"Black Dog:" Depression & How It Works

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When the phrase "black dog" is used, minds typically leap to depression, or perhaps a certain beloved book character. Whichever is the case, the term "black dog" is most commonly used to describe a state of depression, characterized by either poor behavior or the lack of will to do anything, including things you once loved. This metaphor can be useful for people, whether adults or children, living with depression and those with loved ones experiencing depression symptoms. The image of a large, intrusive black dog can more clearly identify the often difficult-to-see aspects of depression.

Are You Worried About The "Black Dog" In Your Life?

What was initially a small phrase uttered to describe a brief period in a man's life, the metaphor has grown to encompass a massive spectrum of depression and its symptoms. The black dog is an effective metaphor because depression can feel like an ominous, long-suffering presence tracking your every move. The black dog of depression represents the gradual overtaking of the things you once loved, the person you once recognized in the mirror, or the life you once lived. Depression does not take breaks but instead follows you around like a shadow – a large, lumbering shadow, loyal as a canine. At its inception, though, the black dog was not quite so insidious.

Origin Of The Depression Black Dog

The term is said to have originated with Winston Churchill, who was often quoted as referring to a "black dog" when he felt unmotivated, churlish, or otherwise unproductive and unable to write stories. The black dog was said to have been the source of melancholy, as well, and took the blame for some of Churchill's stumbling blocks and moments of inactivity.

Over time, the "black dog" grew as something of a symbol for Churchill, with many amateurs and mental health professionals alike pointing to this term and its corresponding behaviors as a sign of Churchill's poor mental health, ranging from depression to bipolar disorder. Although there is no definitive evidence that Winston Churchill had a mental illness of any kind – and indeed, one therapist actively disputed these claims – his descriptor persists as a powerful, insightful window into the lives of men and women who experience the symptoms of depression.

Why This Metaphor Is Important

The metaphor of the black dog is an important one both for individuals who have been diagnosed with depression and those who haven't because it provides both with a frame of reference for how exactly to expect depression to show up. Depression is depicted in media as a range of emotions, from sadness to a simple enough problem that you can just "get over." However, using the metaphor of a black dog allows you (and others) to see that depression isn't a matter of needing a simple mindset change, or a pep talk; it often feels like an outside entity, wholly out of your control.

Just as a large black dog's persistence in following you around, eating your shoes, or taking up your time with its insistence is out of your control, depression is largely uncontrollable and requires both time and treatment to begin to fade. Some will benefit from therapy, lifestyle changes, or medication – or all three – for the entirety of their lives, to keep symptoms manageable and under control.

How Does Depression Work?

Depression is a mood disorder, wherein the body and brain do not produce the "feel-good" chemicals required to effectively regulate mood, sleep, regulate appetite, and clear thoughts. Symptoms of depression include apathy, under or oversleeping, loss of interest in food, too great an interest in food, muscle weakness, thoughts of suicide* or despair, and irritability. Simply feeling momentary content might feel far from reach at times, or often.

*If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and is available 24/7.

These are just a few of the symptoms ascribed to depression, and they can all be either mild or severe or a patchwork of both.

Although periods of sadness, anger, or apathy are normal in people who have experienced a sudden loss, a traumatic event, or similar, persistent feelings of sadness, anger, and apathy – those that last at least two weeks– may be attributed to depression. Depression may initially be mild (called Major Depressive Disorder), but without treatment, symptoms can grow worse and develop into a chronic condition called Persistent Depressive Disorder, which means that a depressive state has persisted for at least two years.

There are many possible reasons for depression, and there is still some mystery surrounding why it develops in some people and not in others, with similar risk factors in place. Minimizing risk factors is certainly worth the effort, though, and engaging in a healthy lifestyle can go a long way in mitigating some of the likelihood of developing a depressive disorder.

Who Does Depression Affect?

Depression is said to affect as many as 1 in 13 adults, though many will not seek treatment. Depression is more likely to affect individuals who are going through major changes, such as reaching adulthood, quitting or starting a job, or losing a loved one. Depression is also more likely to affect individuals who do not have a solid support system and may be more common among people who have experienced significant breaks within familial or friendship ties.

Depression does not seem to have particular risk factors based on socioeconomic status, race, or religion, as people of all ages and backgrounds can experience the symptoms of depression. Across the board, depression requires some amount of treatment and should never be diagnosed or treated entirely at home. Instead, please seek out the assistance of professional, licensed mental health services.

How Is Depression Treated?

Are You Worried About The "Black Dog" In Your Life?

There are many treatment options for depression. Typically, the first type of treatment is therapy. Talk therapy is a common treatment for depression, as it allows patients to describe what they are going through and better understand their own experiences and needs. Talk therapy is also likely to be the source of diagnosis, as many therapists will prefer to weed out all possibilities before assigning a concrete diagnosis to a patient. Talk therapy includes Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which seeks to reset unhealthy or unproductive patterns of thinking to improve overall mental health and stability.

