What Is Depression?

9 min
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Everybody feels down every once in a while. Failing an assignment, having a conflict, or losing a competition you’d entered with high hopes of winning, for instance, are situations that can give us feelings of momentary unhappiness. But in these situations, typically, our short-lived emotional responses eventually vanish. Perhaps something new comes along to once again fluctuate our moods, or maybe it’s simply because enough time has passed for us to move on. In modern vernacular, it can be increasingly common to see the word “depressed” being used to describe the state of feeling sad or unhappy一but in truth, depression is entirely different from sadness. 

Depression is defined as a "mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest”. It is a serious mental health issue that can make people suffer from a spiral of sadness, which can damage their emotional and even physical health, through an effect on daily life一including work performance and the ability to maintain relationships with others.

Protecting your mental health is an essential part of healthy living. Understanding the causes and symptoms of depression – and ways to treat it – isn’t just a great way to raise your mental health awareness, and help you be more aware of the thoughts of feelings of someone suffering from depression一it’s also the first step in learning to cope with it.

Protect your mental health

The Difference between Sadness and Depression

Depression is a mental health challenge that creates a constantly low mood. This can involve feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness or sadness, discontent, pessimism, hopelessness, irritability, emptiness, and general disinterest in the world around you. The American Psychological Association defines it as a negative affective state that interferes with daily functioning

Being depressed is more than just feeling sad. Where sadness is a feeling of unhappiness that lasts for a temporary period, depression is more like an emotional spiral that can go on and on. When a person has depression, it can be challenging for them to gain pleasure in life again, because the depressed feelings can persist. Experiencing it can be harmful to our physical as well as psychological health: Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and more severe cases can even lead to suicide. 

According to the World Health Organization, 3.8% of the global population has depression ─ among which 5% are adults, and 5.7% are older adults (over the age of 60). That’s around 280 million people across the world, making it an unfortunately common issue. While it can affect people of a variety of ages and genders, figures show that more women than men are affected by depression. 

Types of Depression

The word “depression” is actually an umbrella term that covers a variety of different types of depression and related conditions. The two most common types are major depressive disorder, which is also known as major depression, and persistent depressive disorder. There are many types of depression, with most institutions having categorized at least seven to ten, some of which can exist along a spectrum. Read on for a few commonly-experienced types:  

  • Major Depressive Disorder: Also commonly referred to as clinical depression, this mood disorder is characterized by its intensity. While the condition can remain underlying for as long as a lifetime, the depressive episodes or stages can last from three to four months up to a year or two. Psychological symptoms can involve extremely low moods, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and a lack of interest in activities the person in question used to enjoy, while physical symptoms can include changes in weight and sleep, as well as fatigue and difficulty concentrating. 
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder: Also known as dysthymia, this form of depression has less intense symptoms than major depressive disorders. Although less severe in that sense, this type of depression is chronic, and as its name suggests, can last for a long time. In this diagnosis, a distinguishing factor is how the depression persists.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Formerly known as manic depression, this mental health issue involves abnormal mood swings to the extreme. People with bipolar disorder can feel extremely low for a while (when they are experiencing depression), before becoming euphoric (an emotional high known as mania or hypomania). 
  • Perinatal Depression: This type of depression happens during pregnancy, or after giving birth, when it is known as Postpartum Depression or Postnatal Depression. These types of depression involve a combination of emotional, behavioral, and physiological symptoms. Individuals with Postpartum Depression typically suffer from low mood and anxiety, which is often linked to parenting stress or constant worry about the baby. While Postpartum Depression mainly affects the person giving birth, it can also affect their partner ─ this includes men.
  • Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder: Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS), Pre-Menstrual Tension (PMT), and Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) are all terms that have been used to describe the low mood experienced before a woman’s menstrual cycle. However, PMDD is much more severe. While the root cause has not yet been clearly identified, the depression and low mood experienced has been linked to the sudden changes in hormones experienced prior to or during the menstrual cycle. 
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder: As its name suggests, this form of depression has a lot to do with seasonal patterns, or the shift of seasons. It has been attributed to the change in temperature and level of lightness in between seasons, which disturb circadian rhythm. While it is more commonly experienced in the winter, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can also occur during the summer. 

