What is depression? Part 1 Simon DuBois, Psychologist

What is depression? Knowing whether you are depressed or just feeling sad for a very good reason isn't as easy to work out as it sounds. Yet the importance of being able to make this distinction is very important. Depression in its true form is an experience that is debilitating to one’s life. Well, if that's a guiding principle it can’t be that hard to work out if you or somebody else is depressed, right? So, why is it still difficult to determine whether you are or you aren’t?

Depression can be something that really creeps up on you. I don't know if you've heard the supposed fact (I haven't done any research to verify the following) that frogs are unable to detect slight increases in water temperature when the water they are immersed in is slowly heated to boiling point, resulting in Mr Frog placidly remaining in said water and becoming boiled! I don't know who did this experiment, but it doesn't rank very highly on the “nice” scale.

The point I'm trying to make by raising this rather macabre phenomenon is that our descent into depression is very similar. Because we can make a gradual descent into depression we sometimes don't realise how bad things truly are. We can gradually fall into, and get used to, a depressive state. In instances like these we usually get a tap on the shoulder by a family member, friend, or colleague who is concerned about us.

Symptoms of depression

It is difficult to tell whether someone is depressed because the symptoms of depression very so much from person to person.

These variances can be in how we emotionally and physiologically feel, and how we behave as a result of our distress. Some depressed people will eat more than usual (comfort eating), while others will have no appetite. Some depressed people will sleep much more than usual, while others will experience insomnia. For some people their level of emotional expression will decrease significantly, becoming emotionally flat. For others it may increase, and be expressed as frustration, agitation and anger.

Some common symptoms of depression

What tends to be common across all expressions of depression is a loss of connection with oneself and the world in which one participates. This feeling is usually very unnerving as it makes a person feel vulnerable and incompetent. A loss of motivation is also a key experience of most people with depression, resulting in a withdrawal from tasks and activities that were once enjoyed, or that need to be completed to keep day-to-day life functioning. There is also a loss of important brain functions like focus, concentration and memory. In short, our poor brain goes offline. In its place are much more pessimistic beliefs about oneself, others, and the world in which one lives.

It is important to differentiate between experiencing feelings of sadness or grief, and experiencing depression. Understanding how to make this distinction will be discussed in Part 2.