Take a look at this page for important information about depression.

Main symptoms of depression

The main symptoms of depression are low mood and lack of interest or pleasure in all or almost all activities. Other symptoms which may include:

  • Changes in appetite.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Lack of energy.
  • Agitation.
  • Difficulty in concentrating.
  • Feeling guilty or worthless.
  • Suicidal thoughts.

These symptoms are normal after a major loss, when depression is a natural part of coping with the sadness and shock you are experiencing. In these circumstances the depression should start to lift when you have had time to grieve.

For some people, it isn’t as straightforward as that. Sometimes people get stuck in the grieving process. Or sometimes the depression seems to come “out of the blue” with no obvious loss triggering it. These kinds of depression are usually caused or perpetuated by a combination of the following factors:

Your brain controls everything you do and brain activity starts with any stimulus. This can be an input from your senses (e.g. the sight, smell or sound of something) or it can be an internal thought. If you have lived in an environment where you have been regularly put down, or if you belong to a group that suffers prejudice from society, you may have come to believe that you are worthless, or that other people will dislike or hurt you.

If you have such beliefs then your physical and emotional responses will be affected by them. You may want to believe that you can be happy, but your negative thoughts will trigger off a different set of messages that counteract the positive thoughts. The effect is like trying to drive a car with the brakes on. In the human body, this cuts down the flow of a group of chemical messengers called ‘neurotransmitters’. These messengers carry the signals that galvanise the body into action.

Over time negative thoughts can seriously affect the flow of neurotransmitters through your body and make it hard for you to respond spontaneously and happily to new challenges in life.

When we experience something that might be a threat, our brain fires off a ‘red alert’, flooding us with chemicals that set our hearts racing, increasing our alertness and pumping blood to our muscles to enable quick movement. We also produce natural painkillers in case we get hurt.

This is great for dealing with occasional threats, however, some people have to deal with serious stress on an ongoing basis. The problem with ongoing stress is that it depletes our natural painkillers and builds up stress hormones to toxic levels. This leaves us feeling exhausted, unable to sleep, jumpy, burnt out and depressed.

Not getting enough sleep can also raise stress hormones to toxic levels. On average people need between 7 – 9 hours’ sleep per night. So if you have regularly been missing out on sleep through not getting to bed on time, or if your depression is making it hard for you to sleep this can contribute to a vicious circle of tiredness and depression.

Like all the chemicals in our body, neurotransmitters are built up from the nutrients in the food we eat. So, if you’ve been eating a lot of junk food, following a very restricted diet, regularly skipping meals, or if you’ve been ill your diet could be contributing to your depression.

In general, if you’ve been following, or start to follow healthy eating guidelines you should get all the nutrients you need. If your nutrients have become very depleted you may benefit from using supplements for a while. A nutritionist or dietician should be able to give you advice on this.

When you’re ill, most of your energy has to go into fighting the illness and the familiar flat feelings of depression are a result of this. If you’re the kind of person who only feels worthwhile when you’re working or doing things for people, or if you hate feeling dependent on others, illness can leave you feeling bad about yourself. This, along with lack of exercise, low appetite or sickness can also contribute to the general feeling of sluggishness and depression.

A lot of people start to feel low and depressed in the autumn. The most likely reason for this is that bright light stimulates us to wake up and when the sun goes down we produce hormones that encourage us to go to sleep. Trying to live our busy lives as normal through the winter means that we are overriding the hormonal shifts in our body and this can lead to a feeling of depression. So if you start to feel low as the nights start drawing in there’s a good chance that lack of bright light is contributing to your depression.

Drugs work by artificially boosting neurotransmitter production or retention in the body, leaving a depleted and depressed feeling as they work themselves out of your system. Taking drugs is the pharmaceutical equivalent of blowing all your money on pay day. It’s great at the time but you can end up feeling pretty miserable for the rest of the week.

The harder the drug the more pronounced the effect. However, anything that gives you an artificial high works in more or less the same way, whether your particular ‘poison’ is Crack cocaine or a double espresso with ‘death by chocolate’ cheesecake. If you’re going to use drugs of any kind, be prepared for some degree of low mood to follow.

How to beat depression

Depression is rarely just caused by one thing. Counselling allows space to unpick the different strands of the depression, to make sense of what’s happening and to look at ways forward.

Good counselling has been proved to be effective in helping many people to beat depression.

Other methods of beating depression, which can often compliment counselling include:

Antidepressants work by increasing or improving the flow of neurotransmitters in the body. They can be particularly effective if your neurotransmitters have been seriously depleted, for example, by long term depression, illness, burn out, or drug use.

However, if you don’t tackle the underlying causes, depression is likely to come back. Most antidepressants are only available on prescription. All medication should be used with care and should never be taken with other drugs without first checking with your doctor or pharmacist. If you are taking HIV drugs, you must consult your doctor before taking St John's Wort.

Bright light therapy is an effective treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Try to get out into daylight as much as you can in winter, especially on bright days. Also, bright light boxes have been proved to be effective for this kind of depression. They are quite expensive, but some companies rent them out initially so that you can see if they work for you.

If you’re finding it difficult to sleep, try cutting out caffeine after lunchtime, avoid stressful activities like watching the news just before bedtime, and make sure you have time to relax before going to bed. A warm, slightly sweetened milky drink will help to release the relaxing neurotransmitter, serotonin. Meditation and relaxation exercises can also help. Herbal remedies and prescribed medicines are also available if you are really struggling to get a good night’s sleep.

Meditation is proven to help with mild to moderate depression. Meditation works at two levels- by interrupting negative thought patterns and by relaxing the body and mind. This means that it helps with reducing stress.

Research shows that even a brisk 45 minute walk each day can have a positive effect on mood. It works by getting the neurotransmitters flowing and if you’re feeling slightly or moderately depressed getting out for some gentle exercise such as walking, swimming or cycling is likely to help.

However, exercise doesn’t generally help people who are severely depressed, as they may find it difficult to get their energy flowing without more serious support. It’s a good idea to try it as it is likely to help, but if it doesn’t, don’t beat yourself up. There are plenty of other things that will work for you. However, if your food intake is restricted, this is not the best idea. Only exercise if you are receiving enough nutrition to do so.

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