What does depression look like? It's not always easy to spot, but these are the most common signs of depression to watch out for, according to mental health experts.

By Karen Asp
February 26, 2020

Feeling down for a day or two is one thing, but when that state of sadness persists, you could be facing something more serious: depression. It’s important to be able to recognize the difference between commonplace mood dips and more severe signs of depression, both in yourself and in others.

While no gender or age group is immune to depression, women are thought to be at greater risk, but there’s a catch. “This may be a reflection that women are more likely to seek help for their symptoms,” says Samar McCutcheon, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Depression in seniors and adolescents is also common. And having a personal or family history of depression can increase your future risk of depressive episodes.

What is depression?

The trouble is, people often use “depression” to loosely describe normal disappointments or moments of sadness, making understanding exactly what depression is somewhat confusing. So how do you know if you’re actually depressed, versus simply bummed out or exhausted?

“The official definition [of depression] is two or more weeks of a constellation of five or more distressing and impairing symptoms,” says Dr. McCutcheon, adding that there are several major signs of depression. In general, if the depression symptoms are present more days than not, and are getting worse versus improving, you could be experiencing a major depressive episode.

And it’s nothing to take lightly, as depression can take a tremendous physical and mental toll on your health. “Depression is a mental disorder that affects how you feel, think, and act, and can lead to serious emotional or physical problems,” says Barbara Nosal, PhD, LMFT, LADC, chief clinical officer at Newport Academy in Orange County, Calif.

Here’s the surprise, though: It’s entirely possible to be depressed and not realize it. Since depression tends to develop gradually and can manifest in small changes in behavior, mood, or energy, it can be tough to spot the signs, Nosal says. Symptoms also vary from person to person and aren’t one-size-fits-all, she adds. While one person with depression might have insomnia and difficulty concentrating, another may sleep too much but still feel physically and mentally fatigued.

If you suspect you’re suffering from depression, don’t try to get over it on your own. “Depression is a medical condition, similar to hypertension or diabetes, and is best treated with the guidance of a medical professional,” says Dr. McCutcheon. Of course, many people are ashamed or embarrassed to seek help, but remember that your life may literally depend on it. If you’re struggling with any combination of the below-mentioned signs of depression, or it’s interfering with your everyday life, talk to a mental health provider or your primary care provider about next steps to prevent things from getting worse.

To help you figure out if you’re suffering from depression, here are five of the most common symptoms to watch out for.

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1 Feelings of Sadness or Hopelessness

This is the most common symptom of depression, Dr. McCutcheon says. It can include feeling down in the dumps or being pessimistic about your future and can occur independent of life’s stresses. In other words, you can experience this even if everything in your life seems to be going well.

2 Loss of Interest

When you’re not interested in activities that you once considered fun or enjoyable, it’s called anhedonia, and it’s another core symptom of depression that can occur with or without a low mood, Dr. McCutcheon says. As a result, your motivation is impacted, making it more difficult for you to work or maintain relationships. You might even isolate yourself as you disconnect or disengage from all aspects of life, Nosal says. Isolation and depression often go hand in hand in a vicious cycle: One can lead to the other, while each can exacerbate the other.

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3 Sleep Issues

It’s no secret that most folks aren’t sleeping as well as they should, and while not all sleeping woes are caused by depression, they can be an indicator that you’re depressed. You might either be sleeping too much or too little. Dr. McCutcheon says depression can also make existing sleep issues like insomnia worse.

4 Fatigue

Studies show that over 90 percent of people with depression suffer from fatigue, making it physically and mentally difficult to carry out daily tasks, Nosal says. Unlike general fatigue, the fatigue caused by depression will typically last for most days, most of the time, for at least two weeks. “Depression affects neurotransmitters which impact your energy levels,” she explains. Depression is also often accompanied by insomnia, which can contribute to and worsen fatigue.

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5 Suicidal Thoughts

If you’ve ever contemplated suicide—a less common, but most severe sign of depression—get help immediately. “While suicide is at the extreme end of depression, it occurs frequently when people don’t seek help,” Nosal says. Likewise, if someone you know is struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, it’s crucial to be there for them. Ask them directly about their feelings, listen without judgement, help them get support from a trained professional, and encourage them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).

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