Feeling “depressed” is a phrase that’s tossed around pretty often, when someone’s had a bad day or didn’t get the job they were hoping for. It’s become a part of the common vernacular, which can be confusing when someone is actually suffering with clinical depression (or thinks they might be). So how do you know if you’re feeling down after a couple of bad days, or if you’re dealing with depression?
The general definition of depression is a feeling of severe despondency and dejection, which are basically states of sadness and/or low spirits. With a definition like that, it makes sense that we use it ordinarily. I am confident that each of us could look back at times when we felt severely sad or extremely low; it sounds a bit like feeling down, but more intense. What I want to differentiate here, though, is these depressive states of sadness or low spirits from clinical depression.
So, What Is Clinical Depression?
It can manifest in several different ways, but I’m going to try to hit the major and common characteristics that can signal clinical depression.
One thing that makes this distinction tricky is that one of those characteristics is actually a “depressed mood”, as defined above! That general definition (feeling low or hopeless or worthless) is often, if not always, a part of clinical depression. But, it is not enough in and of itself to constitute clinical depression unless accompanied by some of these other characteristics.
Clinical depression can also include feeling really irritable or really tired. It can include changes in sleep (excessive sleep or difficulty sleeping) and changes in weight (gain or loss). It can even involve feeling physically slow or restless. There are a lot of physical changes your body can experience if you are dealing with clinical depression. Many people often have difficulty thinking like they used to, or concentrating. Often, the depression keeps the person from enjoying things that she or he used to love, like hobbies or daily activities. Depression can also lead to consistent thoughts about suicide, which should be taken seriously whether the thoughts feel active (i.e., planning) or more passive (i.e., fleeting thoughts).*
How To Spot The Difference
While it can be helpful to know what all clinical depression entails, even those characteristics are not totally unique to clinical depression. For example, you might be rejected by a date and feel pretty worthless for the night, or you might be losing sleep because you’re worried about an upcoming presentation. You might have lost a loved one and feel intense sadness and hopelessness. And again, a depressed mood (or many of those symptoms on their own) does not necessarily equal clinical depression. Here are some things that can help you begin to discern whether you are in the midst of a sad spell or starting to slide into serious clinical depression.
A good starting point might be to check in with yourself and see if you have more than a few of the characteristics discussed above. If you only have a couple of the characteristics, you may just be in a slump.
Take a look at your circumstances. If you’ve just heard bad news or experienced a loss, your body and mind might just be reacting in an appropriate way. You may need time to grieve, but eventually start feeling like yourself again.
How long have you felt down? Typically, clinical depression is longer-lasting than a bad mood or temporary grief. There’s a huge difference between feeling sad or low for a few hours versus a few weeks. If it is longer-lasting, that is a hint that it might not be just related to an event, but might be something more severe.
And lastly, consider just how “down” you feel. Is it impacting your daily life (and has it been for a while now)? Are you feeling low but are still living in your usual way, spending good time with friends, getting all your daily tasks done? If your low mood is so intense that it is keeping you from living your life the way you used to or want to, that could also be a signal that your depressed feelings are worth taking a closer look at.
Asking for Help
If you want to learn more about depression generally, or are curious or concerned that you or someone you know may be dealing with depression or consistent depressive symptoms, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We would love to talk with you more about it and work towards healthy and happy living.
*If you are someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, no matter the severity, there are so many resources available for you. Please don’t hesitate to call and set up an appointment with one of our counselors or another counselor in your area, call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (learn more about it here), go to any hospital/ER, or call 911. There are people who want to talk to you.
Written by therapist Clair Miller
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