Depression is a common condition which causes a range of emotional and physical symptoms, including persistent feelings of unhappiness. Depression is also known as clinical depression.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is depression?

Depression is a chronic (long-term) condition that affects how you feel, think and act. Depression symptoms can affect all aspects of your life, as well as affecting your family, friends and colleagues.

Depression is a common condition which affects one in 10 people. It can happen to anyone, at any age. More women are diagnosed with depression than men, although this may be because women are more likely to seek help.

A commonly held myth is that depression is trivial and something you can just snap out of. However, it is a genuine health condition with genuine symptoms and needs treatment.

How to tell if you have depression

Depression can range from mild to severe and there are many different signs. With mild depression, you may constantly feel low, whereas with severe depression you may feel that your life isn’t worth living and have suicidal thoughts. 

Anxiety, low moods and stress when going through difficult situations is normal. These feelings usually go away after a short period of time and are not a sign of depression. 

If you have depression you may feel sad for weeks or months, which can lead to self-harming and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts. Other common depression symptoms include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Constipation
  • Feelings of depression and anxiety, stress, helplessness, guilt and/or hopelessness — you may often feel tearful 
  • Sleeping problems
  • Tiredness, low self-esteem, lack of motivation and/or problems concentrating
  • Unexplained weight loss

Men may also have erectile dysfunction. Both men and women may have a loss of sex drive (libido).

How to live with depression

Lifestyle changes can help you cope better with depression. This includes: 

  • Eating healthily
  • Getting more exercise
  • Reducing how much alcohol you drink 
  • Quitting smoking

You can also try joining a support group and/or reading self-help books to better understand what makes you feel depressed. Sharing your experiences with others going through depression can be beneficial.

To get help with depression talk to your doctor 

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today to get help for depression.

Diagnosis and tests for depression

It is common for people to delay seeking help for depression but the sooner you get help, the sooner you can start to recover. 

If you’ve had several depression symptoms every day for over two weeks, see your GP. If you’re feeling suicidal, seek medical help immediately, or call an organisation such as The Samaritans.

There is no physical depression test. Instead, your GP will ask about your general health and your depression symptoms and how they’re affecting you.

To rule out conditions with similar symptoms, such as an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), your GP may test your blood and urine.

They may also refer you to a mental health specialist to determine what type of depression you have, which will help in selecting the most appropriate treatment. 

Causes of depression

Depression can happen at any age although it often occurs in adulthood. In children and adolescents who are depressed, irritability is sometimes a more dominant symptom than low mood. Anxiety and chronic mood disorders in adulthood often start in childhood with high anxiety. 

Depression can be caused by many different factors, including:

  • A head injury
  • A life-threatening or painful chronic condition, such as arthritis, cancer, coronary heart disease or premenstrual syndrome
  • A traumatic event, such as bereavement, a relationship breakdown or unemployment
  • Giving birth — this can trigger post-natal depression
  • Loneliness
  • Misuse of alcohol and/or drugs

Some personality traits, such as low self-esteem, can make you vulnerable to depression. You’re also more likely to be depressed if:

  • A close relative has experienced depression
  • You have money worries
  • You suffer from PMS

What types of depression are there? 

Depression affects everyone differently, with signs of depression varying from feeling low (mild depression) to suicidal thoughts (severe depression). 

Types of depression include:

Major depression 

This is also called clinical depression. Symptoms include a sense of despair and hopelessness, which can make it difficult to:

  • Eat
  • Enjoy activities, friends and family
  • Sleep
  • Study
  • Work

You may experience major depression once or several times in your life. 

Mild, chronic depression

This is also called dysthymia. It is less severe than major depression and has fewer symptoms. However, depression symptoms can last for two years or more. You can have dysthymia and also have periods of major depression — this is known as double depression.

Bipolar disorder 

Formerly called manic depression, bipolar disorder is a type of mood disorder (major affective disorder). It causes extreme mood swings and, in some cases, odd or illogical behaviour. The extreme mood swings are accompanied by high energy and are called hypomanic or manic episodes, depending on their severity — manic episodes are more severe. Symptoms of mania include: 

  • Grandiose delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoid rage
  • Psychosis
  • Sleeplessness — this can last for days

Post-natal depression 

One in 10 new mums develops post-natal depression in the first four weeks after giving birth. This involves overwhelming feelings of depression, as well as behavioural, emotional and physical changes.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

SAD is a mood disorder which only occurs in the autumn and winter months and goes away in spring or early summer. Depression symptoms are thought to be triggered by reduced sunlight.

There is a less common form of seasonal depression which starts in late spring and early summer and ends in the autumn — this is called summer depression.

Atypical depression

This is a type of major depression with specific symptoms, including:

  • Increased appetite or weight gain
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Feeling extremely sensitive to rejection
  • Moods that strongly change according to the circumstances eg depression symptoms can temporarily lift in response to good news
  • Sleepiness or excessive sleep

Adults with atypical depression often first had depression when they were teenagers.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Book an appointment

Common treatments for depression

Depression can be successfully treated, often with a combination of self-help, talking therapy or counselling, and anti-depressant medication.

Your GP will recommend treatment according to: 

  • The kind of depression you’ve been diagnosed with
  • The severity of your depression ie mild, moderate or severe
  • Your depression symptoms

This may involve referring you to a psychiatrist for specialist treatment.

Your treatment may involve:

  • Anti-depressant medication — to relieve your depression symptoms and restore the chemical balance in your brain; your doctor may recommend this if you have mild depression that isn’t improving or moderate depression
  • Counselling — to help you deal with the issues at the root of your depression
  • Self-help – taking regular exercise, spending time outside, eating a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding alcohol and drugs; your doctor may recommend this if you have mild depression while they monitor your progress, which is called watchful waiting.  
  • Talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) — focuses on understanding and changing how you think and feel; your doctor may recommend this if you have mild depression that isn’t improving or moderate depression

If you have moderate or severe depression, your psychiatrist may recommend talking therapy and antidepressants. If you have severe depression, they may refer you to a specialist mental health clinic for more intensive, specialist talking therapy and other medications. 

If you have severe depression that fails to respond to treatment, your psychiatrist may recommend electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).