What Causes Depression?

Depression is such a complex issue that although researchers have studied it extensively over the years, no-one has been able to pinpoint one exact cause, or even one specific set of causes. It has been linked to major life changes or traumatic events, age, conflict, serious loss (including grief), abuse, substance misuse, and even family history, with some experts having posited that it can be genetic to some extent. Some arguments claiming that our biology is to blame have suggested that depression may be caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. One popular theory, however, has not only been used to try and explain the causes of depression, but also to help find ways to treat it.

Aaron Beck, an American psychiatrist known to many as the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), proposed a theory about the causes of depression. His theory suggested that it is how we interpret or think about a situation that leads to depressed feelings, rather than what actually happened in the situation. Simply put, it’s not the situation itself that makes us feel depressed, but our thoughts about it.

Causes of Depression

The theory has two parts: the negative triad and automatic thoughts. Both can lead to a person developing depression.

The Negative Triad

Aaron Beck’s theory suggests that emotions are the results of cognition. In other words, his theory states that how we think can influence how we feel. For example, if someone breaks up with you and your first reaction is to think, “I am lonely,” you will feel sad. Yet if you were to view the break-up as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in your life instead, you’ll be less likely to feel depressed. Beck’s theory suggests that the causes of depression stem from a negative view of three critical aspects of life. These three aspects are the self, the future, and the world. Within these three aspects of our view or perspective of ourselves and the world around us, a negative triad can be created or maintained through a series of our cognitive biases and negative self-schemas. To put it simply, if the way we process information is done in a negatively-biased manner, the triad becomes a negative one, which can then change how we experience the world around us, and navigate the emotions within us. 

Negative Triad

Automatic Thoughts

Depressed people think differently to non-depressed people. They tend to rely on a negative thinking pattern of automatic thoughts一negative thought patterns that the person in question is typically unaware of. These thoughts are usually false perceptions of reality, which is why automatic thoughts are also known as cognitive distortions. 

Automatic thoughts are considered risk factors for the onset of depression, because these thoughts can influence an individual’s feelings, making them more vulnerable to depression. Below are some common automatic thoughts that depressed people may hold:

  • Overgeneralization: Jumping into a conclusion based solely on one single situation. An example would be: “I failed this quiz, therefore I am going to fail the entire course.” 
  • Personalization: Feeling responsible for other people's actions and assuming that others' behavior is pointing towards you. For example: "They seem so happy laughing about something with each other. They must be laughing at me."
  • Disqualifying the positive: Focusing only on the negative side and rejecting the positive side. For example: “Although my manager complimented me on my latest project, there must have been a few mistakes which he didn’t notice or forgot to tell me.”
  • Emotional reasoning: Turning negative feelings about oneself into reality. For example: “I feel extremely sad right now. I must have depression.”
  • Catastrophizing: Exaggerating smaller or more fleeting negative thoughts into more immense thoughts, by overestimating that the worst situation is likely to happen. For example: “If I fail to meet the deadline of this work project, I will never get a promotion, so I will never earn more money, and as the cost of my needs increase due to a global rise in prices, I will wind up in a spiral of debt that I have no way out of. I will become a complete failure in life.”
Depression Symptoms

Symptoms of Depression

Depression can affect our health both physically and psychologically. Although it is known as a psychological issue, a depressed person can experience symptoms that can harm their bodily functions. 

One of the most well-known diagnostic criteria – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) (DSM-5) – outlined that if someone shows five or more of the symptoms that persist for over two weeks, it is very likely that they may have depression. The symptoms of major depression are presented as follows:

1. Depressed Mood

The low mood can either be reported subjectively – identified by the person experiencing it – or through observations by other people, since sometimes, someone experiencing depression may not realize or recognize it.

