Signs of Depression: 10 Common Symptoms You Should Know

Ten signs of depression include sadness, changes to sleep patterns, weight change, poor concentration and self-medication.

Ten signs of depression include sadness, changes to sleep patterns, weight change, poor concentration and self-medication.

Depression is a very complex state which is why the signs of depression are wide-ranging.

Depressed people feel helpless, hopeless, worthless and that their lives are out of control.

Many people are depressed without realising it.

Signs of depression are certainly much more than just feeling sad.

It’s not a disease that a person either has or doesn’t have.

Like most mental conditions it exists on a continuum — in this case from mild to severe.

Symptoms of depression can last for weeks, months or even years.

10 signs of depression

In general people who are depressed often feel that life is hopeless, that their lives are worthless and they are out of control.

Since the mind and body are so intimately connected, many of the symptoms are not purely mental.

For a positive diagnosis, a person would be experiencing some of the following signs of depression almost every day.

1. Sadness, low mood and anxiety are signs of depression

Sadness, low mood and anxiety can be signs of depression.

It could include crying for no reason.

In depression some combination of these negative feelings usually persists for at least a couple of weeks.

2. Low motivation is a sign of depression

A general loss of interest in things a person used to find enjoyable.

It could include loss of sex drive or interest in work, socialising and hobbies.

3. Low energy is one of the signs of depression

A feeling that normal daily tasks are too exhausting.

It may also include being unable to get out of bed at the usual time, speaking slowly and having unexplained aches and pains.

4. Changes to sleep patterns

People who are depressed often find their sleep is disrupted. They have difficulty getting to sleep and may wake frequently in the night.

5. Poor concentration is a sign of depression

Finding it hard to make decisions or finding that negative thoughts take over the mind.

As a result, people with depression can also feel very restless or impatient.

6. Hopelessness and helplessness

Thinking “What’s the point?” and seeing little hope for change in the future.

Depressed people often describe feeling ’empty inside’ as well as out of control.

7. Weight changes are signs of depression

People with depression may lose weight or gain weight depending on how they respond.

The weight change, though, can be an important sign of depression.

8. Thoughts of death are signs of depression

While thinking about death occasionally is normal, becoming preoccupied with it is less so.

Depression can lead to an unhelpful focus on death.

Self-harm or suicidal thoughts may follow.

9. Worthlessness and guilt

Depressed people blame themselves for their situation.

This lowers their self-esteem and creates feelings of guilt and worthlessness.

10. Self-medication can be one of the signs of depression

Using alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs more than usual can be a sign of depression.

Signs of depression are difficult to spot

Since it can come on gradually, the signs of depression may be difficult to spot.

That’s why many people do not realise there is a problem until it is pointed out by someone else.

Some of the most common symptoms of depression that many report, but which people appear not to know are signs of depression included:

  1. Poor appetite.
  2. Problems sleeping.
  3. Lack of concentration.
  4. Restlessness.
  5. Feeling overwhelmed.

Depression is often classified into mild, moderate or severe, depending on its impact on daily life.

Mild depression has some impact on daily life, moderate has a significant impact and severe depression makes it very hard to get through the day.

Depression is often classified into all sorts of sub-types and is frequently found with other mental health problems.

Most people who have an episode of depression are able to recover and be symptom free, but it depends on the severity.

However, 50 percent of people who have an episode of major depression go on to have at last one more episode.

Signs of depression in young people

Few young people use the word ‘depressed’ to describe what often looks like depression, research reveals (Defrino et al., 2017).

Instead they refer to being ‘stressed’ or ‘down’.

Dr Daniela DeFrino, study co-author, said:

“Much of what a teen is feeling and experiencing is easy to attribute to the ups and downs of teen angst.

But, sometimes, there is so much more under the surface that can lead to depression.”

Three common depression symptoms the teenagers in the study reported were:

  1. Trouble falling asleep as well as sleeping too much.
  2. Feeling more angry and irritable with other people.
  3. Losing interest in things they used to enjoy.

Dr DeFrino said:

“Teens rarely stated they were depressed, but described bursts of feeling stressed and sad that often came and went.

For example, a teen might say, “I always find somehow to go back to stressful mode,

I get really mad at people very easily.

They don’t understand why I’m upset.

Sometimes I don’t either.””

The teenagers described a wide variety of sources of stress.

Common problems were with homework and expectations of success.

Other sources of stress were arguments with parents and verbal and emotional abuse.

In some cases teenagers were upset about deaths and illnesses in their family.

Two-thirds of teens had visited their doctor for physical problems like ulcers, stomach pains and migraines.

Dr DeFrino said:

“Teens may be experiencing a lot of internal turmoil and difficult life stresses that we can easily overlook if we don’t probe with sensitive questioning and understanding.

Reframing these feelings as outward symptoms of pre-depression by the primary care provider would allow for connection to and discussion about the importance of mental health with the teen and parent.”

