What is depression?
Feeling down from time to time is a normal part of life, but when emotions such as hopelessness and despair take hold and just won’t go away, you may have depression. More than just sadness in response to life’s struggles and setbacks, depression changes how you think, feel, and function in daily activities. It can interfere with your ability to work, study, eat, sleep, and enjoy life. Just trying to get through the day can be overwhelming.
While some people describe depression as “living in a black hole” or having a feeling of impending doom, others feel lifeless, empty, and apathetic. Men in particular can feel angry and restless. However you experience the problem, left untreated it can become a serious health condition. But it’s important to remember that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are symptoms of depression—not the reality of your situation.
No matter how hopeless you feel, you can get better. By recognizing the different symptoms of depression, you can take the first steps to feeling better and overcoming the problem.
Signs and symptoms
Depression varies from person to person, but there are some common signs and symptoms. It’s important to remember that these symptoms can be part of life’s normal lows. But the more symptoms you have, the stronger they are, and the longer they’ve lasted—the more likely it is that you’re dealing with depression.
10 common depression symptoms
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation.
- Loss of interest in daily activities. You don’t care anymore about former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.
- Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.
- Sleep changes. Either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours of the morning, or oversleeping.
- Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
- Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
- Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
- Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.
- Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
- Unexplained aches and pains. An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.
Am I depressed?
Take this depression quiz to find out:
Depression vs. anxiety
While anxiety and depression are different conditions, they stem from the same biological vulnerability so often go hand-in-hand. Anxiety can both appear as a symptom of depression or it can trigger depression in the first place. In fact, studies suggest that over 40 percent of people with major depression also suffer with an anxiety disorder.
Some of the symptoms between the two conditions can also look very similar, making it difficult to distinguish between the conditions. Irritability, anger, unexplained aches and pains, and changes in energy, focus, and sleeping patterns can occur in both depression and anxiety. Even the persistent dark, negative thoughts commonly associated with depression can look a lot like the endless worry of anxiety.
However, there are also some marked differences. While the symptoms of both depression and anxiety can look very different in different people, the following may help to distinguish between the conditions:
- In depression without anxiety, you’re likely to feel sluggish and lifeless with little motivation to do anything. With anxiety, you’re more likely to feel tense and jittery with a racing mind.
- In depression without anxiety, you may feel hopeless and helpless about what you see as an inevitably bleak future. With anxiety, you’re more likely to worry over and over about what the future holds, feeling frightened and nervous but thinking that your worry may hold the key to easing those fears.
If you recognize symptoms of anxiety co-occurring with your depression, it’s important to seek treatment for both conditions. Since they’re so closely related, a lot of the self-help and treatment options that work for anxiety will also help manage symptoms of depression.
Is it depression or bipolar disorder (manic depression)?
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, involves serious shifts in moods, energy, thinking, and behavior. Because it looks so similar to depression when in the low phase, it is often overlooked and misdiagnosed. This can be a serious problem as taking antidepressants for bipolar disorder can actually make the condition worse.
If you’ve ever gone through phases where you experienced excessive feelings of euphoria, a decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, and impulsive behavior, consider getting evaluated for bipolar disorder.
Other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of depression
Anxiety and bipolar disorder aren’t the only conditions that can be mistaken for depression. Just as depression can be triggered by other health problems, there are also mental and medical conditions that can mimic the symptoms of depression. These include:
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Symptoms such as restlessness, trouble concentrating and staying focused, irritability, and a loss of motivation can occur in both depression and ADHD. Even if your ADHD symptoms weren’t recognized in childhood, that doesn’t mean they’re not impacting you as an adult.
Chronic fatigue syndrome or long COVID. Persistent fatigue, changes to your sleep patterns, and difficulty focusing could also point to chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalomyelitis) or long-haul COVID, where the effects of COVID-19 linger even when you’re no longer testing positive for the virus. While there is still a lot that medical professionals don’t fully understand about these conditions, there are still things you can do to ease symptoms and improve how you feel.
Parkinson’s disease. The lack of energy, slow movements, and changes to mood and memory that often accompany Parkinson’s disease can look a lot like depression symptoms in older adults.
Fibromyalgia. The widespread musculoskeletal pain of fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is often accompanied by sleep, fatigue, and mood changes that can be mistaken for depression. Other sources of chronic pain can also leave you feeling hopeless and exhausted.
Other physical conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, anemia, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), and vitamin D deficiency can also trigger depression-like symptoms. Blood tests and other screening methods from a healthcare professional can help identify if these conditions are causing your symptoms.
Depression and suicide risk
Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. Deep despair and hopelessness can make suicide feel like the only way to escape the pain. If you have a loved one with depression, take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously and watch for the warning signs:
- Talking about killing or harming one’s self.
- Expressing strong feelings of hopelessness or being trapped.
- An unusual preoccupation with death or dying.
- Acting recklessly, as if they have a death wish (e.g. speeding through red lights).
- Calling or visiting people to say goodbye.
- Getting affairs in order (giving away prized possessions, tying up loose ends).
- Saying things like “Everyone would be better off without me,” or “I want out.”
- A sudden switch from being extremely down to acting calm and happy.
If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide, express your concern and seek help immediately. Talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life.
If you are feeling suicidal…
When you’re feeling suicidal, your problems don’t seem temporary—they seem overwhelming and permanent. But with time, you will feel better, especially if you get help. There are many people who want to support you during this difficult time, so please reach out!
How depression symptoms vary with gender and age
Depression often varies according to age and gender, with symptoms differing between men and women, or young people and older adults.
Depressed men are less likely to acknowledge feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness. Instead, they tend to complain about fatigue, irritability, sleep problems, and loss of interest in work and hobbies. They’re also more likely to experience symptoms such as anger, aggression, reckless behavior, and substance abuse.
Women are more likely to experience symptoms such as pronounced feelings of guilt, excessive sleeping, overeating, and weight gain. Depression in women is also impacted by hormonal factors during menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. In fact, postpartum depression affects up to one in seven women following childbirth.
Irritability, anger, and agitation are often the most noticeable symptoms in depressed teens—not sadness. They may also complain of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical pains.
Older adults tend to complain more about the physical rather than the emotional signs and symptoms: things like fatigue, unexplained aches and pains, and memory problems. They may also neglect their personal appearance and stop taking critical medications for their health.
In addition to age and gender, depression symptoms can also vary according to the type or severity of your depression. Understanding the type of depression you’re dealing with can help to find the most effective ways to overcome the problem and start to feel better again. Read: Depression Types and Causes.
Depression support and suicide prevention help
In the U.S.
Call the SANE Help Centre at 1800 18 7263
Call Mood Disorders Society of Canada at 613-921-5565
Call the Vandrevala Foundation Helpline (India) at 1860 2662 345 or 1800 2333 330
Last updated or reviewed on August 14, 2023