What does depression feel like?

What does depression feel like?

Reviewed by:
Wendi Waits, MD
Staff Psychiatrist
at Talkiatry
July 22, 2023

“I feel like I'm just going through the motions of life and I don’t feel much at all,” “I have a near constant sense of despair that makes me feel like I'm drowning.” While depression looks and feels different for everyone – one common theme rings true: living with depression isn’t easy—and it can feel isolating.

Know that you’re not alone. If you suspect you may be experiencing depression or have already been diagnosed, help is available, and treatment works.

Read on to learn about the symptoms of depression, how you may feel if you’re experiencing depression, and some ways to cope with it.


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What are the main symptoms of depression?

The occasional bad mood, feeling sad for no reason, and lack of interest in hobbies are things we all experience from time to time. For people with clinical depression, symptoms are persistent, last at least 2 weeks, and make it hard to go about daily life.

Common symptoms of depression include:

  • Low mood most of the time
  • Feeling hopeless, sad, or “empty” most of the time
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting, weight gain, or a decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day
  • A slower or more agitated pace of movement that is noticeable to others
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, a suicide attempt, or a specific plan for committing suicide

Not everyone will experience all the signs of depression and symptoms may range from mild to severe. If you think you may be experiencing depression, the first step is to see a qualified healthcare professional like a psychiatrist. They will be able to evaluate your symptoms and family history, provide an accurate diagnosis, and develop a treatment plan.

To learn about how Talkiatry treats depression, check out: How our psychiatrists treat different types of depression.

How does depression impact your brain?

No matter what you might hear from well-intentioned friends or family, (or maybe you’ve even said it yourself!) depression isn’t something you can just “snap out of” or “tough out.” Why? Depression is a medical condition, specifically a mood disorder, and it alters the way your brain functions.

Researchers have found that depression may even change the way your brain looks. These physical changes can be seen on an MRI scan. Studies have found that areas of the brain that control emotions, mood and learning are structurally different in people with depression compared to people without depression.

How does depression make you feel?

There are different types of depression including seasonal affective disorder, clinical depression also known as major depressive disorder (MDD), postpartum depression, psychotic depression, and persistent depressive disorder. Here are a few common feelings that people experience across all types of depression.

Tired

About 90% of people who experience depression report feeling fatigued beyond levels that would be considered typical. This level of sleepiness is beyond what can be solved with a nap and may make it hard to get out of bed, keep up with kids, work, or life in general.

There’s a reason why lack of energy is so common as a physical symptom. Depression alters levels of certain neurotransmitters that control things like mood, brain function, and you guessed it, energy levels. Many people with depression also have difficulty sleeping. Whether that’s trouble falling asleep because your mind’s wandering, waking up frequently at night, or not being able to fall into a deep sleep, sleep disturbances are common and can perpetuate other symptoms of depression.

If this sounds like you, reach out to your doctor. Treatment options like medication or talk therapy can help you get a good night’s rest.

Unmotivated

Are you having trouble completing tasks that once came easily to you? Doing laundry, loading the dishwasher, meeting a work deadline, or maybe even taking a shower may feel daunting and nearly impossible during a depressive episode.

This lack of motivation is one of the main symptoms of depression—and it may have you questioning your sense of self. But as any psychiatrist will tell you: it’s not you, it’s depression. And there’s a reason why you can’t just listen to a motivational podcast or read a few motivational quotes and suddenly feel better.

Depression affects a part of your brain that controls executive functioning. Executive functioning includes things most of us take for granted such as setting goals, moving from one task to another to accomplish a goal, and even ignoring negative or unhelpful thoughts. It’s the driving force behind motivation and depression disrupts it.

If you're also feeling anxious, you can learn more here: the difference between anxiety and depression.

Numb

Overwhelming feelings of sadness, despair, tearfulness: these emotions are usually what come to mind when we hear the word depression.

But the truth is, you may not experience these intense feelings and may instead feel quite numb and detached from the world around you. This can feel scary or distressing and cause you to pull away from friends or family or lose interest in hobbies or activities that you once enjoyed.

