Depression Questions & Answers

Reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, University of North Carolina

What is depression?

Depression is a mental health disorder, thought to be due to changes in neural circuit activity. Depression is characterized by persistent sadness or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. The condition impairs daily life and requires a medical diagnosis. Situational depression (a form of depression that can occur in the aftermath of various traumatic changes in your life—such as when reacting to a death) may be a normal variant, unless it continues on for long periods.

Is depression a mental illness?

Depression is a mental illness that requires medical treatment. It may not be a permanent illness; most people do get better within months. Depression is quite a common mental disorder that may affect anyone, but it should be taken seriously.

What causes depression?

The exact cause behind depression has yet to be revealed. It is believed to be due to a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Distress or traumatic experiences can also influence the onset of depression.

What are the signs/symptoms of depression?

The signs or symptoms of depression vary greatly, due to a range of behavioral and physical changes that each particular individual may experience. There could be modifications in the following:

  • Mood − anxiety, apathy, loss of interest in activities, mood swings, sadness, etc.
  • Sleep − excessive sleepiness or insomnia
  • Behavior − crying, irritability, social isolation, and agitation

Weight gain or weight loss are also common symptoms, as is excessive hunger or loss of appetite and fatigue. In addition, it is important to watch for suicidal thoughts.

Who is at risk of developing depression?

Everyone feels down sometimes. But those at most risk of developing clinical depression include the following:

  • Women
  • Those who have relatives with depression
  • Someone who experienced trauma as a child
  • Someone who is experiencing a stressful major life event
  • Those who have few friends or few personal relationships
  • Women who have recently given birth (postpartum depression) or who are experiencing menopause (menopausal depression)
  • Those who have a serious illness or are taking certain medications

Those who abuse drugs or alcohol

Reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, University of North Carolina

What is major depressive disorder?

This is the name doctors give to what we commonly called “clinical depression.” This means that someone has at least five of the symptoms listed below for two consecutive weeks.

Symptoms can include:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in activities that were previously enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite that result in weight losses or gains
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or hopelessness
  • Inappropriate guilt
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or attempts at suicide

What is bipolar depression?

Bipolar disorder is characterized by two phases, depressive and mania. Bipolar depression refers to the “low” phase of bipolar disorder. It includes symptoms of low energy, loss of interest, sadness, suicidal thoughts, and fatigue. In the manic phase, someone may be prone to dangerous behavior, like excessive drinking, large item purchases, and multiple sexual partners.

Reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, University of North Carolina

How is depression diagnosed?

Depression may be diagnosed by your primary care doctor, or your doctor may request an evaluation from a specialist, such as a psychiatrist. Diagnosis is based off symptoms, medical history, family history, and duration of illness. Honesty is key when responding to questions and describing your ailment. Some common problems can cause symptoms that seem like depression, so be sure your doctor screens you for conditions such as thyroid problems or hormonal issues.

How is depression treated?

Depression is commonly treated with a combination of medications and therapies. Cognitive behavioral therapy, behavior therapy, and/or psychotherapy are the most common psychological therapies. Antidepressants and/or antipsychotics will normally also be given along with some form of relaxation techniques. Antidepressant medications are used to increase certain levels of the brain’s neurotransmitters. Sometimes natural lifestyle changes may also be utilized, such as exercise and healthy eating. Severe depression may be treated with ECT (electroconvulsive therapy).

What kind of medications are used for depression?

There are many different types of medications used for depression. They are categorized by how they work on your neurotransmitters in your brain. Common categories include the following:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs block the reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, making more available in the body.
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These drugs block the reabsorption of both serotonin and norepinephrine to make more available in the body.
  • Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs). Same idea as above—blocks the reabsorption of norepinephrine and dopamine.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are older forms of antidepressants that cause more side effects than the newer types of antidepressants. Usually, doctors don’t prescribe them until after the newer types of antidepressants have been tried with no success.

What kinds of other treatments have been shown to work?

Many people feel some relief from their depressive symptoms when they do activities that help release neurotransmitters to the brain. Exercising, talking to a loved one, and doing a fun, interactive activity can all help. Peer and support groups have also shown to help.

Sleeping is important, too. Lack of sleep, by itself, cannot cause depression. But not getting enough sleep can definitely make symptoms of depression much worse.

Some recent studies have shown that there is a gut-brain connection to some important neurotransmitters like serotonin. Eating healthy foods and healing the gut can help with some depressive symptoms.

Reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, University of North Carolina

Why is depression more common in women?

Scientists believe that some types of depression are related to hormone activity, which contributes to the statistic that depression is twice as common among women as among men. About 20 percent of women will experience at least one depressive episode during their lifetime. The biological changes that happen to a woman during puberty, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause may contribute to depressive episodes in women.

What is postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression occurs after childbirth. It is characterized by extreme sadness, low energy, anxiety, and irritability. Sleep and eating patterns are also commonly affected, and uncontrollable crying may happen. It may also be difficult for the woman to bond with her baby. Many new mothers experience hormonal and physical changes right after giving birth, when caring for a newborn seems overwhelming. However, if the symptoms don’t go away after about 10 days, it is time for a new mother to seek treatment and emotional support.

What is menopausal depression?

During menopause, estrogen and progesterone levels permanently drop to low levels. Some women experience depression during this life change, and scientists believe it is related to how the rise and fall of estrogen and other hormones affect the chemistry of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, University of North Carolina

What is an anxiety disorder?

Feeling anxious is part of life. It’s an important way your body tells you that something’s not right, that danger is present and you may have to act quickly. But if anxious feelings are overwhelming and persistent to the point of interfering with your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder.

Who is likely to have an anxiety disorder?

Those who have family members with anxiety disorders are more at risk to develop one themselves. In addition to genetic factors, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of factors, including brain chemistry, personality traits, and life events.

Reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, University of North Carolina

What kinds of anxiety disorders are there?

Anxiety can be a symptom of many types of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, or social phobias. The symptoms you’re experiencing will help your doctor correctly diagnose what you’re experiencing.

How is an anxiety disorder diagnosed?

Anxiety can be a symptom of many types of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, or social phobias. The symptoms you’re experiencing will help your doctor correctly diagnose what you’re experiencing.

What treatments are available for anxiety disorders?

Usually, people can cope with an anxiety disorder by using cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Treatment may be altered based on other medical conditions a person has or other medications a person is taking. Work with your doctor to determine which treatment is best for you. Be patient—it often takes time and a little bit of experimentation to find the right combination for you.