We all know about depression, but do we know what it takes to be diagnosed with depression? This article will look closely at depression in terms of diagnosis, its causes, and how it links with anxiety. 

Depression Depression

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Table of contents

    Depression, Content warning, StudySmarter

    • First, we will learn the depression definition.
    • Next, we will examine behavioural, emotional, and cognitive depression symptoms.
    • Then, we will review the causes of depression and look at Ellis’s three-stage model and Beck’s cognitive triad.
    • Later, we will look at the connection between depression and anxiety.
    • Finally, we will learn about postpartum depression.

    Depression Definition

    The DSM-5 (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) classifies depression as a persistent mood disorder. According to the World Health Organization (WHO; 2015), approximately 4% of the world’s population suffered from depression, which is increasing.

    Depression is characterised by a low mood and reduced activity for prolonged periods. It is a mental illness with severe mental, behavioural and physical symptoms that typically last for two weeks or more.

    Although people can sometimes have bad days or tough weeks, depression sets itself apart due to its persistent low mood for prolonged periods. While people can feel sad because of a traumatic event, people with depression might have negative experiences. They have a low mood because of their depression rather than any experiences.

    Depression is the second largest cause of suicide among youth aged 15–29, and women are more likely to suffer from depression than men.

    Unfortunately, the comorbidity between suicidal ideation and depression is high, making it harder for patients to get correct diagnoses and proper help.

    Depression Symptoms

    Although you are probably familiar with the term depression, do you know the symptoms necessary to be diagnosed with it?

    There are three categories that the symptoms can fall into – behavioural, emotional, and cognitive.

    Depression: Behavioural Symptoms

    First, let’s talk about the behavioural symptoms of depression. These symptoms are behavioural changes that a close friend or a family member can observe.

    If someone struggling with depression does not share their emotional or cognitive symptoms, a loved one can observe their behavioural symptoms and encourage them to get help.

    Behavioural symptoms include:

    • Loss of sleep (insomnia) or hypersomnia (depends on person to person)

    • Loss of energy for daily activities

    • Disturbed appetite (some eat less, and some eat more)

    • Withdrawal from others

    Depression, Photograph of a man looking out a window. StudySmarterFig. 1. Avoiding others is a behavioural symptom of depression.

    Depression: Emotional Symptoms

    Emotional symptoms or characteristics are the signs you observe in the emotions of a person suffering from depression.

    They can sometimes be easy to observe in loved ones, while other times, people hide their emotional symptoms not to worry others.

    Emotional symptoms include:

    • Intense sadness

    • Loss of interest in pleasure activities (apathy)

    • Feeling worthless

    • Feeling irritable

    • Exhibiting anger towards oneself and others

    Depression: Cognitive Symptoms

    Finally, let’s talk about the cognitive symptoms of depression. Cognitive symptoms or characteristics reflect the thought patterns of a person suffering from depression. Since these are internal, it is difficult for loved ones to be aware of these cognitive changes without being informed.

    Cognitive symptoms include:

    • Disturbed concentration and focus

    • Low self-esteem and confidence

    • Affected memory

    • Negative thought patterns

    • Suicidal thoughts

    Negative thoughts are typical cognitive characteristics of depression. They are sometimes irrational and create self-fulfilling prophecies (such as a person believing they are going to fail at something, so they do not try as hard, resulting in a lower score or failure).

    It can be difficult to diagnose depression as it has a lot of comorbidities (two illnesses existing within one person at a time). Symptoms of depression and anxiety are quite similar.

    Going to the doctor or approaching a medical professional is the best way for a person to assess if they have depression. Therapists and clinical psychologists are also extremely knowledgeable.

    Several free self-assessment tests are available for identifying depression, but these are not an official way to diagnose oneself.

    To be diagnosed with depression, someone does not have to be experiencing all of the symptoms listed above. However, they have to experience some of them, and those symptoms have to impact their lives negatively.

    Causes of Depression

    Just like other mental health disorders, depression does not have one definite cause. There can be multiple causes of depression, such as genetic vulnerability, stressful life incidents, medical problems, and side effects of medicines.

    There is a genetic component to developing depression. If you have a close family member who has depression, you are at a higher risk of also developing it. It does not mean that you will get it, but rather that you have a higher chance of developing it than if your family member did not have it.

    Neurotransmitters can also be attributed to the development of depression. Researchers have found that there can be a correlation between depression and lower serotonin levels.

    Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for sleep, mood, sexual desire, and digestion.

    Most depression medications focus on increasing serotonin levels in the brain to improve the person’s mood.

    According to the cognitive approach to depression, there are two main explanations – the three-stage model by Ellis (1977) and Beck’s cognitive triad (1967).

    Depression: Three-Stage Model by Ellis (1977)

    Ellis suggested one negative event does not trigger depression but that depression results from irrational thoughts triggered by negative events. Ellis proposed the ABC three-stage model that explains how depression can result from irrational thinking.

