting from menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, but male depression is more likely to go undiagnosed and untreated. Women suffering from depression are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to succeed. In recent years, there has also been a growing recognition of the frequency of depression among the elderly.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression affects everyone differently and symptoms occur in widely varying combinations and levels of severity. A few of the most common symptoms include constant feelings of sadness, irritability, or tension, decreased interest or pleasure in usual activities or hobbies, feelings of tiredness or lethargy despite lack of activity, changes in appetite resulting in significant weight gain or loss, changes in sleeping patterns, sleeping too much or too little, having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, feelings of restlessness, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt, complaints that have no physical cause (somatic complaints) such as headaches, a feeling that one is drowning or suffocating, and thoughts of suicide or death.

Depression often interferes with one’s job, relationships, and ability to enjoy life. In its most severe form, it can be disabling. The affected person may be unable to communicate effectively or perform even routine tasks. Untreated depression is also the number one cause of suicide and talk or threats of suicide by a depressed person should be taken seriously.

Common Forms of Depression

There are many different types of depressive disorders. A few of the most common include:

  • Dysthymia is chronic low-level depression. Although rarely disabling, it may nevertheless interfere with one’s ability to function and enjoy life and often leads, eventually, to one or more major depressive episodes.
  • A bout of major depression may significantly affect one’s work, relationships with others, and ability to enjoy once pleasurable activities and hobbies, or even be disabling.
  • Bipolar disorder is one of the types of depression that most commonly runs in families. It is not as common as other depressive disorders and involves extreme swings in mood from severe highs (mania) to lows. When depressed, the person may show the signs of classic depressive disorder, when manic, they may be extremely talkative, social, and full of energy and enthusiasm. The mood swings may be quite sudden, but are more often gradual. Bipolar disorder is also known as manic-depressive disorder.
  • Postpartum depression affects women after childbirth, usually within the first few months but possibly as long as a year after birth. It is different from the “Baby Blues” that affect many women in the first few days after giving birth and resolve naturally. Postpartum depression can seriously inhibit a woman’s ability to bond with her child and, in its severe forms, can result in thoughts of or attempts to harm the infant or its siblings.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs when one shows the symptoms of major depression only during certain seasons, usually winter.

Treating Depression

Many people with depression do not seek treatment because the feelings of apathy and hopelessness that they are experiencing lead them to believe that treatment would be pointless or prevent them from taking the initiative to get help, but depression is better understood now than it has ever been before and help is available.

Severe depression is most often treated successfully by a combination of anti-depressant medications and psychological therapy. Mild depression may be helped by psychotherapy alone. When taking anti-depressants, it is important not to stop taking them without consulting a doctor first.

Some medications may make the symptoms of depression worse before they become better. This is normal and will pass if the medication continues to be taken as directed. At other times, patients may stop taking the medication because they feel better, without realizing that if the medication is stopped too soon, the depression may come back.

There are also self-help steps. Depression is not something to be ashamed of and it is often not possible to simply “snap out of it.” Recognizing that there is a problem is often the first step to recovery. Try to set reasonable goals and assume reasonable amounts of responsibility in the context of the depression.

Break large tasks into small ones to make them feel more manageable. If you suspect your depression may be related to stress or emotional turmoil, try to ease the factors that caused your depression by taking a short vacation, delegating more tasks, giving yourself a regular period of “self-time,” or the like. Although many depressed people wish to be left alone, try to seek out companionship and find someone trustworthy as a confidant.

Stay active, without overwhelming yourself with responsibility. In particular, regular exercise raises your body’s levels of natural anti-depressant hormones and activities such as reading, attending concerts, art shows, or sports events, starting or continuing a hobby, etc. may help keep your mind of your problems and gradually lead to a more positive outlook on life. Feeling better is a gradual process, but with proper treatment and self-care you can do it.

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