An introduction from Marianna
People often use the words ‘I am depressed’ or express their mood as ‘feeling depressed’. These terms are usually used loosely and when people say they are depressed, many mean that they are feeling sad, a bit down or simply fed up as a result of the ups and downs of life.
It is important to distinguish between true depression and feeling low in mood or a bit fed-up. This article, and its associated pages, will help you tell these two problems apart.
Depression is a medical condition which needs to be diagnosed and treated by your doctor. It is distinct from the feelings and emotions of low mood which result from the negative experiences we go through as part of the normal challenges of life.
What is depression?
Depression is a mental condition which results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. It affects the emotional wellbeing of a person, leading to feelings of sadness and worthlessness for months or longer.
Many people are reluctant to admit to depression, but if you think you suffer from this problem, it is important to have the condition diagnosed by your doctor.
While it is thought that about one fifth of the population in the Western world will experience depression at some point in their life, around half of these people will never seek medical help for their condition. However, as there are no physical signs, blood tests or scans which can confirm the problem, doctors may find it difficult to come to a diagnosis of ‘clinical depression’, especially if symptoms are mild.
There are many reasons why people experience these emotions. Some may be able to identify a specific cause for their depression, such as a recent family loss, while for others it is often difficult to put a finger on one specific factor triggering the emotions.
What are the symptoms of depression?
People suffering from depression describe a wide range of symptoms. These affect every person differently and with different levels of severity.
Some experience periods of low mood or mild depression, usually triggered by a specific factor such as stress. These often resolve with the disappearance of the trigger. For others, symptoms may be persistent and debilitating, lasting for months.
Depression is usually characterised by feelings of sadness or episodes of crying. There is a loss of interest in things and events, even those which would normally give pleasure and happiness. A loss of confidence and self-worth may lead to the sufferer feeling unable to socialise or communicate with others. In severe cases of depression, repetitive thoughts about suicide may occur.
Many people might experience bouts of sadness or ‘the blues’ - this is different from the true symptoms of depression which are prolonged, recurring and more severe.
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Different degrees of depression
As with other medical conditions, there are different degrees of depression, ranging from mild to severe. The boundaries between these are not clearly defined, and it is perhaps easier to consider mood as a spectrum and identify where on this spectrum you lie.
- Mild depression – symptoms, whilst not severe, can cause a person to feel down for long periods of time and disturb normal daily functioning. Mild depression can arise from a trigger event initially causing low mood. Episodes tend not to clear up even if specific triggers causing the problem are removed. Mild depression can last for a few months, several years or it may affect the sufferer, on and off, for decades. Some people suffering from mild depression may not seem obviously depressed but are described by family as being ‘miserable’, ‘grumpy’ or having cynical personalities
- Moderate depression – this is described as severe levels of misery beyond what the average person would experience. They experience difficulty functioning at work or in everyday situations such as going to the shops. Good news is unlikely to lift the feeling, even temporarily
- Severe depression – this is also known as major depression. Often the patient is inconsolable and experiences repeated thoughts of suicide. It is impossible to alleviate these emotions no matter how good a person’s situation is at the time, and the sufferer usually loses touch with reality. Delusions or hallucinations may occur.
Am I suffering from depression or low mood?
The word depression has worked its way into the English language so much so that it can be difficult to determine whether a person is really suffering from depression in the medical sense of the word, or feeling down for a short period of time.
Low mood shares a border with mild depression. The only certain way of telling them apart is to talk to your doctor who will be able to diagnose your condition.
However, there are certain symptoms indicating depression. If you experience at least four of the following for more than two weeks in a row, the chances are that you are suffering from a degree of depression:
- Insomnia or hypersomnia (too much sleep)
- Significant weight changes (up or down) without a known cause
- Family history of depression
- Feelings of worthlessness, anxiety or guilt
- Loss of interest in what is going on around you
- Difficulty remembering the last time you were happy
- Thoughts of suicide
If these symptoms are not familiar to you, or if your symptoms do not persist or recur, then it is likely that you are suffering from low mood which may be treated in a number of ways including the use of the herb St. John’s wort. However, you need to be careful that your symptoms of low mood do not develop into depression.
What are the different types of depression?
Various types of depression have been described and it is important to determine which form you might be suffering from in order to treat the condition effectively.
- Reactive depression – this is when depression develops in reaction to a particular trigger such as bereavement, loss of job or relationship difficulties
- Postnatal depression – this is when depression is associated with the hormonal changes taking place after having a baby
- Manic depression – this is also called bipolar depression and is a sub-type of severe depression characterised by extreme fluctuations of mood
- Seasonal Affective Disorder – this is when you suffer from low mood or depression at particular times of the year, most commonly in winter.
How can I treat my symptoms?
Treatment of depression will depend on the type and severity of your condition. A correct diagnosis is important. The first distinction that must be made is that between low mood and depression.
If you are suffering from depression, it is important for your doctor to establish which type of depression you have in order to find a treatment most suitable for you. This will most often be some kind of anti-depressant medication, although many people have found cognitive methods and talking therapies effective.
A number of treatments and remedies are available for those suffering from low mood. These range from cognitive therapies which change your mindset to conventional treatments such as a low, short term dose of anti-depressants. In addition, herbal remedies such as St. John’s wort have been used traditionally to treat low mood and are now available as licensed herbal medicines such as in the case of A.Vogel Hyperiforce St. John’s wort tablets.
Whether or not you are suffering from depression or low mood, there are a number of self-help steps you can take to help you deal and cope better with the condition.