While severe sadness is the most well-known symptom of depression, knowing how to recognize other signs can help head off a future depressive episode.
If you’re one of the 20 million people in America with depression, you know that it’s not a condition to be taken lightly. It’s important to manage symptoms of depression with therapy and medication as prescribed by your doctor, both to feel better now and to reduce the risk of a depressive episode in the future.
One of the best ways to minimize the physical and emotional damage of an episode of depression is to recognize depression early and take action — which can mean getting back on track with treatment or talking to your doctor about whether your treatment plan needs to be reviewed and revised. But not all symptoms of depression are easy to identify, and the early signs can be different for everyone. Here are some common symptoms you should look for.
Fatigue or Lack of Energy
We all feel less energetic from time to time, so fatigue on its own isn’t necessarily a symptom of depression or a sign of a depressive episode, says Gabriela Cora, MD, managing partner of the Florida Neuroscience Center and a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. “However, if fatigue lingers and is accompanied by low mood and decreased motivation or interest, this lack of energy may be tied to early signs of depression,” she says.
Sleep patterns vary from person to person, so the best way to tell if sleep disturbance is a symptom of recurrent depression is to try to remember how you slept before your depression was well managed. If you slept poorly at that time and are sleeping less now, then this might be a sign of a depressive episode for you. “If you’ve already experienced depression in the past, you want to be sure to address any sleep disturbance that’s different from before,” Dr. Cora says. “It may not be a problem if you can’t sleep well for a couple of nights, particularly if you’re experiencing a lot of stress. But in the absence of a specific trigger, you should watch out for any sleep changes that differ from your normal sleep pattern.”
Sleeping Too Much
It’s also possible to get too much of a good thing, and sleeping too much could be a symptom of depression. Cora says that even for people who are managing depression, the magic number is still eight hours of shuteye. “In general, sleeping more than eight hours every night may not be as healthy,” she says. “If you oversleep and experience a mood that’s low or sad, this may indicate depression.”
Changes in Appetite and Weight
We all tend to overeat or feel loss of appetite from time to time. However, if it’s coupled with other symptoms, such as feeling depressed or losing interest and pleasure in usual or favorite activities for two weeks or more, it could be a sign of a depressive episode, according to Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. A weight gain of at least 5 percent of a person’s total body weight in a short period of time (approximately a month) that causes significant distress may be considered part of depression, Dr. Rego says.
Physical pain might be a surprising symptom of depression, but for some people it can be part of a depressive episode. “In some cases, people will visit their physician for vague abdominal pain, untreatable headaches, and aches and pains that don’t seem to go away,” Cora says. “It’s wise for all physicians and practitioners to keep depression in mind.”
Colors Appear Dull
Another surprising symptom of depression is perceiving the world around you as less colorful and less vivid. “Most people state how the quality of colors or music change for them after treatment,” Cora says. “They’ll say, ‘Is this a new picture in your office? I love the bright colors!’ or ‘I love music again. I can appreciate the beauty of it!'” If you feel depressed and life seems subdued, talk to your doctor.
Burnout at Work
If you feel worn out at work, you might be experiencing a depressive episode, “Many people who say they’re stressed and burned out at work are actually feeling depressed,” Cora says. “’Burnout’ is a much more socially-acceptable term than “depression’ is.” Consider how long you’ve been feeling burned out at work — is it just due to a challenging assignment or are the feelings more lingering and long-term? If you feel burned out on a regular basis, it could be a sign of depression.
Most people have problems focusing from time to time — you might be distracted by a family problem or a financial issue that needs to be resolved. But to rule this out as a symptom of depression, make sure your problems with memory or concentration aren’t getting worse. “Sometimes cognitive impairment is so pronounced in depression we call it pseudodementia,” Cora says.
“Social withdrawal is one of the most important symptoms of depression,” says James Overholser, PhD, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “When people feel depressed, they tend to withdraw from normal activities and social interactions,” he says. “Furthermore, if a person becomes suicidal, there’s a greater risk that a suicide attempt would go unnoticed and potentially unstopped. I advise many people to fight hard against the tendency for social withdrawal when feeling depressed.”
If you’re feeling sad, there are three things that determine whether or not it could be linked to depression — intensity, duration, and cause, or more specifically lack of cause. “The sadness of depression stays with you and doesn’t need to have a particular trigger,” Cora says. “Although we can sometimes track specific stressors that trigger first episodes of depression, we can’t necessarily track any subsequent stressors.”
By Wyatt Myers
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH