How do you know you are experiencing depression? What are the common symptoms of depression? As a professional counselor, when listening to clients describe their symptoms, I am looking for patterns and changes in patterns, as well as a few key words or phrases. What is normal for one person may not be normal for another, but here are few of the most common signs and symptoms of depression.
Most Common Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Change in Mood
Depression is associated with the words “sad” or “down.” While those are certainly aspects of the moods of depression, I also find that feeling “nothing” or “numbness” are just as common.
It is normal to feel different emotional responses to various events in our lives, but unfortunately we push down many negative emotions because they are hard to feel or talk about. We do our best not to dwell on them or think about them. But we can’t selectively damper certain emotions.
The more we numb our negative emotions, we also end up numbing our positive emotions, which can leave a sort of emptiness, hopelessness, and overall numbness. I frequently hear people struggling with depression describe their emotions as mostly empty with sadness mixed in; but these changes can also include mood swings, irritability, and anger.
Change in Sleeping Patterns
Sleep changes are one of the most pernicious symptoms of depression. This can take the form of either sleeping too much or not sleeping enough, or simply your sleep schedule being mixed up. If a client finds themselves unable to sleep at night, they will likely be tired throughout the day, and potentially able to take naps, but then be unable to sleep again at night.
It is important that we switch our thinking from sleep simply being our minds and bodies at rest to instead thinking of sleep as a necessary, secondary psychological state.
One other thing to note here is that caffeine and other stimulants are absolutely not an adequate substitute for sleep. It is important that we switch our thinking from sleep simply being our minds and bodies at rest to instead thinking of sleep as a necessary, secondary psychological state.
Many important physiological and psychological functions occur during sleep (enough to write an entire other article about), including the making of hormones which help regulate mood. Caffeine cannot substitute for this process. There is still much more to be understood about what exactly happens during sleep, but once the regular cycles get disrupted, the effects can become far-reaching and long-term.
Change in Appetite
Changes in appetite are again specific to the individual. Some may experience an increased appetite, particularly for comfort foods, while others may lose interest in eating. If you find yourself starting to eat less or more, it might be wise to start tracking your weight.
If your weight is decreasing (without intending it to) or increasing, that can be a good indicator to some of your body’s signals saying, “something isn’t right.” It is also helpful, as a clinician, to have an idea of how much is changing. If a client can tell me, “I’ve lost my appetite.” I might ask, “Have you lost weight? And if so, how much?”
A few pounds may not be concerning yet, but if a client can tell me they have lost 20 pounds in a month, I know to be more concerned about the depth of the depression. The specific numbers can be different for each client, but it is helpful to have those numbers when building a context of understanding a client’s life and situation.
ADLs are activities of daily living. I place this here under sleep and eating because it can include those as well. But when I hear that someone has stopped showering or brushing their teeth or getting out of their pajamas, I might start asking more about what other daily/regular activities they no longer participate in.
When the routine care of self begins to be forgotten, often other areas will begin to be forgotten as well. It can start with not feeling like showering or getting ready, which makes a person not want to go to work or go out with friends, which leads to isolating, which can worsen depression. It becomes a cycle.
Again, skipping a shower for a few days is nothing to be concerned about, but if you notice that your lack of hygiene is beginning to make you think twice about interacting with the outside world, you may be headed towards that cycle.
Loss of Interest and Participation in Hobbies or Activities
This doesn’t just have to be the loss of participation in activities with other people. I also often find that people experiencing depression cease doing their own personal hobbies, like reading, painting, knitting, etc. It’s a movement from interest and active participation in life to disinterest and passive experiencing.
People experiencing depression begin to pick up more of those passive engagements in order to distract and replace other active participation, particularly in the forms of watching TV and browsing various social media sites.
The binge-watching nature of online streaming and endless stimuli from social media sites make this an easy transition. The potential distractions never end, and they aren’t necessarily productive to healing depression. So if you find yourself leaning more and more towards passive distractions rather than endeavors that require active engagement, this may also be a sign of depression sinking in.
