Whether you’re in the middle of a bad breakup or grieving the loss of a loved one, it’s completely normal to feel an occasional bout of sadness. It’s an unavoidable part of life. But what happens if your down-in-the-dumps mood is starting to snowball into something more serious?
If you suspect that you may be depressed, you aren’t alone. Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In fact, about 7 percent of Americans has had at least one episode of major depression.
The problem is this: “It can be hard for people to determine whether they’re just sad about something or whether there really is a psychological problem that needs to be addressed,” says Nicole Beurkens, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Michigan.
Worse, this type of uncertainty can also keep people from seeking help. “They think, ‘Oh, I’ll just get over it on my own,’” she says.
But you don’t have to suffer in silence. Treatment for depression is available.
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself to determine whether you’re feeling more than just a little sad.
Question #1: How Long Have I Been Feeling Down?
If the symptoms of sadness or emptiness have lingered for at least two weeks—and have been present for most of the day, nearly every day—that’s a big warning sign of depression, according to the NIMH.
“The symptoms of depression go on for a prolonged period of time and really impact a person’s functioning,” says Dr. Beurkens. “Most of us will feel down about things, but we’re still are able to function and go about our daily lives. People with major depressive disorder will really struggle to function.”
Unlike the feelings of sadness that might arise after a temporary disappointment, depression often surfaces for no reason at all, says Dr. Beurkens.
“Often, there isn’t anything specific in people’s lives that they can pinpoint and say, ‘This is what triggered these feelings.’”
On the other hand, major life changes or trauma can increase your depression risk. For example, if you’ve lost your job and a loved one at the same time, you may be more vulnerable to depression.
Question #2: Has My Appetite Changed Recently?
If your once-ravenous appetite has slowed to a crawl or you’ve been uncharacteristically overdoing it on comfort food, that’s another sign that you could be depressed, says Dr. Beurkens.
Similarly, a change in your weight—whether the number on the scale goes up or down—is another symptom, she says.
Question #3: How Have I Been Sleeping?
Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. But for people with depression, quality shut-eye can be hard to come by.
About 23 percent of people with depression report sleeping for less than seven hours each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is often because shutting off the mind can be a difficult task with depression.
Question #4: Am I Exhausted All the Time?
Not everyone can tackle the laundry, dirty dishes, and grocery shopping all on the same day. But if you’ve been feeling more fatigued than usual, it could be a sign of depression, says Dr. Beurkens.
Don’t panic, however, if you’ve never been a particularly high-energy person. Instead, look for changes in your behavior. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s normal for me, and has that changed?’” Dr. Beurkens says.
Question #5: Do I Still Enjoy Doing All of the Things I Typically Love to Do?
One of the biggest symptoms of depression is a loss of interest in your favorite activities, whether that’s spending time in nature or talking to your friends. For example, if you usually jump at the chance to go on a hike and now you’re not interested, that’s a big red flag.
Even during some of the saddest times in our lives—like after the death of a loved one, for example—we still try to engage in enjoyable things that will distract us from our feelings. A complete loss of interest in favorite activities or a sadness that doesn’t allow us to function are warning signs.
Question #6: Have My Loved Ones Noticed a Change in My Mood?
Even if you’re having a hard time recognizing signs of depression in yourself, the people who know you best may pick up on them.
“Often, we’re the worst observers of ourselves and our experiences because we’re in it,” says Dr. Beurkens. “But sometimes a spouse, close friend, or member of our faith community can help us sort it out. They may see the changes more clearly than we can.”
A strong support network can also help you find the right doctor or the best form of treatment, she says.
Question #7: Do I Feel Hopeless?
Feeling frustrated is one thing. But feeling hopeless is another.
“One of the hallmark characteristics of true depression is a real lack of motivation and a feeling of hopelessness,” Dr. Beurkens explains. “If you combine those two things, it can be difficult for people to seek help on their own—they don’t have the motivation to do it, and they feel as if nothing is going to work anyway.”
Yes, There’s Help for Depression
Ready for some really good news? Even people with the most severe cases of depression can be treated, according to the NIMH.
“People who are experiencing clinical depression should not just assume that they have to feel this way for the rest of their lives,” says Dr. Beurkens. “There are a lot of appropriate treatments and approaches, including counseling and psychotherapy, dietary changes, lifestyle strategies, and medication.”
Start by reaching out to a trusted friend or family member—and ideally, your primary care doctor or a mental health clinician. The sooner you can get a proper evalation and diagnosis, the sooner you can get started with treatment. Usually, doctors will use a combination of medication, such as an antidepressant, and psychotherapy to reduce your aymptoms.
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