What is depression?
We all feel fed up, miserable or sad at times. These feelings don't usually last longer than a week or two, and they don't interfere too much with our lives. Sometimes there's a clear reason, sometimes not, and we usually cope, either without help or by talking to a friend or loved one.
With depression on the other hand, your feelings don't lift after a few days – they can carry on for weeks or months are so bad that they interfere with your life.
What does it feel like?
The symptoms of depression can be complex and vary widely between people. But as a general rule, if you're depressed, you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy.
The symptoms persist for weeks or months and are bad enough to interfere with your work, social life and family life.
There are many other symptoms of depression and you're unlikely to have all of those listed below.
continuous low mood or sadness
feeling hopeless and helpless
having low self-esteem
feeling irritable and intolerant of others
having no motivation or interest in things
finding it difficult to make decisions
not getting any enjoyment out of life
feeling anxious or worried
moving or speaking more slowly than usual
changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
unexplained aches and pains
lack of energy
low sex drive (loss of libido)
changes to your menstrual cycle
disturbed sleep – for example, finding it difficult to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning
not doing well at work
avoiding contact with friends and taking part in fewer social activities
neglecting your hobbies and interests
having difficulties in your home and family life
You may not realise how depressed you are for a while, especially if it has come on gradually. You try to struggle on and may even start to blame yourself for being lazy or lacking willpower. It sometimes takes a friend or a partner to persuade you that there really is a problem which can be helped.
You may start to notice pains, constant headaches or sleeplessness. Physical symptoms like this can be the first sign of depression.
Why does it happen?
There's no single cause of depression. It can occur for a variety of reasons and it has many different triggers.
For some people, an upsetting or stressful life event, such as bereavement, divorce, illness, redundancy and job or money worries, can be the cause.
Different causes can often combine to trigger depression. For example, you may feel low after being ill and then experience a traumatic event, such as a bereavement, which brings on depression.
People often talk about a "downward spiral" of events that leads to depression. For example, if your relationship with your partner breaks down, you're likely to feel low, you may stop seeing friends and family and you may start drinking more. All of this can make you feel worse and trigger depression.
Some studies have also suggested that you're more likely to get depression as you get older, and that it's more common in people who live in difficult social and economic circumstances.
Some potential triggers of depression include:
Most people take time to come to terms with stressful events, such as bereavement or a relationship breakdown. When these stressful events occur, your risk of becoming depressed is increased if you stop seeing your friends and family and try to deal with your problems on your own.
You may be more vulnerable to depression if you have certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem or being overly self-critical. This may be because of the genes you've inherited from your parents, your early life experiences, or both.
If someone in your family has had depression in the past, such as a parent or sister or brother, it's more likely that you'll also develop it.
Some women are particularly vulnerable to depression after pregnancy. The hormonal and physical changes, as well as the added responsibility of a new life, can lead to postnatal depression.
Becoming cut off from your family and friends can increase your risk of depression.
Alcohol and drugs
Cannabis can help you relax, but there's evidence that it can also bring on depression, particularly in teenagers.
"Drowning your sorrows" with a drink is also not recommended. Alcohol is categorised as a "strong depressant", which actually makes depression worse.
Head injuries are also an often under-recognised cause of depression. A severe head injury can trigger mood swings and emotional problems.
Some people may have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)resulting from problems with their immune system. In rarer cases, a minor head injury can damage the pituitary gland, which is a pea-sized gland at the base of your brain that produces thyroid-stimulating hormones.
This can cause a number of symptoms, such as extreme tiredness and a lack of interest in sex (loss of libido), which can in turn lead to depression.
When should I seek help?
When your feelings of depression are worse than usual and don't seem to get any better.
When your feelings of depression affect your work, interests and feelings towards your family and friends.
If you find yourself feeling that life is not worth living, or that other people would be better off without you.