Hopeless

Being stuck in a negative thought pattern is frustrating. It may feel like no matter what you tell yourself or what other people tell you, you can’t shake the unhelpful thoughts swirling in your mind. These negative thoughts often result in low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness—a common experience for people living with depression.

It helps to know that these thoughts are not truths, but a result of depression. Remember, depression affects executive functioning which includes managing negative thought patterns. Studies show that those without depression are better able to suppress negative thought patterns than those with depression.

While it may feel like there is no solution to depression, treatment from a qualified health professional can help. Between 70-90% of people who are treated with a combination of therapy and medication for a mental health condition, like major depression, will experience a significant reduction in symptoms and better quality of life.

How can you cope with depression?

If you’re dealing with depression, there are a few tips and self-care methods that can help you manage your symptoms.

Lean on your loved ones

Depression can feel isolating and you may feel like there is no one who can fully understand what you’re going through or who can help you. But building a support network is an important part of recovering from any mental health condition, especially depression. And chances are your loved ones are desperate to help, they just might not be sure how to help.

Confide in a close friend, family member, support group, or mental health professional. Tell family and friends the specific ways they can support you. Maybe you just need them to listen, validate you or help you find professional support.

For tips on how to explain depression to someone check out: How to explain depression to someone.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Lack of sleep can perpetuate symptoms of a mental health condition. And unfortunately, mental health conditions can also make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. If this sounds unfair, that’s because it is. Luckily, there are things you can do to overcome the unique sleep challenges that can come with mental health conditions.

If you can, make good sleep habits a priority: go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, avoid scrolling your phone in bed, and try and avoid or at least limit screen time an hour before going to bed. If you’re still finding it hard to get some much-needed shut-eye, reach out to your doctor. Certain medications or a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can help you get your sleep back on track.

Maintain a consistent routine

This may seem obvious, but maintaining a consistent routine can help support your mental health. And you don’t have to go big. Think about covering your basic needs—showering, eating healthy meals, and getting enough sleep.

Maybe this means waking up at the same time each day, making a bowl of oatmeal before getting in the shower, and brushing your teeth. Start small and do your best to perform the habit daily- even if you feel like you’re just going through the motions.

Talk to a professional

If you’re living with depression, or think you might be, the first step to managing your symptoms is meeting with a qualified mental health professional, like a psychiatrist, to get an accurate diagnosis. Depression is complex and symptoms can overlap with other mental health conditions. A psychiatrist specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions through medication management, supportive therapy, or a combination of both. They will be able to evaluate your symptoms, provide a diagnosis and work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan.

Talkiatry offers virtual psychiatry that’s covered by insurance. Take our 10-minute online assessment to see if Talkiatry is right for you.

Paving a way forward with Talkiatry

Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.

The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger or is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

Sources:

Depression | National Institute of Mental Health

Suicide Warning Signs: What to Look Out For | PsyCom

Brain structural and functional changes in patients with major depressive disorder: a literature review | PeerJ

Fatigue in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder: Prevalence, Burden and Pharmacological Approaches to Management | SpringerLink.

Motivation and Cognitive Control in Depression | NIH

Cognitive Distortions in Relation to Plasma Cortisol and Oxytocin Levels in Major Depressive Disorder | Frontiers

About Mental Illness | NAMI

Dr. Waits is board certified in General Psychiatry, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Lifestyle Medicine. She is a military veteran and has served innumerous leadership and academic positions over the course of her career, primarily in hospital-based settings and during combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Waits treats a wide array of mental health conditions in individuals of all ages. She enjoys providing holistic, collaborative, patient-centered care that is focused on identifying and addressing the root causes of symptoms, including early childhood events, medical conditions, environmental factors, nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Her areas of greatest clinical expertise include lifestyle medicine, treatment of psychological trauma, veteran/military mental healthcare, and adolescent psychiatry.

Patients treated by Dr. Waits can expect a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation, a multi-dimensional assessment of factors contributing to current issues, screening for underlying medical conditions, safety planning, lifestyle recommendations, medication management, and brief psychotherapy when indicated.

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