Online therapy has become increasingly popular, and research shows it can play a significant role in reducing depression symptoms. For example, one study found that online therapy was even more effective than traditional in-person sessions, with 100 percent of participants in the online group showing continued symptom reduction three months after treatment. On the other hand, individuals in the face-to-face group showed “significantly worsened depressive symptoms” over the same period. This study explores how internet-based treatment compares to regular face-to-face therapy.

If you struggle with depression, the last thing you might want to do is drive to a therapist's office for a session. If that sounds like you, online therapy services with BetterHelp could be a great solution. BetterHelp’s online therapy platform allows you access to trained professionals and their expert therapy services right from the comfort of your home, day or night. And you can be in contact with them on a more regular basis, which can be a comfort during the tough times when you may need to speak with a trusted professional. If you’re not quite sure about trying therapy, our website has plenty of peer-reviewed content to read, like this article, on a plethora of mental health and life topics. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp therapists and the help they were able to provide below.

“Andrew's counseling style is the epitome of the personal touch! He is smart, professional, caring, and compassionate. He shares his professional knowledge in such a way that you feel like you are talking to a trusted friend, which makes you feel comfortable talking about deeply personal subjects. When I was feeling very depressed, he was there with encouraging words to help me start to think more positively and he messages you every couple of days, just to check in with you!! With his shared personal experiences, advice, and goal-setting techniques I feel like he went above and beyond for me EVERY session!”

“Susan is a compassionate and kind person. You can tell her anything without judgment. She listens intently, with no interruptions, and gives neutral feedback in a way that can help anxious and depressed people view their own emotions with neutrality.”

Depression may also be treated with antidepressants. Antidepressants look at the chemical and biological mechanisms involved in depression and work to get those systems back in balance to support a healthy, well-functioning body. Antidepressants are often used in conjunction with other treatments, and it may take some time to find a medication that works well for you and a dosage that takes care of your needs. Because antidepressants can worsen symptoms before improving them, it is important to work closely with a mental health professional to make sure dosage and frequency are as effective for your needs as possible. Please consult with your doctor or primary care physician before considering any medication options. Dosages and frequency may need to be altered several times to find the right balance for you.

Diet is another area in which depression can be managed, though diet alone is unlikely to relieve symptoms. Instead, altering your food intake can support physical health, which can aid your mind in functioning at its best. A diet high in processed sugar and refined foods, for instance, could contribute to the onset and proliferation of depression. In contrast, a diet filled with whole, fresh foods can help give your mind and body the physical support and nourishment content it needs to function optimally and continue to do so in both the short and long term. Eliminating or dramatically reducing alcohol can also be useful in limiting the effects of depression, as alcohol is a depressive substance.

Lifestyle changes may also be recommended by your doctor, as some alterations to your lifestyle can significantly impact how your body and brain behave. For instance, a sedentary lifestyle has been linked to a host of health concerns, including mood dysfunction. Exercising as little as 10 minutes per day can help improve your mental and physical health. Getting outside in nature can also help, as the constant barrage of screens and media – and lack of fresh air – can be problematic for someone working toward recovery and improved health.

What Next?

After receiving a diagnosis of a depressive disorder, the first step is therapy. Therapy runs the gamut and may be simple talk therapy, or maybe trauma therapy, such as EMDR, as depression can sometimes be a sign of other underlying issues. Therapy could be a combination of cognitive therapy, antidepressants, diet, and lifestyle alterations, or may focus primarily on psychotherapy and pharmaceutical intervention. Although there is still some stigma surrounding the pharmaceutical treatment of mood disorders, antidepressants can mean the difference between living your life richly and stumbling through it in a fog. A holistic approach – one that includes all areas of treatment – is often the most effective form of treatment and can help you to feel overall more content.

The depression "black dog" has come to be a mascot of sorts for depression and can open a window of conversation into depression and its symptoms. The black dog is not something that needs to be feared, pushed away, or admonished. Instead, the black dog gives you and those around you a name and a face for the overwhelming apathy, and anxiety depression is often accompanied by and can be viewed as a sign that self-care and self-understanding need to take more of a front seat in your life. It can break down language barriers to get better help, better treatment, and a greater understanding of the obstacles you face every day in living with and overcoming depression.

Questions People Commonly Ask:

Does the black dog mean depression?
What does feeling black dog mean?
What is the black depression?
How do you live with a black dog?
What does black dog mean in slang?
Who called depression the black dog?
What does a black dog tattoo mean?


You Don’t Have To Face Depression Alone. Our Experienced Counselors Can Help.

Get Help & Support With Depression Today
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.