How Do You Know When Your Depression Is Improving?

Here are eight ways to tell.

Posted Feb 07, 2018

Depression describes a mood, which we can think of as an emotional climate. We can't always tell what our mood is based on a single day, just as we can't know for certain which season we're in based on the weather; one cold day in the fall doesn't mean it's winter, and one day of feeling lousy doesn't mean we're depressed. We look for patterns in our emotions and behavior and clusters of symptoms to figure out if we're depressed

macrowildlife/Adobe Stock
Source: macrowildlife/Adobe Stock

On the other side of depression, we might not know exactly when it's lifting. At first, we might not notice the improvements, like the imperceptible lengthening of days as spring approaches. And then one day, we're struck by the change, like seeing the first crocus popping through the melting snow. We feel a thaw in our numb emotions, a spark of excitement to be alive.

Just as a heavy snow can come after the spring ephemerals emerge, we can feel the first signs of depression abating and then continue to experience symptoms of depression. With continued time and treatment, we can continue toward a fuller recovery.

Look for these signs, among others, that can indicate relief from depression:

1. Less irritability.

We think of sadness as the most common emotion in depression, but irritability is also very common. As you start to feel better, you might notice that you have more patience, and feel less easily put out with others.

2. Greater interest in activities.

One of the defining features of depression is a lack of interest or pleasure in things we usually enjoy. As you start to feel better, you'll show more interest in your normal activities and start to enjoy them more. Food might even start to taste better.

3. More energy.

Along with more interest, our energy returns as depression lifts. This increase in energy can help us do more of the things we care about, further improving our mood. 

4. Feeling less overwhelmed.

Everything can feel difficult when we're depressed and feeling inadequate to the task. Less depression leads to us feel more on top of our day-to-day responsibilities, as well as able to respond to challenges as they arise. 

5. More normal appetite.

Whether our appetite was increased or decreased by depression, it will start to return to normal as we feel better. If we had little appetite before, we'll find that food is more appealing and enjoyable. We can also find it easier to resist the foods we had a hard time avoiding when we were really depressed.   

6. Better concentration.

The cognitive symptoms of depression can be quite disruptive, making it hard to think and focus. With improved concentration, we'll find it's easier to follow a conversation or the plot of a book, and in general, we'll feel sharper mentally.  

7. Return of libido.

Depression often kills one's sex drive, and non-depressed partners may have a hard time understanding that the lack of interest has nothing to do with them. Thus, a loss of libido can have serious effects on a couple's relationship. It may be surprising to once again feel that spark if it's been missing for a while. 

Nadino/Shutterstock
Source: Nadino/Shutterstock

8. Better self-image.

One of the cruel aspects of depression is that it leads us to believe all kinds of negative things about ourselves — that we're "worthless" or "a loser" or "pathetic" — which, of course, only feeds the depression. As we reconnect with our basic sense of self-worth, we start to question the lies that a depressed mind tell us, and we see ourselves in a more loving and accurate light. 

Keep in mind that just as depression symptoms don't show up all at once, they also don't leave at the same time. We can't know for certain which ones will improve first, although several studies (e.g., this one) have shown that sleep problems are often the last to resolve. So if you're still battling insomnia, take heart — it can get better as the depression continues to recede, and with focused insomnia treatment. 

Monitor Your Symptoms

In my clinical practice, I often re-assess a person's symptoms to see how their recovery is progressing. Whether or not you're seeing a professional, you can complete one of these measures from time to time to track your symptoms. The form I use in my practice is available for free online: Clinically Useful Depression Outcome Scale. Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page for information about interpreting your score. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if your score indicates you're experiencing significant depression, particularly if you've thought about suicide.

I recommend checking symptoms only once every 2-4 weeks; changes from day to day usually reflect short-term fluctuations in our emotions, rather than the more climate-like symptoms of depression. Frequent checking of symptoms can also foster a ruminative focus on one's "emotional temperature," which research has shown is not conducive to recovery. 

What Does It Feel Like?

I've described some of the improvements to look for as depression lifts, but what does it feel like?

Some people compare recovery from depression to getting over a sickness like the flu, realizing with amazement how good it feels just to feel more normal again. 

Others use the winter-to-spring metaphor, like the sense of expectancy that comes with the return of warmer air and flowers and birds singing in the trees. 

Still others describe feeling like a veil between them and the world has lifted, and they can reconnect to their emotions and experiences.

Whatever we compare it to, getting out from under depression can feel amazing. We start wanting to engage with life again, we actually have the energy to do so, and we remember that life can be so good. 

Consider these action steps if you've been depressed:

1. Seek treatment, if you haven't already. Your primary care doctor can provide a referral, or you can search your area for a therapist here at Psychology Today.

2. Use a scale like this one to assess your symptoms and progress. 

3. If your insomnia has stuck around even though you're feeling better, consider finding a therapist who provides cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), or use one of the CBT-I apps. Better resolution of insomnia can improve long-term recovery from depression. 

4. If you've tried one kind of treatment, but continue to suffer from depression, consider a combined treatment: A combination of medication and therapy typically is better than either treatment alone for people with moderate to severe depression. 

5. When you do start to feel better, continue the practices that led to your improvement. Your recovery is worth the investment of time and energy.