As individuals, we may experience low periods from time to time. Naturally, our mood varies and we may feel under the weather, fed up or experience periods of sadness for a variety of reasons.
However, this differs from clinical depression, which is more intense, lasts for a longer period of time and can severely affect day-to-day functioning, relationships, self-esteem and work. Depression can be experienced by any individual at any point in their life, so it is important to remember you are not alone in experiencing this.
Depression can include a persistent low mood and a loss of interest or pleasure in life. Other symptoms which may be associated with depression include:
Disrupted sleep patterns
Loss of appetite
Increase in appetite
Persistent low mood
Decrease in energy levels
Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
Reduced sexual drive
Negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself, others and the world
Feeling irritable, short-tempered, tearful, angry or deflated
It is important to note that some people may experience some or all of these symptoms for a brief period of time, and this may or may not be symptomatic of depression. An individual who is depressed will experience these symptoms for a persistent period of time.
What causes depression?
Depression can be a response to an event or situation which seems particularly difficult, distressing or threatening. Sometimes these situations can seem unmanageable or 'unfixable' and can trigger feelings of hopelessness.
Sometimes, depression may not have an apparent trigger and could be attributed to hormonal and chemical changes in our bodies. Conversely, it may be that depression is experienced as a result of a past event which may not have been processed and resurfaces at certain periods of our life.
Depression can also be experienced following the end of a relationship, disappointing outcomes in academic and personal life, loss of loved ones, or the occurrence of major changes in one's life. Whilst it is natural to experience feelings of sadness, as mentioned before, it is important to seek help if the symptoms are intense, persistent and affecting day to day functioning.
What maintains depression?
Individuals who are depressed think in particular ways which may be taken as absolute truths. They may have negative thoughts about themselves, others, the world and their situation, often thinking that things will never change and everything is hopeless. Negative thoughts can affect the way we feel and behave; these maintain depression by affecting perception and exacerbating symptoms.
Examples of these negative thoughts include:
'I'm a failure; I can never get anything right'
'People dislike being around me, I'm not fun to be around'
'I'm unlucky; the world is a dark, gloomy place'
'I'll never amount to anything, I'll never succeed'
Often, when we are depressed, we can engage with certain behaviours which may exacerbate or maintain the way we feel. These behaviours can include:
Isolation: When an individual feels depressed, they may isolate themselves from others. A common concern depressed individuals have is 'I don't want to bring others down or have the way I'm feeling affect them' Other thoughts may be 'Others don't care about me' or ' Nobody wants to be around a depressed person'
Avoidance: Similarly, avoidance of situations can be common in depression, especially if it seems too difficult or overwhelming to engage with.
How do I begin to address this?
As mentioned before, depression is experienced by many individuals, and there are some steps one can take and things one can try which can help to lift depression. These involve addressing some of the maintaining factors of depression
Modification of negative thinking
Often, individuals who experience depression engage in unhelpful or distorted thinking. They may adopt certain thinking patterns/styles which affect the way they feel and the way in which they engage with certain situations. In these instances, it is helpful to begin to develop a balanced way of thinking through challenging negative thoughts and developing a different perspective:
Become aware of your negative thinking: It may be useful to keep a thought log, particularly at times when you are feeling low. This will help to increase awareness of negative thought patterns
Recognise thought patterns
It is important to recognise that sometimes, the thoughts we have about ourselves, others or particular situations may be distorted and unfair perceptions. This is even more prevalent when one is experiencing depression. In these instances, it may be useful to learn how to challenge these thoughts so that thinking is more balanced. An example is given below:
Situation: Friend walked by without saying hello.
Thought: She ignored me because she does not want to be around me.
Alternative/Balanced Thought: She was on the opposite side of the street and may not have seen me. She also might have had a lot on her mind and did not notice me. I saw her two days ago and she was very attentive and caring. She did tell me she had several interviews to attend this week.
Situation: Receiving feedback from manager
Thought: I can't ever get anything right. I am such a failure
Alternative/Balanced Thought: Although my manger pointed out that I needed to improve in an area, she also emphasised my enthusiasm and hard work. I can get help for the areas I need to improve in, and feedback for my work has been consistently good in the past.
Sometimes, it may be difficult to challenge these thoughts on our own. Talk to someone you trust, or speak to a counsellor who can help you to balance your thoughts.
Changing your behaviours
Sometimes, when we are depressed, it may be difficult to find pleasure in things we used to do or engage with people.
As a starting point, it might be useful to engage in small, enjoyable activities which can help to elevate mood and help to gain a sense of achievement. Exercise is a good example of this, but it is important to tailor these activities to your preferences and interests.
It is also important to pace yourself when completing tasks. Set yourself manageable goals, and break each task down into steps or chunks. Also, start by completing easier tasks and work your way up to the more difficult ones. Track your progress.
Give yourself permission to do less. You don't have to do everything all at once. Take your time and reward yourself/acknowledge when you have achieved a personal goal
Try to engage with people and situations as much as you can, but again, pace yourself. Reducing isolation and avoidance is important to overcoming depression
Utilise your support network. Talk to people you can trust and who are supportive of you.
You may also find the Students Against Depression website helpful.
Mind over Mood by Christine Padesky and Dennis Greenberger
Beat Depression and Reclaim Your Life by Alexander Massey
Feeling Good by David Burns
Overcoming Depression by Paul Gilbert
Overcoming Mood Swings by Jan Scott