More subtle signs of depression

While the signs of depression listed above cover the main symptoms, depression has all sorts of other subtle effects on a person’s mental and physical state.

While these signs of depression are lesser known, they can be pervasive.

1. Depressed people have no specific goals

People who are depressed have a tendency to over-generalise and abstract (“It’s all the same to me, I don’t care…”).

That’s why depressed people tend to have more generalised goals than those who are not depressed (Dickinson, 2013).

For example, depressed people may say to themselves: “I want to be happy,” but this gives no indication about how it will be achieved.

Non-depressed people, in contrast, are more likely to have specific goals like: “I will keep in touch with my family by phoning them once a week.”

Since they are so precise, specific goals are more likely to be achieved than generalised goals.

2. Rumination is one of the signs of depression

One important sign or symptom of depression is rumination: when depressing thoughts roll around and around in the mind.

Unfortunately you can’t just tell a depressed person to stop thinking depressing thoughts; it’s pointless.

That’s because treating the symptoms of depression is partly about taking control of the person’s attention.

One method that can help with this is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is all about living in the moment, rather than focusing on past regrets or future worries.

A recent review of 39 studies on mindfulness has found that it can be beneficial in treating depression (Hofmann et al., 2010).

3. Blurred memory is a sign of depression

One of the lesser known symptoms of depression is its adverse effect on memory.

Over the years studies have shown that people experiencing depression have particular problems with declarative memory, which is the memory of specific facts like names or places (Porter et al., 2003).

Part of the reason for this may be that depressed people lose the ability to differentiate between similar experiences (Shelton & Kirwan, 2013).

It’s another facet of the tendency to over-generalise.

Depression blurs other types of memory as well, though, including the ability to recall meanings and to navigate through space.

4. Depression makes it hard to remember the good times

Precisely because of memory difficulties and depressed mood, it can be difficult for depressed people to remember the good times.

One technique that can help is creating an emotional ‘memory palace‘: a mental store of specific happy memories to travel back to when times are hard.

5. Depressive realism

There’s some evidence that the way in which the depressed view the world is more accurate than the non-depressed: this theory is called depressive realism.

Non-depressed people tend to be a little too optimistic: they think they’ve performed better in tasks than they really have and predict better performance than they actually achieve in the future (Moore & Fresco, 2012).

Depressed people, in contrast, appraise their own performance more accurately.

So, in some ways, people experiencing depression are more realistic.

6. Physical pain is a sign of depression

Adding insult to injury, it seems people who are depressed may also experience higher levels of physical pain.

A recent study found that those induced into a depressed state were less able to cope with pain (Berna et al., 2010).

The lead author, Dr Berna explained:

“When the healthy people were made sad by negative thoughts and depressing music, we found that their brains processed pain more emotionally, which lead to them [to] find the pain more unpleasant.”

Depression is on the rise

Americans are more depressed now than they have been in decades, even if they don’t know it, research finds (Twenge, 2014).

Data from 6.9 million adults and adolescents from across the US found that Americans now report more symptoms of depression than similar studies in the 1980s.

Compared to their counterparts in the 1980s, teens in the 2010s were 38 percent more likely to have memory problems and 74 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping.

Teens were also twice as likely to have seen a mental health professional about these issues.

Amongst college students, 50 percent said they were overwhelmed, while adults reported poor sleep, lack of appetite and feeling restless.

All of these are classic signs of depression.

Dr Jean Twenge, the study’s author, said:

“Previous studies found that more people have been treated for depression in recent years, but that could be due to more awareness and less stigma.

This study shows an increase in symptoms most people don’t even know are connected to depression, which suggests adolescents and adults really are suffering more.”

Depression treatment

Mild depression may go away by itself or with a little self-help therapy.

For moderate and severe depression, talking therapies are often used in conjunction with medication.

Talking therapies change thinking style

One of the aims of talking therapies is to change depressed people’s thinking style.

People commonly think that depression is at least partly caused by big, bad life events.

This is true, but depression is also about the way people react to those events and indeed, ordinary, everyday stressors.

In one study, participants who had big emotional reactions to relatively small events were most likely to have suffered depressive symptoms when they were followed up ten years later.

The importance of thinking style, in addition to genetics and circumstances, is backed up by another recent study finding that how people thought about their problems influenced the levels of depression they experienced (Kinderman et al., 2013).

Lead author, Professor Peter Kinderman explained:

“Whilst we can’t change a person’s family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels.”

Exercise treats depression

It’s very clear that exercise makes you feel better for a short period, but can it really treat depression in the long-term?

A new review of 26 years of research finds that it can.

These studies suggest that not only does exercise make people feel better in the moment, but it also helps to stop future episodes of depression (Mammen & Faulkner, 2013).

It’s little wonder that many have called for exercise to be prescribed by physicians for depression.


Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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