Major depression is characterized by a combination of symptoms that last for at least two weeks in a row, including sad and/or irritable mood (see symptom list), that interfere with the ability to work, sleep, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Disabling episodes of depression can occur once, twice, or several times in a lifetime.
Not everyone who is depressed or manic experiences every symptom. Some people experience a few symptoms and some many symptoms, also called warning signs. The severity of symptoms also varies with individuals.
Symptoms of major depression
- Persistently sad, anxious, angry, irritable, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
- Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Decreased appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and/or weight gain
- Fatigue, decreased energy, being “slowed down”
- Crying spells
- Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and/or chronic pain
Children and adolescents with depression may also experience the classic symptoms described above but may exhibit other symptoms instead of or in addition to those symptoms, including the following:
- Poor school performance
- Persistent boredom
- Frequent complaints of physical problems such as headaches and stomachaches
- Some of the classic “adult” symptoms of depression may also be more obvious in children, such as a change in eating or sleeping patterns. (Has the child or teen lost or gained weight in recent weeks or months? Does he or she seem more tired than usual?)
- Teen depression may be characterized by the adolescent taking more risks, showing less concern for their own safety.
Depressive disorders come in different forms, just as do other illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes. Three of the most common types of depressive disorders are discussed below. However, remember that within each of these types, there are variations in the number, timing, severity, and persistence of symptoms.
Dysthymia is a less severe but usually more long-lasting type of depression compared to major depression. It involves long-term (chronic) symptoms that do not disable but yet prevent the affected person from functioning at “full steam” or from feeling good. Sometimes, people with dysthymia also experience episodes of major depression. This combination of the two types of depression is referred to as double-depression.
Another type of depression is bipolar disorder, which encompasses a group of mood disorders that were formerly called manic-depressive illness or manic depression. These conditions show a particular pattern of inheritance. Not nearly as common as the other types of depressive disorders, bipolar disorders involve cycles of mood that include at least one episode of mania and may include episodes of depression as well. Bipolar disorders are often chronic and recurring. Sometimes, the mood switches are dramatic and rapid, but most often they are gradual.
When in the depressed cycle, the person can experience any or all of the symptoms of a depressive disorder. When in the manic cycle, any or all of the symptoms listed below may be experienced. Mania often affects thinking, judgment, and social behavior in ways that cause serious problems and embarrassment. For example, indiscriminant or otherwise unsafe sexual practices or unwise business or financial decisions may be made when an individual is in a manic phase.
For more information about this condition, please read the Bipolar Disorder article.
Mania symptoms of manic depression
- Inappropriate elation
- Inappropriate irritability or anger
- Severe insomnia or decreased need to sleep
- Grandiose notions, like having special powers or importance
- Increased talking speed and/or volume
- Disconnected or racing thoughts
- Severely increased sexual desire and/or activity
- Markedly increased energy
- Poor judgment
- Inappropriate social behavior
Generalized anxiety disorder or GAD is characterized by excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry about everyday life events. People with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder tend to always expect disaster and can’t stop worrying about health, money, family, work or school. In people with GAD, the worry often is unrealistic or out of proportion for the situation. Daily life becomes a constant state of worry, fear and dread. Eventually, the anxiety so dominates the person’s thinking that it interferes with daily functioning, including work, school, social activities and relationships.
What Are the Symptoms of GAD?
GAD affects the way a person thinks, but the anxiety can lead to physical symptoms, as well. Symptoms of GAD include:
- Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
- An unrealistic view of problems
- Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty concentrating
- The need to go to the bathroom frequently
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Being easily startled
What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
The exact cause of GAD is not fully known, but a number of factors — including genetics, brain chemistry and environmental stresses — appear to contribute to its development.
- Genetics: Some research suggests that family history plays a part in increasing the likelihood that a person will develop GAD. This means that the tendency to develop GAD may be passed on in families.
- Brain chemistry: GAD has been associated with abnormal levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are special chemical messengers that help move information from nerve cell to nerve cell. If the neurotransmitters are out of balance, messages cannot get through the brain properly. This can alter the way the brain reacts in certain situations, leading to anxiety.
- Environmental factors: Trauma and stressful events, such as abuse, the death of a loved one, divorce, changing jobs or schools, may lead to GAD. GAD also may become worse during periods of stress. The use of and withdrawal from addictive substances, including alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, can also worsen anxiety.
At Smith College, students are advised to seek aid from Health Services (extenstion 2800) or Counseling Services (extension 2840).
Anxiety and Mood Disorders – Definitions, causes and treatment of anxiety disorders.
Descriptions of Anxiety Disorders – A list of anxiety disorders and their explanations.
Self-help Guide to Coping with Anxiety – Guide to the signs, symptoms, and treatment of different types of anxiety disorders. www.helpguide.org/mental/anxiety_types_symptoms_treatment.htm
Depression and Symptoms – Defintion of depression, causes, symptoms, tests and treatment information.
Depression in Women – Guide to understanding depression in women. Includes risk factors, causes, signs, and treatment specific to women. www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_women.htm
Mood Garden Forum and Chat – a forum for those who have depression and/or anxiety disorders. Links to reading suggestions. www.moodgarden.org/
Overcoming Negative Thinking – Article discussing ways to empower yourself. www.ahealthyme.com/topic/depneg
Self-Help Guide to Coping with Depression – Strategies to help yourself cope with depression.
Symptoms of Mood Disorders – Signs and symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder.
Wellness Toolbox – Links to tools to keep track of symptoms and moods and to keep track of your progress to recovery.
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