2. Loss of Interest In Previously Enjoyable Activities 

A depressed person may find that they no longer experience any joy in any of their previously-loved hobbies or pastimes. Similarly to a depressed mood, this can be recognized subjectively or through others’ observations.

3. Weight Changes or Changes in Appetite 

Someone experiencing depression may undergo dramatic transformations in their weight  – whether through weight loss or weight gain – that occur unintentionally. A depressed person may also experience an unusual shift in appetite, whether that means they’re inclined to consume a lot more or a lot less food than usual.

4. Disturbance in Sleep 

A depressed person may experience disturbance in sleep or altered sleep patterns. For example, they may have insomnia, finding it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up throughout the night unable to get back to sleep. They can also experience hypersomnia - feeling excessive sleepiness during the daytime, even if they’ve had adequate sleep.

5. Changes In Psychomotor Activity

Depression can influence motor function. For instance, a depressed person may experience severe agitation – an unusually excited state, or "retardation" – an abnormal slowness of thoughts and behavior.

6. Fatigue or Tiredness 

People with depression may appear to have extremely low energy, to the point that it can affect their day-to-day functioning. These lower energy levels can reduce their efficiency when completing tasks, and feel constant in spite of how much rest or sleep they get.

7.  Feeling of Worthlessness 

Someone with depression can experience a very low sense of self-worth, even feeling guilty about being a burden on others due to their self-perceived worthlessness. These feelings are usually excessive, untrue, and delusional, which can be highly harmful to their overall well-being and self-esteem. 

8. Cognitive Impairment

A depressed person may show impaired cognitive abilities, such as difficulty concentrating, or the inability to feel sure of oneself in making any decisions.

9. Recurrent Thoughts of Death or Suicial Attempts

People with depression may have thoughts related to death, suicidal ideations – thoughts of suicide that may or may not involve making plans for it – and attempts to end their life.

Treatments for Depression

While there is no official “cure” for depression yet, the good news is that it can be treated. With the proper treatment, a depressed person can escape from the emotional spiral and gain pleasure in life again. Treatments for depression usually include psychotherapy and medication, but there are other approaches that can help to reduce symptoms. These are some common treatment methods:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This approach educates people with depression so they understand how their thoughts can influence their emotions. The method aims to teach them how to identify and change their thought patterns into more positive ones, to help break the cycle. It involves the use of tools such as a mood diary and worksheets. 
  • Medications: Depression can be treated with antidepressants, which can help balance the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. It helps boost serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are important for feeling positive emotions. However, these medications can lead to side effects such as weight gain and dizziness. 
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a practice that encourages people to live in the present moment. Depression is often linked to events in the past, and mindfulness helps depressed people to shift their focus. One popular mindfulness treatment for depression is mindfulness-based stress reduction, which helps people to increase self-awareness and acknowledge their emotional needs. 
  • Counseling: Counseling is not psychotherapy, but counselors can also support depressed people on their recovery journey by providing them with practical advice and emotional care. Speaking to a counselor can enable a depressed person to view their situation through different perspectives, helping them find new ways to deal with their mental health challenges.

Depression is a serious mental health issue that can lead to debilitating psychological and physical symptoms. While a permanent cure has not yet been identified, and bouts of depression can ebb and flow through someone’s life, there are ways to treat it. If you think you – or someone you know – may be experiencing depression, there are resources to help, including mental health professionals such as therapists, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists – or even your general practitioner, as a starting point. Social workers can be another great resource. Whoever you feel most comfortable reaching out to, it’s important to remember that understanding it is a great first step to finding ways to manage or decrease symptoms, and that you don’t need to cope with it alone.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: APA Dictionary of Psychology; Depression; Major Depression; 7 Common Types of Depression; Depressive Cognitive Triad; Cognitive Therapy of Depression; Examples of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs); DSM-IV to DSM-5 Major Depressive Episode/Disorder Comparison; Depression Medicines

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