What does clinical depression feel like?
“It’s like walking through sludge.”
“It took the form of contained rage.”
“It’s like being trapped inside a deep, dark hole or a tiny box.”
When it comes to depression, no two people have exactly the same experience. However, the above words – real descriptions of depression from people who’ve experienced it, as shared in an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) article – begin to illustrate some of the ways it can feel.
If you think you, a family member or loved one could be dealing with depression, it’s important to take those feelings seriously.
Symptoms of depression
“Depression (also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
For some people with depression, symptoms build over time. For others they begin suddenly. Maria Olsen, a civil litigation attorney in Maryland with two children, experienced a depressive episode after a triggering family event. According to AARP:
“‘Suddenly, I became silent and barely talked for a year – and I’m a loquacious extravert,’ Olsen says. ‘My son would cry and say, ‘Mommy, please talk!’ I just couldn’t get the words out.’
There were days when her husband would go to work and her kids to school, and she would sit and stare off into the distance until it was time to pick them up. ‘My body was there,’ she recalls, ‘but it felt like my being, my soul and my consciousness were floating overhead, watching me go through the motions. I was a ghost of myself.’”
Olsen’s symptoms show how someone with depression may feel, but they are far from the only example. Some people may experience a few signs and others may feel many symptoms, according to NIMH. The website lists potential symptoms as:
- “Persistent sad, anxious, or ‘empty’ mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
- Feelings of irritability, frustration, or restlessness
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling ‘slowed down’
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Changes in appetite or unplanned weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that do not ease even with treatment”
For writer and radio journalist John Moe in Minnesota, depressive symptoms included anger and hopelessness. According to AARP:
“As the pressures of marriage, parenthood and career built up, his depression (and anger) grew worse. He started to withdraw from friends and other close relationships. ‘My friend would call me up and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go out for beers and watch the game?’ And I would say no because I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to be a good friend to him. … I’m gonna let him down.’
Moe’s wife finally pushed him to get help, and the psychiatrist diagnosed him with textbook depression. And with diagnosis came relief, he says. ‘It wasn’t a character flaw. It wasn’t a weakness. I’m like, Oh, I have an illness. This is something I have, not something I am.’”
Seeing the point of view of someone with depression
If you’ve never experienced depression before, it can be hard to imagine how overwhelming the condition can be. The symptoms can affect every aspect of a person’s life, from negatively impacting physical health to interfering with relationships with family members and friends.
An immersive online experience called “How Depression Feels,” was created to offer a first-person, point-of-view tool to help others see what it can be like. It was created by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), and the makers of the GeneSight® Test, which analyzes how your genes may affect medication outcomes, including those commonly prescribed for depression.
In the experience, you begin by lying in bed. As you look around your room, you see various piles of laundry and papers scattered nearby and a to-do list to accomplish. When you try to get up, examples of negative self-talk are spoken aloud, echoing how a person with depression might think to themselves:
“Why bother getting up.”
“Might as well just lay here for a few more hours.”
“You are such a mess.”
“No amount of tidying will ever change that.”
As you feel your way through the experience, you can see how everyday tasks like doing laundry, taking a shower or dealing with medication can seem insurmountable for some people experiencing depression.
Everyday challenges for people with depression
Kate Langman saw these challenges first-hand. In her job as a stylist at Ulta Beauty, she met a customer in the hair care aisle looking for something to “fix” her hair, she tells The Mighty, but found the woman had been dealing with larger issues.
“According to Langman, the woman said she had been unable to get out of bed for six months due to depression. During that time, she pulled her hair into a bun, which after months of being neglected, had matted into a ‘huge dreadlock.’”
A few weeks later, over the course of eight-and-a-half hours, Langman sat down with the woman and helped her get her hair into a manageable condition. She then shared before-and-after photos on her Facebook page. “I didn’t share the post because of the transformation. I did it because I wanted people to see that depression is a real serious thing,” Langman says.
Learning what depression can look like – and understanding the ways it can create everyday challenges for people experiencing it – can be an important step in connecting people to appropriate treatment when they need it.
In fact, 83% of those with depression agree life would be easier if others could understand their depression, according to the GeneSight Mental Health Monitor.
How is clinical depression diagnosed?
If you notice that you or a friend or loved one are experiencing symptoms of depression that last more than two weeks, it may be time to reach out for help. A primary care doctor is a good first point of contact, as is a mental health professional.
They’ll likely ask a series of questions and work to understand relevant medical history. According to the Cleveland Clinic:
“To determine whether you have clinical depression, your healthcare provider will ask questions. You may complete a questionnaire and provide a family history. Your healthcare provider may also perform an exam or order lab tests to see if you have another medical condition.”
If you’d like to search for a mental health provider near you, the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) offers tools to help you locate a therapist.
The treatment process for depression
While the symptoms of depression are challenging, it’s worth keeping at it until you find help.
Clinical depression, even severe depression, is treatable.
“Psychotherapy and medications are the most commonly used treatments for depressive disorders,” according to the ADAA. “For mild to moderate depression, psychotherapy is generally thought to be the first line treatment. For moderate to severe depression, a combination of medications and psychotherapy is often considered.”
Many patients – more than half of those diagnosed with depression – say they tried four or more depression medications in their lifetime, according to the GeneSight Mental Health Monitor.
A pharmacogenomic test, like the GeneSight® test, can help inform a healthcare provider about how a patient’s genes may impact how they respond to and/or breakdown certain medications. That could include, for example, which medications may require dose adjustments, be less likely to work or have an increased risk of side effects based on a patient’s genetic makeup. The test must be ordered by a clinician who prescribes medication.
Understanding suicidal depression
At times, depression can feel very dark. In some cases, people with depression may even have thoughts of suicide.
“Suicidal depression isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but it’s a term you may see. Instead, most mental health professionals refer to it as ‘depression with suicidal thoughts,’” according to a Healthline interview with Doreen Marshall, PhD, VP of Mission Engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP).
“When someone has clinical depression with suicidal ideation as a symptom, Marshall says it means that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts as part of their overall health symptoms. ‘However, it’s important to remember the vast majority of people who are depressed do not go on to die by suicide,’ she explains.”
Yet if you are supporting a friend or family member with depression who begins to show warning signs of suicide, it’s important to get help immediately – don’t wait. The Healthline article lists potential signs as:
- “making statements about feeling helpless, hopeless, and worthless
- large changes in mood
- talking about wanting to die
- expressing no reason to go on living
- withdrawing from friends, family, and social interactions
- writing about death
- giving away personal items
- participating in excessive alcohol or drug use
- aggressive behavior
- buying a weapon or collecting and saving pills
- saying goodbye to friends, family, and loved ones
- increase in anxious or agitated behavior”
It’s not too late to get help
Whether you are dealing with depression yourself or are supporting someone with depression, remember that treatment can help you or your loved one get back to feeling more like yourselves again.
You aren’t alone on this journey. You can take steps to feel better in time – and find better days ahead.
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Our articles are for informational purposes only and are reviewed by our Medical Information team, which includes PharmDs, MDs, and PhDs. Do not make any changes to your current medications or dosing without consulting your healthcare provider.
The GeneSight test must be ordered by and used only in consultation with a healthcare provider who can prescribe medications. As with all genetic tests, the GeneSight test results have limitations and do not constitute medical advice. The test results are designed to be just one part of a larger, complete patient assessment, which would include proper diagnosis and consideration of your medical history, other medications you may be taking, your family history, and other factors.
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