We all feel “down” or “blue” at times. All of us have days when we feel “depressed”. Usually, these feelings are temporary, and we can have a great day tomorrow. Even when we have a bad day, we can still find enjoyment in things. These occasional bad days are part of life and not depression.
Sometimes though, these feelings may persist for several days or even weeks. This is common following the break-up of a relationship or other unpleasant event. In many cases, the sadness or depressed mood may accompany problems such as loss of appetite, overeating, sleeplessness, excessive sleeping, lack of energy and drive, loss of interest and joy, etc. This is when depression becomes a medical illness.
Still, while you may have some of the symptoms of depression, it is unlikely that you have major depression unless a number of the symptoms are present and impair daily functioning.
What is depression?
Depression is an illness that causes a disturbance in an individual’s emotions and feelings, what is referred to as mood.
But depression is not just feeling unhappy. It encompasses feelings of discouragement and loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities and pastimes that persist for over 2 weeks.
Among the warning signs of depression are: feeling sad, hopeless or guilty most of the time; loss of interest and pleasure in daily activities; sleep problems (either too much or too little); fatigue, low energy, or feeling “slowed down”; problems making decisions or thinking clearly; crying a lot; changes in appetite or weight (up or down); and thoughts of suicide or death.
What causes depression?
Depression is often associated with times of stress and difficulty in life — eg: a divorce or break-up; the death of a loved one; losing a job; stress at school or work; illness; certain medical diseases (like diabetes, cancer, thyroid diseases and anaemia); and other stresses and losses.
Depression can also come on out of the blue when it is associated with a chemical imbalance of neurotransmitters (mainly serotonin) in the brain. This can be induced by the use of substances (like drugs or alcohol). There are indications that depression can be caused by genetic predisposition.
Also, women may become depressed after the birth of a child (ie post-partum depression).
Depression can manifest in symptoms such as weight loss, anxiety, irritability, agitation, chronic indecisiveness and sleep disturbances. In other words, you may have a depressive disorder and not feel particularly “depressed”.
Depression can impair your academic performance, relationships and other daily activities. People who are continually depressed also become increasingly irritable, dependent, hostile, sexually unresponsive, and experience stress in their relationships — all of which reinforce feelings of depression.
Many people however, will not tell anyone about their depression because they are embarrassed. Talk is however, good therapy and can prevent you from being continually trapped in the vicious grip of depression.
Who’s at risk?
Depression can occur at any age, but the average age of onset is about 40. Although many people experience their first episode of depression in their late teens or early adulthood, the incidence of depression increases with age.
The elderly are at a high risk of developing depression as they face multiple health problems or the loss of loved ones.
Women more prone
Women generally suffer more from depression than men. Why is this so? The answer may lie in features that are unique to women’s lives, such as hormones and puberty, reproductive cycle, psychological and personality characteristics, and social pressures both at the workplace and home.
Puberty, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause may all cause “mood swings” in women. They switch from a normal mood to a depressed mood, angry mood, or a “frenzy” for no apparent reason. Hormones are suspected to be the main culprit here.
Men and women react differently when they are upset, angry or hurt. Women tend to “internalise” — that is, they absorb the pain and suffer quietly; while men tend to “externalise” — that is, they deflect the pain and someone else suffers with them.
Abuse, oppression and other forms of victimization that usually happen to women also have a lot to do with why women tend to be more depressed than men.
Find out more about mental health and well being in the CAP Guide, Emotional Fitness