When someone is diagnosed with major depressive disorder, they are struggling with a mental health issue that sets itself apart due to an abnormally protracted period of low mood. It’s important to make that distinction. We’re all allowed to be sad, and it’s important to fully express our emotions – be they positive or negative. It’s very important to be clear about the fact that feeling a certain way does not make you ill.
But depression is an illness. It is a condition created by a series of genetic and environmental factors, leading to changes in the brain. These changes affect thinking and behavior. Certain portions of the brain shrink, and certain chemicals are no longer effectively made use of.
As a result, it becomes harder to feel happy, or even neutral. Periods of sadness are prolonged, often starting without any trigger or provocation. Depression can change a person, both subtly and drastically. Depressive disorders are far more than just the extreme polar end of a single emotion. There’s much more to depression than prolonged sadness. Its effects are widespread in other ways.
Being Sad and Being Depressed
When we say to each other that we’re ‘depressed’, chances are we don’t mean it that way. Major depressive disorder affects an estimated 6.7 percent of American adults, and nearly a fifth of American teens have experienced a depressive episode before adulthood. Depression can last a few weeks, or it can last years – but it is distinctly different form being sad.
Colloquially, it’s become common to think of depression as superlative sadness, but this misconception only describes one aspect of depression. While depression is characterized by a low mood, this can mean several things. When people begin to attribute depression mainly to very long, very powerful sadness, they often misunderstand that many other symptoms of depression are less obvious, or not as commonly linked to the condition. Here are a few symptoms of depression.
- Anger – unexpectedly perhaps, outbursts of anger and high irritability are a common symptom in depression. While depression causes a low mood, it becomes a source of endless frustration. Children and teens especially are prone to outbursts of anger while depressed.
- Loss of Interest – depression can often effectively kill your urge to read, play, engage in your favorite shows, or train for your favorite sport. What you used to enjoy may no longer be enjoyable, in part due to how the brain of someone with depression is different compared to most people. Particularly, areas of the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex undergo major changes.
- Shame and Guilt – one way in which a perpetual low mood can manifest is through certain negative, often self-deprecating thoughts. Someone with depression is regularly struggling with an inner voice intent on making them feel worthless, useless, and superfluous. Many forms of suicidal ideation in people with depression revolve around the idea that they are a burden to others. Because there is stigma attached to depression and mental illness in general, these feelings can grow the more a person is judged for their condition.
- Physical Pain – depression is paired with unexplained pains, particularly in the back and in the head. Headaches, lower back pain, upper back pain, and general fatigue are common symptoms in depression, and in people with existing pains (particularly chronic pain or arthritis), being depressed can increase the severity of the pain quite considerably.
- Slower Reactions – studies show that people who struggle with depression are not just sad, but they are slower. They are slower mentally, physically, and in terms of reaction speed. Depression is tied to trouble with focusing, concentration, decision making, and abstract thinking, as well as problem solving and planning. Just as we generally perform better mentally and physically when we’re happy, our performance drops drastically when we are completely overwhelmed by a consistently low mood.
- Appetite Changes – sudden weight gain and sudden weight loss are both linked to the onset of depression, as people either lose their appetite or turn to food cravings to deal with the negative emotions that exist alongside depression. Neither are healthy, and that can further impact recovery from depression, as poor physical health causes a decline in mental health.
- Lack of Motivation – procrastination and apparent ‘laziness’ are common among people with depression, yet these symptoms have little to do with their personality or their conviction, and more to do with their brain. A depressed brain struggles to find reasons to motivate itself and get things done, to the point of struggling with even the most basic tasks, such as getting out of bed in the morning and brushing teeth. The stress and chemical inconsistencies in the brain introduced through depression can cause a person to feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by things most people don’t even think about, let alone worry over.
Depression is a complex disorder with symptoms that can unfold in a large variety of different ways. More than just a general prolonged aura of sadness, it is an illness that requires comprehensive treatment.
How Depression is Treated
Depressive disorders are treated on an individual basis, as people respond very differently to different treatment approaches. The first approach usually involves an antidepressant and talk therapy, which aims to help patients navigate their way towards a better, and healthier mental state once their medication begins to help.
It’s important to clarify that you cannot effectively ‘think’ your way out of a depressive disorder, just as you cannot ‘think’ away other illnesses – but therapy plays an important role in helping patients better adjust to life after their antidepressant treatment begins to work.
If antidepressants don’t work at first, then another brand or type may be used. There are several different kinds of antidepressants, and several different products and formulations per kind. If, however, after several different medications have failed to elicit a positive response, a doctor may begin prescribing solutions for ‘treatment-resistant depression’, including treatments that are particularly effective in such cases, like non-invasive transcranial magnetic stimulation.