The term “depression” gets tossed around quite casually in today’s world. But clinical depression, also called major depressive disorder or major depression, is a mental illness caused by a chemical imbalance. We’ve all felt down or sad at one time or another and admittedly, it’s no fun. Sometimes a depressive episode starts with those normal feelings of being down or sad. But major depression hangs on and persists. People who have never had depression have a hard time knowing if they’ve crossed the line from being down to being clinically depressed. What makes it even more challenging is that those around the depressed person don’t know what’s happening either. They tell their loved one to “snap out of it” or “cheer up,” which is nearly impossible to do when you’re stuck in the deep, dark pit of depression.
I have struggled with depression and the depressive side of bipolar for most of my life. And still, I can miss the subtle signs of depression when they rear their ugly heads. I have been to countless therapists and psychiatrists and have researched everything I can get my greedy hands on to better understand my illness and to arm myself and those around me with ammunition to combat this deadly disease.
Because that is exactly what depression is: deadly.
Make no bones about it, depression can take you out. I can go from normal to certifiably insane in 60 seconds. Most of the time, I don’t even see it coming. That’s why I try to share the symptoms, even those that provide me a big pay-off, with my family and friends. They are my lifeline. When I’m drowning and don’t even realize it, it will be those around me that see my arms flailing and hear the splashing. It will be those closest to me that will look up and down the beach and say, “Where did Jen go?” And most often, it will be up to them to reach into their ammo bags, grab a strong rope of knowledge and toss a buoy out to me.
There are many symptoms of depression and they vary from person to person. Some of the more common symptoms include:
- loss of appetite
- loss of interest in things
- physical pain
- poor concentration
- being unusually quiet
- suicidal thoughts
But depression is a sneaky adversary. It takes root subtly and if untamed, will grow swiftly and choke out all of my rational senses. So I want to share with you 7 of the sneakier symptoms of depression.
- Anger – I usually like my family and everyone around me. But when I am depressed, everything they do irritates me. The sound of their feet on the floor, the way they look, their voices. In a nutshell, they can’t do anything right. I know that it is not them, it’s me. When I start to feel this way, completely and utterly irritated by everything everyone does, it’s a clear sign of depression.
- Increased appetite – I never lose weight when I get depressed. Instead, I crave sugary foods and overeat. Breads, sweets, chocolate, caffeine, fatty foods and anything else bad winds up in my mouth. Binge eating is another common symptom of my depression, whether I’m watching Netflix or not.
- Sleeplessness – Feelings of fatigue are common with depression. But many people struggle with restless nights and insomnia. I find myself waking up in the middle of the night and having very fitful sleep when my depression is on the horizon. Watch out for this one.
- Forgetfulness – When I’m on the slide down, I cannot remember anything. This doesn’t just apply to little things, like a scheduled meeting or a task that I need to do. My memory completely blanks out and whole chunks of time disappear. If someone tells me about a conversation I had with them and I don’t have any recollection, it’s time for me to do a symptom check.
- Self-medication – Because I’m in recovery, I don’t abuse chemicals anymore. But self-medicating comes in many forms. I can medicate with food, television, shopping, work, allergy medication or anything at all that will help me escape the reality of my feelings. For people who are not in recovery, over indulgence and abuse of alcohol or drugs could be an indicator of depression.
- Over-compensating – Even though I don’t realize it, I often take more on before I fall into a depression. I think that perhaps I try to fill my unconscious feelings of inadequacy by achieving or accomplishing more. If I notice a big spike in my volunteer time, personal or recreational activities, commitment to projects or work obligations, I’m probably spinning too many plates, and inevitably they will all come crashing down.
- Hypo-manic mood swings – Mood swings are common with depression. But my bipolar has shown me that hypo-manic moods are almost always going to end in a depressive episode. If I am over-energized, over-compensating or just plain super-charged, I might be climbing the ladder to the top of the slide. Signs of my hypo-mania include talking faster, working faster, abundance of thoughts – so many that I can’t keep up with them. I also find I’m highly creative and motivated in this state. There’s a huge pay-off for me when I’m hypo-manic. But it always costs me my sanity and serenity. And that’s a price I’m just not willing to pay anymore.
All of the subtle symptoms I’ve listed above always precede my slides into hell. Because I am aware of them today, I recognize they are warning signs and know what to do when they start showing themselves.
Here are 5 steps I take to prevent them from escalating into a full-blown depressive episode:
- Slow-down – I almost always take on more than I can handle. The problem is, I think I can handle a lot. The reality is, I have limitations. This realization was a hard pill to swallow, but necessary medicine for my recovery. Once I was able to accept those limitations, I could let go of the need to be super-Jen and be okay with doing less. This allowed me to release the guilt of failure and the stress of over-commitment.
- Exercise – Yep, I hate it, but it is absolutely necessary for me to stay mentally healthy. Even a 20 minute walk in the fresh air is good enough. It clears my head, gives me exposure to sunlight and God’s beauty, and gets my feel-good brain chemicals firing again.
- Avoid the sugar, caffeine and addictive substances – I avoid all drugs and alcohol and try my best to limit my caffeine and sugar intake, especially when I’m feeling off-balance. Adding more fresh fruits and vegetables and eating on a regular schedule helps regulate my blood sugar levels and minimizes mood swings.
- Take my meds – Some people with major depression benefit greatly from medication. For me, the right prescription includes medication, exercise, eating right and following my 12 Step program of recovery.
- Turn it over to God – This one is easier said than done. I know from experience that my depression will eventually pass. But when I’m in it, when I’m stuck in the dark hole, clawing at the sides trying in vain to climb up to the pinhole of light at the top, it feels like there is no hope. It is then, especially then, that I must turn it over to God and trust that He has me there for a reason. And more importantly, that He is in that dark hole with me. When I do that, if I can do that, I almost always feel a sense of relief and am rewarded with a glimmer of hope. And in that dank, desperate place, that’s usually enough to keep me going a little while longer.
All of the symptoms above are based on my experiences only. I am not a medical doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist. I’m just another bozo on the bus who has also rides the Bipolar Express.
If you or someone you love is experiencing any of the above symptoms,
YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There is hope.
And please, do not take depression lightly. It is a serious disease. It can kill you. But it doesn’t have to. Talk about it.
1 (800) 273-8255