Learn more about what causes this common illness and how it can be treated.
It’s not unusual to feel sad or hopeless once in a while. Often, those feelings pass within a couple days. But if they consistently last longer than two weeks or are severe, you may be experiencing depression. If so, you are not alone. Millions of American adults experience depression every year. The good news is that most people with depression eventually feel better with the correct medical treatment and/or therapy.
What is depression?
Depression is a common condition that affects how you think and feel. It can also be associated with physical symptoms and can affect how you handle daily activities. Depression can range from mild to severe, and symptoms can vary from person to person.
What are the signs?
Here are some common symptoms of depression:
- Significant changes in sleeping patterns—either sleeping too much, too little, or having consistent insomnia
- Significant changes in appetite—either eating too much or very little
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Feeling sad, hopeless, pessimistic, guilty or helpless
- Withdrawing from friends, family and/or social activities
- Becoming easily fatigued or restless
- Having trouble concentrating or making a decision
- Having thoughts of death or suicide*
What causes it?
Though depression can arise without a direct cause, the following factors may contribute to the risk of developing it:
- Trauma and environmental factors. Experiencing trauma through violence, abuse, death of a parent at an early age, neglect or poverty – particularly at a young age - can affect how one reacts to stressors, which may cause depression.
- Postpartum. While many women experience the “baby blues” in the first days or weeks after giving birth, about six percent suffer a major depression in the first year after delivery.
- Drug and alcohol abuse. Over one in four people who have issues with addiction also suffer from depression.
- Genetics and family history. If someone in your family has had depression, you may be at higher risk for it.
- Medical conditions. Managing a serious illness like cancer, diabetes, heart disease or other chronic conditions is closely linked with depression. It’s understandable that the unwelcome changes that illness bring – to lifestyle, energy level, finances, and independence - can cause feelings of sadness and depression.
No matter what the cause, be empowered to ask for help. Seeking treatment is the first step to feeling better.
Reach out for help
Your first step should be to talk with a health professional who can ask you questions about your medical history and give you a physical examination. As some medications or medical conditions can cause symptoms similar to depression, they may also order lab tests to help rule them out. After they’ve had a chance to review all this information, they may recommend psychotherapy, medications and/or other types of treatments.
- Psychotherapy, or talk therapy. In this type of treatment, a patient speaks with a trained counselor about their feelings and problems in a confidential setting. These conversations may be done in person, by phone or by video call. You and your therapist will discuss problems you’re facing now or from the past in order to help treat your depression.
- Medication. A group of highly-effective medications called antidepressants may be prescribed to treat depression. But since not all of them work the same way for people, you may have to try a few different medications before finding the right one for you. Also, it can take between four and eight weeks to feel the drug’s effects when you first start taking it. That’s why it’s key to stay in touch with your doctor if you are not feeling any improvement or experience any side effects*. They can advise on how and when to adjust your dosage or whether your medication should be changed. It is not unusual for a person to try a couple of different antidepressants and/or dosages before finding the correct one. So don’t give up.
- Light therapy. For those who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – usually in the fall or winter – a light therapy box may be used. The light within it shines so bright it mimics sunlight. This exposure is thought to regulate hormones and ease depression symptoms. Light therapy boxes do not require a prescription, but if you are interested in trying one, it’s important to talk to your doctor about what kind of light to use, as well as how often and how long you should use it.
- Electroconvulsive therapy. When a person’s depression doesn’t improve with psychotherapy and medication, a doctor may look to other therapies to stimulate the brain. One treatment shown to be effective is ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). In this procedure, light anesthesia is given, then small electrical currents are sent through the brain in order to change its chemistry. For decades, ECT has been depicted as a scary and crude procedure. But modern ECT is painless – done under general anesthesia - and takes only minutes to administer. People who get ECT usually set up a series of outpatient sessions over the course of two to four weeks, and feel relief from their symptoms when the series is complete. They may go back for additional treatment if and when they need it. They may experience short-term memory loss, but this is usually resolved.
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, is another kind of brain stimulation therapy. With TMS, pulses of magnetic energy are used to stimulate the part of the brain thought to control moods. The pulses are administered to the patient through an electromagnetic coil worn on the forehead. No anesthesia is necessary for TMS. A single procedure takes about 40 minutes. People who use TMS usually undergo multiple sessions over several weeks. This is a new way of treating depression so check on your benefits before making an appointment.
Other healthy habits can help
In addition to any recommended treatments, healthy lifestyle habits may ease symptoms of depression. Many find that avoiding alcohol, getting the right amount of sleep, and exercising can help ease their symptoms. Being around other people and talking to those who are supportive you trust and asking for support can also help. Though your energy and positive outlook won’t necessarily change immediately, forming good habits will set you up for stronger mental health as you get the help you need.
*In some cases, people experience an increase in suicidal thoughts when taking an antidepressant, particularly when they first go on the medication or when their dosage is changed. If you or someone you know have thoughts about suicide, seek help right away. To talk with a trained counselor, you may call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 — or go to the closest emergency room.
By Ginny Greene, Contributing Editor
Sarah Tautin, Copywriter
National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. Accessed July 22, 2021.
National Institute of Mental Health. Chronic illness and mental health: Recognizing the connection. Accessed July 22, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health conditions: Depression and anxiety. Accessed July 23, 2021.
American Psychiatric Association. What is depression? Accessed July 22, 2021.
Last Updated: August 16, 2021