Margaret collapsed onto a couch after sending her kids to school. She could hardly make sense of her jumbled thoughts. “I’m exhausted.” “My husband is too busy to notice.” “The kids don’t help.” “I never get time for myself.” “I’m so lonely…but there’s no one to talk to.” After several minutes she looked at the clock and willed herself off the couch to head to her retail job, reminding herself that she had a pretty good life. “Then why am I so unhappy? Why does everything feel like such a chore?”
Here’s a sobering statistic. Major depression, the form that is severe and most debilitating, affects some 300 million people around the world and 21.4 million Americans (6.7% of the population) each year. And studies show that between 15% to 25% of the population will experience major depression at some time during their lives. And I’m not even talking about more mild forms of depression that go undetected because so many sufferers continue to function and lead somewhat normal lives.
Depression can occur to anyone, at any age, gender, race or ethnic and socio-economic background. It affects more people and causes more suffering than any other illness—physical or mental—known to humankind. Not only does depression squeeze the joy of life out of us, but it decreases our ability to function and leads to a variety of other emotional and physical problems.
Depression and Shame
But here is the worst part. People who are depressed too often conclude that there is something wrong with them. They feel shame, like they are broken and unworthy which not only aggravates the depression but makes it hard to talk about or seek help.
However, the truth is that depression is not a sign of personal weakness but an illness (like kidney failure, high blood pressure, or cardiovascular disease) in which the brain lacks chemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine that regulate happiness, motivation and self-esteem. Although the causes vary, there is something real going on in the mind and brain that needs to be treated.
And here is the good news. Depression is very treatable. Most people who take steps to overcome their depression will experience a full remission—whether on their own or with the help of a professional.
In this article, I want to help you understand depression, it’s symptoms and causes. In my next article, I’m going to teach you the actions you can take to both prevent and overcome this malady that wears you down and strangles your enjoyment of life.
Symptoms of Depression
Depression revolves around a constellation of symptoms that have to do with how we think, feel and act. Brain physiology is altered and hormones surge, disrupting normal rhythms of mind and body and leading to disturbances in sleep, concentration, appetite, energy, self-esteem, emotional regulation and interest in life.
Although the symptoms will vary in severity, below is a checklist of the most common. Be aware that reading a list of symptoms does not really capture the totality of the anguish that a severely depressed person may feel.
Male Pattern Depression
For years mental health professionals believed that women were more likely to be depressed than men. Perhaps this is because women are more likely to talk about their feelings and seek treatment. However, research from studies of thousands of men and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that men are just as likely to experience depression although their symptoms often demonstrate:
So, don’t be fooled. Such aggressive forms of behavior often mask deeper feelings of hopelessness, isolation and loss of interest in life and may mean that men experience depression as much as women.
What Causes Depression?
It is natural for people to be curious about the causes of their depression. Some causes relate clearly to one’s situation and life events—loss or chronic stress. At other times depression seems to come out of the blue for unexplainable reasons. For most people, depression is caused by multiple factors, like those listed below:
Three Dynamics that Keep us Trapped in Depression
Irrespective of the specific causes, there are three dynamics that not only contribute to depression but make it difficult to escape. Understanding these three factors will help you know what it is like to be depressed and also frame the most important work to loosen its grip.
First, is negative and distorted thinking. Depression is not so much a disorder of mood but of perception. People who are depressed view the world through a negative filter that influences everything they see, feel and do. This filter originates in the limbic system of the brain, which evolved to protect us from the threats and dangers of life but also robs us of hope, optimism and confidence. Negative thinking colors everything and makes it difficult to enjoy life. Challenging this distorted thinking is perhaps the most important and effective treatment of depression.
Second, the emotions of depression are addictive. Our bodies literally memorize such hormonal or feeling states as sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, and self-distain. Although we hate these feelings, they become so powerful that it is difficult for the conscious mind to override them. They become default emotional states which crowd out more pleasant emotions. Overcoming depression has much to do with putting ourselves in new feeling states, incompatible with the feelings of depression.
Third, people who are depressed are trapped in a catch 22. They need to take action to overcome their state and yet they lack motivation. They feel fatigued, low energy and a loss of interest in life and so have a difficult time mustering up the motivation to do what they need to do to feel better. And yet, doing something different is exactly what the doctor ordered. They must act in new ways to feel better.
So, notice the pattern that I’m describing. Distorted thinking, negative, memorized feelings and inaction not only characterize depression but make it difficult to overcome. So many people like Margaret (opening paragraph) feel burdened by life and yet quite powerless to free themselves from the clutches of depression.
But there is so much hope. In my next article, I’ll teach you some powerful strategies to both avoid and overcome depression. The strategies get at the heart of these three patterns and are essential to feeling and doing better.