This next category I find encompasses mental and physical experiences. I like to call it “The Fog.” It’s the cloudy thinking and the physical heaviness. It’s the feeling like nothing makes sense anymore, so you lose energy and motivation to do anything.
The fatigue can be related to the changes in sleeping patterns (as too little or too much sleep can contribute to fatigue), but it is also a common symptom of depression. The heaviness makes every task seem more and more impossible, making lying on the couch watching TV the only thing that you can accomplish for the day.
Concentration difficulties make decisions seem futile, and before you know it, a trip to the grocery store (which requires grooming, planning, energy, and TONS of decisions among options) becomes a task too large to accomplish. A conversation becomes difficult to carry and understand, so you isolate more.
This cloudiness can even lead to increased distraction and inattentiveness, and someone struggling with depression might find themselves falling more, having small accidents, or even struggling to remember chunks of time. Everything just seems foggy, confusing, and exhausting.
This is a common symptom of depression that has been mentioned as aspects of others already. There can be a couple of different factors that start the isolation (lack of hygiene, decreased energy, difficult concentration, negative self-thoughts, etc.).
But overall, if you find yourself making excuses for not keeping plans with friends or beginning to skip family events, it might be time to start exploring why you are pulling back from the people in your life. Because humans are social beings, isolation and loneliness can feed depression and mental illness.
Increased Negative Thoughts and Feelings about Yourself
Self-esteem and self-worth are common struggles for many people, but if depression sets in, they can worsen. I find they especially tend to circulate around feelings of guilt or self-blame.
I hear clients say things like, “I feel guilty about canceling plans, but I’m sure they don’t want to see me anyways…” or “It’s all my fault that my parents are fighting…” or “Even if I joined their team, I would just do terrible and they would lose and it would be my fault.” This sense of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness often accompany depression.
Unexplained Physical Ailments
Mental health and physical health are strongly intertwined. When we don’t feel physically well, it is normal for our mental health to decline. But it works the other way around as well – when we experience depression, our physical health can be affected. These physical ailments often also don’t respond to treatments.
Common physical symptoms can include fatigue, headaches, back pain, stomach troubles, or tense achy muscles. Some people may even experience restlessness in addition to fatigue. Each person’s physical experience of depression can be different.
Recurrent “dark” thoughts do not all have to be suicidal to be depression-related. People experiencing mood disorders also find themselves thinking about death, injury, or harm in a personal or non-personal sense. These thoughts can be recurrent and cycling, and can contribute to a sense of hopelessness already present.
Loss of a Sense of a Future
Depression can make the future seem pointless or hopeless. This can be related to struggles with decision making and forward thinking, or it can even be related to increased thoughts of death.
I find that clients struggling with depression also do not believe their future is anything to look forward to. Any sense of forward movement and future-orientation slows down, and hope (which is very future-dependent) fades away.
Increased Unhealthy Coping Behaviors
Over time, everyone develops coping behaviors to manage the different events in their lives. Some are healthy and adaptive, and others are unhealthy and maladaptive. Many can be either, depending on the person.
Exercise can be a healthy and adaptive coping skill for many people, but for those who struggle with eating disorders, it can become very unhealthy. Other common unhealthy behaviors can include, but are certainly not limited to, consuming illegal substances, taking medications not as prescribed, compulsive shopping, compulsive gambling, excessive drinking, or binge eating. If you are already aware of your unhealthy coping behaviors and notice you are partaking in them in increased amounts, you may be experiencing depression.
How to Manage Common Depression Symptoms
As previously mentioned, people confronting depression often let their health and hygiene maintenance lapse. Knowing this is happening is the first step to implementing change. If you recognize that you are beginning to skip meals, showers, or general routines, it is important that you pick those back up again.
If you need to make schedules or To Do lists, that can help, but it is also helpful to get accountability from a trusted loved one — someone who can check in with you to remind you to maintain healthy habits.
