Understanding depression is one of the first steps to recovery. Whether you are suffering depression yourself or you know someone who is, you need to get an idea of exactly what depression is and what causes it if you’re going to be successful in dealing with it.
Depression is one of the most widely misunderstood mental disorders – and one of the most common affecting people around the globe today.
That’s why it’s important to set some of the biggest myths to rest and outline exactly what depression is (and isn’t), what the clinical definition and symptoms of depression are, how to tell if you’re depressed and how you can use all this knowledge to overcome depression.
This guide to understanding depression will help you achieve all those goals.
The First Step: So, What is Depression Really?
The Typical and Frustrating Misunderstanding
This might seem like a rather obvious question, but the answer is actually quite complex. Many people think of depression as simply being a ‘bad mood,’ and as a result there’s a general tendency for people in our culture to simply tell depressed people to ‘harden up’ and ‘get over it.’
But this is not an effective way of dealing with depression, because it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what depression is and how it affects people.
Depression Is Real … Not Just a Mood Swing
There are real, chemical differences in the brain of someone suffering severe depression compared to a ‘normal’ healthy person. This is why medication is often used in fighting depression – it’s not simply a mood that the sufferer can ‘snap out of,’ so substances are required to treat and suppress symptoms.
However, most experts agree that in the long run, the overuse of drugs to treat depression can be dangerous. The goal of depression treatment is to find a way to deal with the disorder through a combination of therapy, medication and lifestyle changes such as a new diet.
What Causes Depression?
A Complicated Interplay Between Experiences and Genetics
There are almost as many answers to this question as there are depression sufferers in the world – everyone has their own causes.
Depression Often Starts with a Trigger Event or Traumatic Experience
But there are usually some common threads in what brings on depression. Often, there is a traumatic trigger event which first sets the depression off – such as losing a loved one, or the end of a relationship.
However, it’s a little more complicated than that, as there tend to be underlying factors that build up over time which ‘set the scene’ for depression.
The trigger event sets off the symptoms, but it isn’t the cause per se. This is why some people can deal with traumatic events relatively easily and carry on as normal, whereas others are immediately plunged into a deep depression.
Genetics May Play an Important Part too
When many people hear that depression is hereditary, they assume you either have it or you don’t – and if you do, there’s nothing that can be done about it.
This is not exactly how it works, because genetics is a little more complicated than that. Genes can actually be ‘switched’ on or off throughout your lifetime by experiences you have.
This is why siblings, who share a lot of the same genes, can have very different experiences when it comes to depression.
A genetic predisposition to depression in your family can mean it’s more likely that you’ll develop depression more easily, but it’s not a guarantee that you’ll suffer depression – nor is having no hereditary risk of depression a guarantee you won’t develop it. It’s the result of an interplay between your genetics and your life experiences.
Understanding Depression: ‘Am I Depressed?’
If you find yourself asking this question, then it’s quite possible the answer is yes.
But that doesn’t mean you’re clinically depressed. If you’re suffering from regular low moods or apathy, then it’s likely you’re suffering from some type of mental disorder which might require outside help – but your symptoms may not fit the definition of clinical depression.
Exactly What You Call It Isn’t Important – What Is Important Is That You Get Help
Ultimately, the clinical depression definition is just a guideline to help medical professionals – what really matters is how you feel.
If you find yourself constantly feeling down, that life is meaningless or that you might be better off dead, then whether or not you fit the clinical description isn’t important – you need to seek help right away.
If your instincts tell you something isn’t right with the way your mind is working, trust that and seek the help of a professional.
The Clinical Depression Symptoms Your Doctor Will Be Looking For
The following clinical depression symptoms are signs medical professionals look for to determine whether or not someone is clinically depressed:
- Prolonged feelings of worthlessness or a feeling that life is pointless
- Feelings of guilt
- Prolonged periods of extreme pessimism, paranoia or suspicion
- Excessive sleep or insomnia
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Becoming angry easily
- Loss of sex drive
- Loss of interest in sports, hobbies or other activities you once derived pleasure from
- Feelings of emptiness
- Thoughts of suicide or attempts at suicide
As you can see, the symptoms are quite diverse and apparently opposite symptoms (like insomnia versus excessive sleep) can both be indicators of depression.
Any one of these symptoms alone does not indicate depression, however if there are several of the above symptoms present at the same time, present for an extended period, it could indicate you’re suffering from depression.
You need to seek professional medical advice. Your doctor will be able to examine you to determine what exactly you are suffering from, and refer you on to a mental health professional if that proves to be the best option.
