Depression

What Is Depression?

Some 15 million Americans a year struggle with depression, an illness that comes in many forms—from major depression and seasonal affective disorder, to dysthymia and bipolar disorder. Depression is an illness that increasingly afflicts people worldwide, interfering with concentration, motivation, and many other aspects of everyday functioning. It is a complex disorder, involving many systems of the body, including the immune system, either as cause or effect. It disrupts sleep and it interferes with appetite, in some cases causing weight loss, in others weight gain. Because of its complexity, a full understanding of depression has been elusive.

Scientists have some evidence that the condition is related to diet, both directly—through the nutrients we consume, such as omega-3 fats—and indirectly, through the composition of the bacteria in the gut. Of course, depression involves mood and thoughts as well as the body, and it causes pain for both those with the disorder and those who care about them. Depression is increasingly common in children.

Even in the most severe cases, depression is highly treatable. The condition is often cyclical, and early treatment may prevent or forestall recurrent episodes. Many studies show that the most effective treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which addresses problematic thought patterns, with or without the use of antidepressant drugs. In addition, evidence is quickly accumulating that regular mindfulness meditation, on its own or combined with cognitive therapy, can stop depression before it starts by effectively disengaging attention from the repetitive negative thoughts that often set in motion the downward spiral of mood.

Symptoms of Depression

Not everyone who is depressed or manic experiences every symptom. Some people experience a few symptoms, some many. Severity of symptoms varies among individuals and also varies over time.

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Insomnia, early morning awakening or oversleeping
  • Appetite changes and/or weight loss, and/or weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain

Causes of Depression

There is no single known cause of depression. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors. Trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation that overwhelms the ability to cope may trigger a depressive episode. Subsequent depressive episodes may occur with or without an obvious trigger.

Research with brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), shows that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior appear to function abnormally. In addition, the chemicals that brain cells use to communicate—neurotransmitters—may also be affected. It is not clear which changes seen in the brain may be the cause of depression and which ones the effect.

Some types of depression tend to run in families, suggesting there may be some genetic vulnerability to the disorder.

Treatment of Depression

Depression, even the most severe cases, is a highly treatable disorder. As with many illnesses, the earlier that treatment can begin, the more effective it is and the greater the likelihood that recurrence can be prevented.

Appropriate treatment for depression starts with a physical examination by a physician. Certain medications, as well as some medical conditions such as viral infections or a thyroid disorder, can cause the same symptoms as depression and should be ruled out. The doctor should ask about alcohol and drug use, and whether the patient has thoughts about death or suicide.

Once diagnosed, a person with depression can be treated a number of ways. The most common treatments are medication and psychotherapy. Many studies show that cognitive behavioral psychotherapy is highly effective, alone or in combination with drug therapy. Psychotherapy addresses the thinking patterns that precipitate depression, and studies show that it prevents recurrence. Drug therapy is often helpful in relieving symptoms, such as severe anxiety, so that people can engage in meaningful psychotherapy.

Varieties of Depression

Depression generally takes one of two major forms. Unipolar depression is what most people mean when they talk about depression: an unremitting state of sadness, apathy, or hopelessness, and loss of energy. It is sometimes called major depression. Bipolar depression, or bipolar disorder, is a condition marked by periods of depression and periods of high-energy mania; people swing between the two poles of mood states, sometimes over the course of days, sometimes over years, often with stable periods in between. 

The birth of a baby can trigger mood swings or crying spells in the following days or weeks, the so-called baby blues. When the reaction is more severe and prolonged, it is considered postpartum depression, a condition requiring treatment because it can interfere with the ability to care for the newborn. Depression can also occur seasonally, primarily in the winter months when sunlight is in short supply. Known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, it is often ameliorated by daily exposure to specific types of artificial light.

Suicidal thoughts often coincide with depressive episodes, which is why it's important to be aware of the signs if you or a loved one experiences any prolonged mood disturbance.

Depression and Your Health

Americans are obsessed with happiness, yet we are increasingly depressed: Some 15 million Americans battle the disorder, and increasing numbers of them are young people. Mental anguish is hard on your health. People suffering from depression have three times the risk of experiencing a cardiac event. In fact, depression affects the entire body. It weakens the immune system, increasing susceptibility to viral infections and, over time, possibly even some kinds of cancer—a strong argument for early treatment of depression. It interferes with sleep, adding to feelings of lethargy, compounding problems of focus and concentration, and generally undermining health. Those suffering from depression also experience higher rates of diabetes and osteoporosis. Sometimes depression manifests as a persistent low mood, a condition known as dysthymia. It is usually marked by years-long periods of low energy, low self-esteem, and little ability to experience pleasure.

Living with Depression

Everyone experiences an occasional blue mood. Yet clinical depression is a more pervasive experience of repetitive negative rumination, bleak outlook, and lack of energy. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. People with depression cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better.

It doesn't help when there are growing pressures in modern-day living. There is an emphasis on early childhood achievement at the expense of free play, a cultural shift away from direct social contact toward electronic connection, and a focus on material wealth at the expense of rich experiences and social contact. All play a part.

However, there is some evidence that, painful as depression is, it serves a positive purpose, bringing with it ways of thinking that force those who suffer to focus on problems as a prelude to solving them. In effect, some researchers hypothesize that depression can help prod a person into much needed self-awareness. 

CONNECTED TOPICS

Bipolar Disorder, Postpartum

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