Is it depression? Or is it something else? While only a doctor can give a definitive answer, it helps to understand what depression is and isn’t – especially when you feel like you’re currently struggling with what might be a depression.
Struggle is a part of the human experience, universal in the sense that every person, real and fictional, grows and develops mostly out of conflict and struggle. We develop identities, ideas, and beliefs in response to the world around us. It’s through struggle that we learn our most important lessons, and it’s our struggles that shape who we are and the lens through which we view our lives and the lives of those around us. But there are battles we can’t win alone. Depression is one of these battles.
What is Depression?
Sometimes, people go through things or feel things they can’t overcome alone or encounter an overwhelming experience. Sometimes, people are born with or develop a challenge others don’t usually have to face, an additional struggle that makes like that much harder. Depression is a mental disorder characterized by a severe low mood that lasts and persists, for weeks, months, or years. It can include suicidal thoughts and thoughts of self-loathing. It can include a total apathy towards any and all of life’s pleasures. It can include an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that leaves people unable to get out of bed in the morning, let alone get dressed and face the world. Some key characteristics or symptoms of depression include:
- A low, empty, sullen, or sad mood lasting longer than two weeks.
- Apathy, constant pessimism, lack of interest in old hobbies.
- Consistent feelings of guilt and worthlessness, low self-esteem.
- Fatigue, lack of energy, struggling to get motivated, feeling tired constantly.
- Inability to concentrate, struggling with memories, unable to make decisions.
- Insomnia, oversleeping, sleeping only in short bursts.
- Irritability, restlessness, and annoyance.
- Other symptoms tied to the condition that are not treated through regular medication, including cramps, headaches, stomach pain, or pain that is otherwise irregular/not tied to a physical condition or injury.
The key thing that sets it apart from our understanding of the ‘normal’ human experience is that it often does not have a clearly-defined origin point, and it does not get better on its own. A depressive disorder is not a state of mind, but a set of symptoms describing a condition in the brain developed through an abnormality in the way a person processes certain neurochemicals, or in the way their brain responds to certain signals. Sometimes, it’s codependent with a physical disorder affecting the body’s endocrinology, causing hormone fluctuations through a tumor or a thyroid condition. Depression is not normal, and it must be addressed as an illness like any other.
More than just feeling down, depression is often debilitating and is one of the leading causes of disability in the world. It can cost people their livelihoods, and in many unfortunate cases, their lives.
Depression has many faces. Depression is not a stereotype or a caricature but can be expressed in a very wide variety of behaviors and symptoms. Some people can be depressive but deeply angry and irritable, or depressed and socially distant, removed from all contact. Or they might seek out contact, but shy away from intimacy. Or, they are prone to seeking out intimacy, but still feel emotionally unavailable. Rather than try to characterize a person with the illness, the illness becomes one aspect of the person, and how they express their experiences with depression is often very individual.
Depression also exists in different forms, based on certain symptoms or potential causes. A depression tied to a woman’s premenstrual symptoms is called premenstrual dysphoric disorder, while depression related to the turning of the seasons or the lack of light over the winter time is called seasonal affective disorder. Depressive symptoms experienced before and/or after labor is called peripartum depression, and some people suffer from mood disorders that include symptoms of depression and mania, known as bipolar disorder.
While depressive symptoms can be identified by anyone, it takes a certain number of tests to effectively diagnose an individual and help them understand what kind of depression they struggle with. In general, a depression characterized solely by a persistent low mood is known as major depressive disorder.
Is It Sadness or Depression?
Being sad is a symptom of depression insofar as it is prolonged to an atypical length. It is important to remember that for many of the symptoms listed above, these are simply feelings we experience from time to time – but we experience them ephemerally, in response to something.
A depression is often unprovoked, fueled not by something sad but by itself, and lasts longer than a few hours or a few days even. It’s perfectly normal to be sad, or irritated, or happy. But to be chronically sad for no apparent reason, to be irritable without meaning to or without the outside pressure to justify it, to be negative and in a low mood for weeks at a time without a breakthrough or moment of peace and contentment – these are symptoms that describe something is wrong.
If you have been experiencing symptoms of depression that can be explained, it does not necessarily rule out the possibility of a depression. At least, not until the symptoms pass on their own. Sometimes, depressions are triggered by a loss or tragic event, kickstarting a slew of emotions that are not properly processed and do not go away.
Depression and Grief
We say that depression is a prolonged period of sadness, but we also say that things that make us sad, make us sad in different and unique ways. As such, it is hard to diagnose someone with a depression if the origin of their depressed thoughts and feelings is a serious loss.
Grief can be complex, and people can suffer from the loss of a loved one for years. While it isn’t normal to be devoid of happiness for years after losing someone, you can be severely affected by the loss of a loved one without being depressed. Instead, this is called complicated grief.
The first step against suspected depression should always be a visit to a professional who can confirm or dispel your fears. Psychiatrists may not necessarily diagnose you on the first meeting, but they may help you better understand why you feel the way you do, and can prescribe medication to help with your feelings, as well as refer you to other professionals for therapy sessions, resources on depression, appropriate reading material, and more.
In cases where conventional methods don’t work, other treatments and therapies are still available. For example, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can help patients with treatment-resistant depression find relief through non-invasive, painless magnetic waves directed at a section of a person’s brain, stimulating the nerves and interfering with certain signals and mechanisms tied to depression. Depression treatment will take time no matter what avenue you choose to pursue, and it can be difficult to maintain a sense of hope as the days go on. This is why support from friends and family is important along the way.