Again, it’s important to keep in mind that your own instincts and feelings about what’s going on in your head are important. The trouble with diagnosing any mental illness is that it’s wide open to interpretation depending on the medical professional you’re dealing with.
Video to Help You Identify Depression
“Measuring” Depression with The Beck Depression Scale
The Beck Depression Scale, or Beck Depression Inventory, is a test developed to quickly determine whether someone is suffering from depression and if so, how severe it is.
This is the first test most doctors will use if you come to them concerned that you’re suffering from depression, and it can be very useful for understanding depression on your own.
The test consists of a series of questions which relate to the list of depression symptoms given above. These questions ask you to examine your own thoughts and how often you experience particular feelings.
Unfortunately this test isn’t available online due to copyright issues, but taking it with your doctor will help give you a clearer idea of your status in terms of clinical depression.
How to Overcome Depression: Going Down the Holistic Route … Sorry, no Short Cuts
Understanding depression is half the battle – but understanding depression, on its own, is not enough to overcome depression.
The road out of depression can be a long and hard one, depending on how severe yours happens to be. There is no one instant cure-all for depression – rather, the best treatments take a holistic approach, addressing psychology, health and diet, daily habits and routines, and using medication where necessary as an aid.
Medications Are no Simple Fix
It’s important to be clear on the fact that medication is an aid to recovery, not an instant fix – it can help reduce the severity of symptoms, but ultimately it’s to be used as a guide until you’re able to get back to a place where the medication is no longer necessary.
That’s achieved through inner work, therapy and making changes in your life. It might mean changing your social situation or relationships to remove some of the causes of depression from your life.
It may mean removing yourself from a group that relies on drugs or alcohol. It’s often hard for depression sufferers to admit that a relationship or social circle is contributing to or even causing their depression, so this can take a lot of internal strength.
Making these tough changes is easier when you have a depression support group to help you through.
Depression Support Groups … The Benefits
There are many support groups around the world – both online, in depression forums, and offline – which can make the self-healing process much smoother and easier.
The benefits of joining a depression support group are many.
You’re not Alone in This
For starters, it lets you know that you’re not alone in your experiences – just understanding that many other people are going through similar feelings can be a big step towards healing.
Often part of depression is a feeling of isolation, that nobody understands what you’re going through. A support group can help eliminate that. They understand depression from the ‘inside’.
Someone Is Always There When You Hit a Rough Patch
A support group also ensures that you always have someone to turn to when you’re going through a dark time. On the road out of depression, it’s common to experience times when you feel like you’re finally ‘getting better,’ and then out of nowhere the depression returns.
Sometimes this is triggered by an event, but sometimes it just happens for no apparent reason. It’s at these low points when depression sufferers are often at the greatest risk of self-harm.
A depression support group helps lower that risk by providing you with a community who will listen and understand when you hit a rough patch.
Clinical Depression Treatments
While much of the depression recovery process involves inner work and self-healing, there is also a comprehensive set of treatments available to medical professionals for dealing with this problem.
Traditional treatments consist of a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Psychotherapy helps determine the deeper causes of depression, the types of events that trigger depressive episodes, and how you can develop strategies to deal with your depression.
Medication is generally used to relieve anxiety, help restore normal sleeping patterns and deal with other specific depression symptoms. Again: medication is not a cure, but it can help relieve the most intense symptoms while you go through the psychological processes necessary to understand and recover from your depression.
How to Deal with Depression in Friends and Loved Ones
In the event that it’s not you but a friend or family member suffering from depression, it can be very easy to feel helpless.
The hardest scenario is one where the loved one is in denial about having a problem and refuses to seek treatment. It’s important that you maintain a calm and loving attitude and don’t get angry in this situation.
Someone suffering from depression can often act cold and callous, but you need to keep in mind that this behavior is caused at its root by pain and suffering, not an evil intent. It’s important to try to remain patient and understanding and try to persuade the person to seek treatment on their own.
When You Need to Help and Take Action
However, if you believe your loved one is at immediate risk of self-harm or suicide, it’s important to act quickly to intervene. Someone who is depressed to the point of suicide may feel that his or her situation is so helpless, there is no other way out.
In this case, they will rarely ask for help as doing so appears ultimately pointless. If you believe your loved one is in such a situation, you can contact local mental health professionals or get a doctor to make a house call.
Don’t expect your loved one to react well to this – it may result in a strong negative reaction and denial, but when their life may be at risk it’s better to be safe than sorry.
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