Mental Health Overview: Exploring Depression Definition, Symptoms And Treatments

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Occasional sadness is normal. However, sadness can escalate, linger, and grow stronger for some. When sadness gets to the point that it severely interferes with a person's ability to function at work, school, home, or in relationships, it may be a sign of a mental illness like depression. 

To understand this condition, it can be essential to learn about the depression definition, the signs and symptoms to watch for, and how therapy can help you find healthy ways to live with depression's impacts on your life.

Getty/Vadym Pastuk

What is depression? 

Depression is an umbrella term for any depressive disorder. However, it is often referred to as major depressive disorder (MDD), a condition marked by a severely prolonged low mood and a loss of interest in regularly enjoyed activities. 

When depression symptoms persist for two or more weeks and cause substantial impairment in functioning in one or more areas of life, they may be considered clinically significant. If depression interferes with your daily life and activities, consider speaking to your healthcare provider about assessment for a mood disorder. 

"Depression is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable." — American Psychiatric Association

What does depression look like?

Depression can look different in each person who experiences it. However, after years of research, medical experts have identified several symptoms commonly seen in this condition, including the following: 

  • Intense feelings of sadness

  • Thoughts of hopelessness or worthlessness 

  • Slower speech, movements, and thoughts

  • Out-of-character outbursts of anger or irritability

  • Anhedonia, commonly defined as a decrease in the ability to take an interest in or pleasure from the activities you previously enjoyed 

  • Drastic changes to your sleep or eating patterns

  • Persistent fatigue, possibly causing daily tasks to require extreme effort

  • Misplaced guilt or fixation on past failures

  • Unexplained physical pain with no apparent cause, such as headaches, stomach aches, or muscle pain with no known cause

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

  • Suicidal thoughts or urges 

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Depressive disorders in the DSM-5 

Depressive disorders can vary significantly in symptoms, influencing how one thinks, acts, and feels. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the medical community often uses the term "mood disorders" to classify mental health conditions that can influence a person's mood, thought patterns, behaviors, functional ability, and relationships. However, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), depression is listed under the depressive disorders category, which includes the following conditions: 

  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
  • Major depressive disorder (MDD)
  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • Substance or medication-induced depressive disorder
  • Depressive disorder due to another condition
  • Other specified depressive disorder
  • Unspecified depressive disorder
  • Postpartum depression (PPD) 
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) 

Below are further examinations of a few of the most common depressive disorders. 

Major depressive disorder (MDD) 

Major depressive disorder is the most common depressive disorder, involving a persistently depressed mood for at least two weeks, a loss of interest in activities or social contact, and significant impairment to function in daily life. This condition impacts millions of adults each year. 

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder involves depressive symptoms that appear due to the changing seasons, most often in the fall and winter. SAD can often be treated with a combination of lightbox therapy, talk therapy, and medication.  

Persistent depressive disorder (PDD Or dysthymia) 

Persistent depressive disorder is characterized by chronic low-level depression symptoms that persist for two years or longer in adults or over a year in children and adolescents. This condition may be milder than MDD but can cause significant functional impairments. 

Postpartum depression

After giving birth or welcoming an adoptive or foster child to the home, some parents experience a drastic mood shift involving a low mood and intrusive, often worrisome thoughts or behaviors. These symptoms can be caused by postpartum depression, which may arise weeks or months after the birth or adoption of a child. 

How common is depression?

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that approximately 5% of the world's adult population lives with depression. Mood disorders are one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, and those who identify as women are often diagnosed with depression more frequently than those who identify as men. However, this statistic may be due to the stigmas men experience in reaching out for support and the differences in symptoms between men and women. 

While depression can be a common mental illness, effective treatments are available to treat mild, moderate, and severe depression—possibly mitigating some of the effects symptoms can have on daily life. 

Treatments for depression

The most common treatments for depression are similar to those used for many mental health conditions. Individuals are often recommended to partake in medication management, talk therapy, or a combination of the two. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular talk therapy modality for depression. This therapeutic approach can explore the connection between how you think and feel. By identifying harmful thought patterns, you can work to change your cognitive processes and reshape your behavior. This strategy can be particularly effective because depression can alter your thinking. 

Finding practical ways to live with depression symptoms

Because the symptoms of depression can look different for each person, the treatment methods can vary from one person to another. While working with a licensed therapist is one of the most effective ways to recognize and understand emotions, there are a few coping skills you can try, as well, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Connect with close friends and family. 
  • Get regular physical activity. 
  • Consider checking off your to-do list. 
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. 
  • Attend psychotherapy with a licensed therapist regularly. 
  • Don't ignore "the little things" that make you feel better.
  • Be kind to yourself. 
  • Practice daily affirmations or keep a gratitude journal. 
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Take a hot bath and listen to soothing music. 
  • Rest when you need to. 
  • Don't pressure yourself or judge yourself for your symptoms. 
  • Spend less time with people who drain your energy. 

When to reach out for help

If your depression symptoms linger for weeks or you struggle to get out of bed, you might consider seeking professional support. If left untreated, depression can cause or worsen other mental and physical conditions. If you don't know where to start, consider talking to your doctor. They can refer you to a mental health professional or offer temporary medical advice to help you reduce distressing symptoms.

Getty/AnnaStills

Support options 

Depression can be challenging to manage independently. If you are struggling to control emotions and cope with depression symptoms, consider working with a licensed therapist through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. Online therapy may be helpful for people with depression because they do not have to leave home to receive services. 

Through an online platform, you can build an array of adaptive coping skills to minimize the effects of symptoms, learn to understand and communicate your emotional needs, and examine the underlying causes of your feelings. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions depending on your needs.  

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research: Mental Health, online therapy can provide similar results to traditional in-person treatments, typically with lower costs and shorter wait times. Online CBT treatments can help clients identify harmful thought patterns and how they may affect behaviors to reshape them into healthier habits. 

Takeaway

Depression is a serious mental health condition that can have a drastic influence on the way you think, how you act, and the way you process emotions. If you believe you may be living with this condition, consider reaching out to a mental health professional online or in your area to receive further support and guidance. You're not alone, and treatment is possible.
Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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