How to identify and treat the symptoms of depression

Depression is a common but serious mental health condition. Every year it affects more than 40 million adults in the U.S., or about 18% of the population. Rates of depression had been slowly rising prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and have noticeably increased since.  

While depression can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status, certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing depression. These include but are not limited to a family history of depression, personal history of mental health issues, chronic medical conditions, substance abuse, trauma, and high levels of stress. 

Understanding the types of depression, their signs and symptoms, coping strategies, and when it's time to seek professional help are important steps in effectively addressing this condition. 

Understanding depression

Depression is a complex condition with various contributing factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, life events, and personality traits.

It is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed. It can affect the way someone eats, sleeps, thinks, and feels about themself.

Depression is not the same as being unhappy or feeling “blue.” Instead, it goes beyond temporary feelings of sadness and can interfere with daily life, relationships, and overall well-being. Depression is a complex condition with various contributing factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, life events, and personality traits.

Types of depression

Depression comes in many forms and severities. Common types include:

Major depressive disorder (MDD)

This is the most common form of depression. It involves a persistent low mood, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, and other symptoms that include changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, and feelings of worthlessness. 

Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)

People with this type of depression experience a milder, but longer-lasting form of depression. More than half of those with dysthymia eventually have an episode of major depression.

Bipolar disorder

This involves periods of depression that alternate with episodes of mania or hypomania, which are characterized by elevated mood, increased energy, and impulsive behavior. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

This type of depression occurs seasonally, often during the fall and winter months when there is less natural sunlight.

Postpartum depression

Some women experience this type of depression after giving birth, which can affect their ability to care for themselves and their newborn.

Signs and symptoms of depression

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of depression is crucial for early intervention and treatment. While people may experience depression differently, the National Institute of Mental Health identifies the following as common symptoms: 

  • Persistent feeling of sadness, anxiousness, or “emptiness”. 
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism. 
  • Feelings of irritability, frustration, or restlessness. 
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities that were once pleasurable. 
  • Fatigue or feeling slowed down. 
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
  • Changes in sleep patterns, which can include sleeplessness, waking early, or oversleeping.
  • Changes in appetite or significant, unplanned changes in weight.
  • Physical aches, pains, or digestive problems that don’t have a clear cause and don’t go away with treatment.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts. 

Coping strategies for depression

When someone is depressed, they may feel like nothing can be done to change how they feel. In fact, there are many things that can be done to improve mood. The first step is usually the hardest, so the key is to start with a few small goals and slowly build from there.

Connect with other people

Connections to social networks are important, and simply talking to someone can be a big help. People should reach out to trusted family members or friends, or they can seek help from a therapist or depression support group.

Manage stress

Stress can trigger, prolong, or worsen depression. Identifying stressors such as work, finances, and home-life responsibilities, and then finding ways to reduce or eliminate those stressors, can relieve the pressure and provide a sense of control. Ways to manage stress include meditation, a healthy diet, and physical activity.

Identify quick fixes

People with depression can often get an emotional boost by turning to readily available, easy activities. These “quick fixes” might include listening to music, playing with a pet, or taking a bath.

Get moving

Studies show that people who exercise regularly benefit from a better mood and lower rates of depression. Fortunately, exercise does not have to be rigorous. Walking, stretching, and light housework or yardwork can be as effective as heavier exercise. 

Eat well

There’s a connection between food and mood. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and olive oil are mood boosters. High-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, and processed foods do not help improve mood and should be avoided. 

When to seek professional help for depression

While self-help strategies can be effective, there may be times when professional help is needed. Someone experiencing depression should talk to a professional when their symptoms interfere with their ability to work, study, or maintain and enjoy relationships.

If someone is thinking about hurting themself or attempting suicide, they should call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline  at 988.

Depression is a complex and pervasive condition that can affect anyone. Identifying the symptoms early and seeking help when needed is essential for effectively treating this condition. With the right support, coping strategies, and treatment, people can regain control of their lives and find hope and healing during their journey toward recovery.