These healthy habits can include:
- Exercise – This is one of the most consistently proven and evidenced-based methods to counteract depression symptoms. This means keeping a regular exercise schedule, aiming for at least 30 minutes of cardio 3-4 times per week.
- Going Outside – More and more research is showing evidence of the benefits of being in nature, or bio-diverse environments. It is not only the fresh air and sunshine that can help our bodies and minds improve, but even being around other living organisms can stimulate different areas of our minds to help jump-start change. It’s a double benefit to pursue exercise or activities that place you in parks, forests, or other nature-filled environments.
- Healthy Diet – Be sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and avoid empty, non-nutritious calories. Whatever the hold-up may be to maintaining a healthy diet (avoiding grocery shopping, avoiding cooking, relying on fast, easy, comfort foods, etc.) find someone to help you problem-solve those roadblocks so your body can have the necessary nutrients to produce hormones that keep you mentally and physically healthy.
- Regular Sleep Schedules – I recommend researching “Sleep Hygiene” to understand better ways to maintain a healthy sleeping schedule. This is the term many health professionals are using to help people understand better sleeping habits. Those will include things like no phones in bed, keeping the same sleep schedule every day of the week, and avoiding naps.
- Reach Out to Trusted Loved Ones – If you are fortunate enough to have friends and family who will help you and keep you accountable to healthy behaviors, reach out to them. Because isolation is one of those vicious cycles of depression, breaking it requires letting others know you need help.
- Find Support Groups – Connecting to others who are experiencing similar struggles as you can be a powerful tool in finding healing. If you are not sure where to look, contact one of our counselors to see if they can help you find a support group.
- Care for a Pet – This is not a tool that will help everyone, but for those who love animals, bringing one into your life can motivate you to keep yourself well. Dogs encourage you to go on walks and dogs and cats can motivate you to make sure there is food in the house – for them and for you.
- Volunteer – Helping others, even when we feel like we aren’t capable, is an important way to begin to think beyond ourselves. And it helps us meet new people. Giving back has the double benefit of helping people feel better about themselves as well. There are plenty of opportunities and methods to incorporate volunteering into your life, whether it is with local museums, parks, or non-profit groups.
- Take a Class – Museums, shops, and schools are only a few of the different options for finding ways to learn new skills and meet people. If you have an interest in developing new skills, but have put off learning it, then committing to a class can be a great way to both get you out of the house, meet new people, and activate new pathways in your brain.
Emotional and Mental Health
- Creative Outlets – Writing, drawing, painting, and other methods of creative expression are great ways to process through tough emotions.
- Challenge your Thoughts – A large part of depression cycles can include negative thoughts about yourself. If you find yourself thinking unhelpful thoughts, find ways to challenge them. Look for evidence that they are not true. Write out new ways to think about yourself. Don’t let your mind run unchecked in ways that hurt you.
- Meditation and Mindfulness – These can be great tools to bring your mind and focus back into the present moment rather than letting them wander off into the past or future. Work on being in the present, as this is the only moment in which we have control.
- Try a Mobile App – We often spend inordinate amounts of time perusing social media, news, and various websites in ways that just distract us from our struggles instead of actually helping us. Look for apps that are geared towards helping you improve your mental health, especially as those are growing in numbers.
All too often, people do not seek out counseling until they have reached breaking points, when partaking earlier on in their struggles could have help enormously.
When depression reaches depths that you cannot handle alone, sometimes letting your doctor know can help start you on a path to healing. There are many different options, but be sure that you are working closely with your doctor and taking the medications as prescribed. This can help damper the depression enough so that you can begin to engage in other healthy behaviors. Medication often works best in conjunction with counseling.
Seek out Counseling
All too often, people do not seek out counseling until they have reached breaking points, when partaking earlier on in their struggles could have help enormously. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you think you are struggling with depression symptoms and you are unsure of how to fight back, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or another counselor.
“Sadness”, Courtesy of Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Alone”, Courtesy of MDARIFLIMAT, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Avenue of Trees”, Courtesy of Tama66, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Best Friends”, Courtesy of Seaq68, Pixabay.com, CC0 License