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Are You Down in the Dumps, or Is It Depression?

Everyone feels low, blue, or downright sad at times. If these emotions are strong or don’t ease up, you may wonder whether you—or a loved one—is depressed.   

It’s a question worth asking. Depression is a serious medical condition that deserves treatment so that you can feel better—emotionally, physically, and mentally.Yet just 28 percent of people living with depression are getting the help they need, according to a 2016 study of 46,417 American adults.

It’s important to understand that depression affects people in different ways. If you’re concerned about it, your best next step is to see your doctor. And read on to learn about differences between depression and just feeling “down in the dumps.”

Sad … or something more? It’s normal to feel down and sad at times, especially if you’re dealing with a discouraging situation or major, life-changing event such as:

  • Job loss or financial hardship

  • Retirement 

  • A natural disaster

  • A serious illness

  • Divorce or the end of a close relationship

  • The death of a loved one

How depression is different: Sadness is only a small part of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition to causing a low or “empty” mood, depression can have an impact on your physical health and on your ability to think clearly. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic

  • Feeling guilty or helpless, or having low self-worth

  • Having little interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Low energy

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Difficulty getting to sleep or trouble with over-sleeping

  • Appetite and/or weight changes

  • Restlessness or irritability

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Days … or weeks or months? Timing is key. A blue mood that lasts a few days or even a week or two—and that may come and go, lifting at times so that you feel better and can enjoy life for a while—likely is not depression, according to the National Institutes of Health and other experts.   

How depression is different: Depression lasts for weeks, months, or even longer. You can’t just “snap out of it.” One exception: Grief after the loss of someone close to you may last for a while without being considered depression. This kind of grief tends to come in waves, mixed with moments of happy memories. But if grief lasts a very long time, if your feelings are constantly low, or if you also have feelings of low self-worth or self-hate, your grief may be edging into depression.

Physical illness … or an important clue? Health conditions that can mimic depression or trigger depression-like symptoms include diabetes, fibromyalgia, heart disease, an under- or over-active thyroid, and infections like influenza, pneumonia, and mononucleosis. Medications that may cause depressive symptoms include corticosteroids, oral contraceptives, and some beta-blockers. 

How depression is different: Depression itself can cause aches and pains, cramps, digestive problems, and headaches that don’t seem to have a physical cause and that don’t ease up when treated.    

Grumpy and tired … or unique symptoms? Some surprising feelings and reactions may be overlooked signs of depression. For example, men with depression may experience more irritability, fatigue, and loss of interest in work or hobbies than women. For women, depression may crop up in the weeks before menstruation (as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which includes serious and disabling irritability, anger, and even suicidal thoughts), after the birth of a baby, or during menopause. Older adults with depression may seem grumpy, tired, or even confused rather than sad. 

Since depression can affect people in such different ways, it’s best to make an appointment with your doctor if you suspect something isn’t right. Remember, depression is a medical condition, and it can be treated.

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