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  • Depression: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

    Depression is a prevalent mood disorder; it is so common that around 1 in 6 American adults will experience some form of depression over the course of their lives. When talking about depression as a mental disorder, we are mostly referring to Major Depressive Disorder, or MDD. Someone is diagnosed with MDD if they experience symptoms of depression every day for two weeks, and while MDD is the most common form of depression, there are a variety of other mood disorders that fall under the umbrella of depression.

    You have likely experienced at least a few symptoms of depression at some point in your life. Simply experiencing these symptoms is not necessarily an indication of a depressive disorder, but if they are long-lasting, and start to impact your daily life, then they may be a sign that you should seek treatment. One of the most well-known symptoms of depression is sadness or loneliness. These emotions differ from grief, in that grief can be linked to a direct cause, such as the loss of a loved one, and that bereavement tends to diminish over time. The pessimism and sadness associated with depression have several complicated causes and tend to persist. Depression can also bring about feelings of anxiety, frustration, guilt, worthlessness, and hopelessness.

    There are also several behavioral symptoms of depression. Sleep habits appear to be intricately linked to depressive tendencies. Insomnia and hypersomnia are both frequent comorbidities of depression. People suffering from depression may not get enough sleep or they may get too much sleep. In addition to the irregular number of hours of sleep from night to night, depressed people may fall asleep and wake up at abnormal times. These atypical sleep patterns may connect to other symptoms of depression, such as feelings of fatigue and tiredness. Depression can affect eating habits and appetite. It is not uncommon for people with depression to not eat enough, or to overeat.

    Suicidal ideation and excessive brooding about death are other symptoms of depression. Tragically, this is part of the reason people with MDD tend to have lower life expectancies than those without depression. Roughly half of the people who take their own lives suffer from a mood disorder such as MDD.

    These are just a few common symptoms of depression. More can be found on the National Institute of Mental Health website.

    As mentioned earlier, depression can manifest itself in many forms among different people. The most diagnosed depressive disorder is MDD. For someone to be diagnosed with MDD, they must experience at least five symptoms of depression consistently for two weeks. Another depressive disorder is known as Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD), also known as dysthymia. People with PDD tend to have less severe symptoms of depression but have symptoms that last for at least two years. Unlike MDD, PDD is a chronic disorder, and many people live with it for years before being diagnosed. Symptoms of PDD may not be present every day in a person’s life, but to be diagnosed, symptoms must be present most days for an extended period. While most forms of depression can be cyclical and episodic, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression is brought about by changing seasons. SAD is most common in the fall and winter months when there are fewer hours of daylight, but it can also be triggered by summer. Winter-pattern SAD is associated with overeating and food cravings as well as oversleeping, whereas summer-pattern SAD is associated with insomnia and decreased appetite. SAD tends to be more common among people in northern geographical regions, where seasonal changes are more pronounced.

    Depressive disorders can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Symptoms of depression can occur at any age, but they tend to be more common among adults. Women are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop depression than men. Major life events, trauma, and stress can also contribute to one’s likelihood of developing depression. Comorbid illnesses can also contribute to one’s likelihood of developing a depressive disorder.

    Fortunately, there are a number of effective treatments for depressive disorders. These include a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and therapy. 

    Several antidepressant medications effective at treating depression, but many of them take around 4-8 weeks for their effects to become noticeable. One of the most prescribed antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. SSRIs increase the amount of serotonin in the brain, which can improve mood over time. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, and sleep. While SSRIs are effective, most people who take SSRIs experience side effects. Another common antidepressant is a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, (SNRI). SNRIs increase both serotonin levels and norepinephrine levels. SNRIs are less common than SSRIs and tend to be prescribed if SSRIs have not been effective.

    Making changes to your lifestyle can be an effective way to address depression, especially when used in tandem with medical and therapeutic treatment. Physical activity, even minimal exercise, can positively affect your mood. Particularly if you’re suffering from SAD, going outside and taking in the sunlight will help alleviate symptoms. Trying to maintain a regular sleep cycle is also a proven way to boost your mood, given that depression is connected to sleep patterns. This includes trying to go to bed and wake up at consistent times. Food also affects mood, so eating healthy meals at regular intervals can help combat depression.  Depression can make you feel isolated and lonely, so trying to connect with friends and family will help improve your mental well-being.

    Finally, one of the most common and effective treatments for depression is therapy. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, you may benefit from seeking professional help.