What is Depression?
Depression is a complex disorder, involving many systems of the body, including the immune system, either as cause or effect. It disrupts sleep and it interferes with appetite, in some cases causing weight loss, in others weight gain. Because of its complexity, a full understanding of depression has been elusive. According to the World Health Organization, depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression.
Depression comes in many forms—from major depression to dysthymia and seasonal affective disorder. In addition, depressive episodes are features of bipolar disorder. Depression is often accompanied by anxiety. Research indicates that not only do the two conditions co-occur but that they overlap in genetic vulnerability patterns.
Scientists have some evidence that depression susceptibility is also related to diet, both directly—through inadequate consumption of nutrients such as omega-3 fats—and indirectly, through the variety of bacteria that populate the gut. Of course, depression involves mood and thoughts as well as the body, and it causes pain for both those with the disorder and those who care about them. Depression is increasingly common in children. Even in the most severe cases, depression is highly treatable. The condition is often cyclical, and early treatment may prevent or forestall recurrent episodes.
Many studies show that the most effective treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy, which addresses problematic thought patterns, with or without the use of antidepressant drugs. In addition, evidence is quickly accumulating that regular mindfulness meditation, on its own or combined with cognitive therapy, can stop depression before it starts by effectively disengaging attention from the repetitive negative thoughts that often set in motion the downward spiral of mood.
What Are the Signs of Depression?
Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom. Some people experience a few symptoms, some many. The severity of symptoms varies among individuals and also varies over time.
Depression often involves persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood, feelings of hopelessness or pessimism, and feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness. It can also involve loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex. Decreased energy, fatigue, or a sense of being “slowed down” are also common, as are restlessness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Many with depression have thoughts of death or suicide.
People with depression may experience disruptions in sleep (insomnia, early-morning awakening or oversleeping) and in eating behavior (appetite changes, weight loss or gain). Persistent physical symptoms may include headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain.
What Causes Depression?
There is no single known cause of depression. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Major negative experiences—trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation that overwhelms the ability to cope—may trigger a depressive episode. Subsequent depressive episodes may occur with or without an obvious trigger.
Depression is not an inherent consequence of negative life events. Research increasingly suggests that it is only when such events set in motion excessive rumination and negative thought patterns, especially about oneself, that mood enters a downward spiral.
Research utilizing brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), shows that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior appear to function abnormally. It is not clear which changes seen in the brain may be the cause of depression and which ones the effect. Some types of depression tend to run in families, suggesting there may be some genetic vulnerability to the disorder.
Build a Support Network
One of the most important things you can do to help yourself with depression—other than medication and therapy—is to develop strong social support. For some, this may mean forging stronger ties with friends or family. Knowing you can count on supportive loved ones to help can go a long way toward improving your depression. For others, a depression support group can be key. It may involve a community group that meets in your area or you might find an online support group who meets your needs.
Reduce Your Stress
When you’re under stress, your body produces more of a hormone called cortisol. In the short-term, this is a good thing because it helps you gear up to cope with whatever is causing the stress in your life. Over the long run, however, it can cause many problems for you, including depression. The more you use techniques to reduce stress, the better because it will reduce your risk of becoming depressed.
Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
Sleep and mood are intimately related. A 2014 study found that 80% of people with major depressive disorder experience sleep disturbances. But you might feel like you just can’t fall asleep. Or perhaps you struggle to get out of bed because you feel exhausted all the time. Good sleep hygiene could be key to improving the quality and quantity of your sleep. Turn off electronics at least an hour before you go to bed. Use dim light to read a book or engage in another relaxing activity. Only use your bed for sleep and sexual activity. Doing work in bed, or even in your bedroom, can cause you to associate your bed with stress, rather than relaxation.
Improve Your Eating Habits
Research continues to find clear links between diet and mental health. In fact, there have been so many studies that have shown improving nutrition can prevent and treat mental illness that nutritional psychiatry has become mainstream. There are many brain-essential nutrients that can affect depression. For example, a 2012 study found that zinc deficiency increases symptoms of depression.
Learn How to Stop Negative Thoughts, search for a professional.
Depression doesn’t just make you feel bad, it can also cause you to think more negatively. Changing those negative thoughts, however, can improve your mood. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that works to alter common patterns of negative thinking called cognitive distortions in order to eliminate depression.6 There are also many self-help books, apps, and online courses that can help you learn how to change your unhealthy thinking patterns.
The symptoms of depression, such as fatigue and difficulty concentrating, make procrastination tempting. Putting things off fuels depression. It can lead to increased guilt, worry, and stress. It’s important to set deadlines and manage your time well. Establish short-term goals and work hard to get the most important things done first. Each task you successfully complete will help you break through the habit of procrastination.
Get a Handle on Your Household Chores
Depression can make it difficult to complete household chores, such as doing the dishes or paying bills. But a pile of paperwork, the stack of dirty dishes, and floor covered in dirty clothes will only magnify your feelings of worthlessness. Take control of your daily chores. Start small and work on one project at a time. Getting up and moving can help you start to feel better in itself. But, seeing your progress in the home can be key to helping you feel better.