    1. Activating event

    2. Belief (irrational or rational)

    3. Consequences (beliefs lead to emotions)

    According to Ellis, rational beliefs lead to happy and healthy emotions (i.e., avoiding catastrophising an issue or situation). On the other hand, irrational beliefs lead to unhealthy and unhappy emotions (i.e., catastrophising an issue or situation). A tendency towards either rational or irrational thinking leads to different consequences in behaviour.

    Depression: Beck’s Cognitive Triad (1967)

    Beck’s theory proposed a cognitive explanation of depression that consists of three components:

    • Cognitive bias (distorting information, catastrophising it)

    • Negative self-schemas (expect themselves to fail, for example)

    • Negative triad (maintained by negative self-views, negative world view, and negative view of the future)

    According to Beck, cognitive bias and negative self-schemas maintain the negative triad. They occur automatically and regardless of the actual situation.

    Depression and Anxiety

    Depression and anxiety are two mental health disorders prevalent in today’s society. We have already unpacked the characteristics of depression, so let’s take a closer look at anxiety.

    Anxiety is a general term used to describe various symptoms and definitions.

    We can say we have anxiety when in a stressful situation, but the actual diagnosis is called generalised anxiety disorder.

    People with general anxiety disorder struggle with concentrating, fatigue, sleep, headaches, and worrying.

    Other types of anxiety disorders include panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias.

    The technical term for depression is actually major depressive disorder.

    You can think of depression and anxiety as a two-way street. In some cases, people with depression have anxiety as a symptom of their depression. Other times, people have an anxiety disorder that evolves into depression. Both of these disorders have overlapping symptoms, making them have high comorbidity.

    You can have general anxiety and depression, depression with anxiety as a symptom, or generalised anxiety disorder with some depression symptoms. It’s important to research the differences between these two disorders since they are so similar.

    Anxiety and depression also have similar treatments. One of the most used treatments for anxiety and depression is cognitive-behavioural therapy, also known as CBT.

    CBT is a type of psychotherapy where the therapist helps the patient change how they act and think. It has successfully treated these disorders by itself and when paired with medication.

    Postpartum Depression

    After childbirth, moms experience a wide range of emotions – excitement about giving birth, exhaustion from the delivery, and sometimes sadness. Right after birth, moms may experience what is called the “baby blues.”

    The baby blues are symptoms that last for a week or so after the birth and include mood swings, crying, trouble sleeping, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.

    Most mothers will experience some of these symptoms, but for others, it can persist long past a week postpartum.

    Depression, Photograph of a mom and baby in a field. StudySmarterFig. 2. Difficulty connecting with their baby is a symptom of a mother with postpartum depression.

    Postpartum depression is a type of depression that mothers can develop after giving birth. Its symptoms are more severe than baby blues and can last up to a year after childbirth.

    Symptoms of postpartum depression can look like symptoms of depression and can include:

    • Crying

    • Struggling to connect with the baby

    • Fatigue

    • Insomnia

    • Anger

    • Hopelessness

    • Panic attacks

    • Suicidal thoughts or ideation

    Women who experience postpartum depression are more likely to develop depression later on.

    Another type of depression is bipolar depression. When someone is bipolar, they cycle through periods of mania (productive, little sleep, joyful, risk-taking) and depression. Their depression symptoms do not last as long as someone with unipolar depression (major depressive disorder), but the symptoms are the same.

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    Depression - Key takeaways

    • Depression definition is a mental illness with severe mental, behavioural and physical symptoms consistent for two weeks or more.

    • Depression symptoms can be characterised as behavioural, emotional, and cognitive.

    • Bipolar depression is characterised by two-way mood swings, from intensely depressed to intensely maniac, over regular cycles for days or weeks.

    • Depression and anxiety are comorbid and share similar treatment.

    • Postpartum depression happens after childbirth and can be long-lasting.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Depression

    What really causes depression?

    Depression does not have one definite cause; there can be multiple causes, such as genetic vulnerability, stressful life incidents, medical problems, and side effects of medicines.

    How to help someone with depression?

    Try to help those with depression by encouraging them to seek professional help while offering friendship, support, and kindness. Be understanding and show patience with their mood spells. The best you can do is to guide them to a professional. 

    How to know if you have depression?

    Going to the doctor or approaching a medical professional is the best way for a person to assess if they have depression. Therapists and clinical psychologists are also extremely knowledgeable. Several free self-assessment tests are available for identifying depression, but these are not an official way to diagnose oneself.

    Five common symptoms associated with depression are:

    • Disturbed sleep (insomnia or heavy sleeping)

    • Disturbed appetite (too much or too little)

    • Inactivity in daily life

    • The feeling of irritability and moodiness

    • A constant state of sadness

    How to get out of depression?

    The best way to overcome depression is to seek professional/medical help. Cognitive therapies are a common treatment plan for people with depression. Self-help counsellors can also help alleviate some symptoms. However, you should always consult a professional when treating a disorder.

    How to cure depression?

    The symptoms and root causes of depression can be treated with medication and therapies. Treating depression is an ongoing process that needs to be reviewed frequently.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which one of the following is not a characteristic of depression?

    A person can be diagnosed as depressed if they suffer from some symptoms for ________.

    Depression typically has one definite cause.

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