First published on my iVillage Health Beat blog.
Has Low-Grade Depression Crept Up on You?
Until you have seen major depression up close it is hard to appreciate its power. I have seen the lights go out in the faces of people I love. In my last blog I wrote about how the positive psychology movement, simply by making people feel happier, is motivating them into healthier habits. But the fact is, once true depression has set in, happy talk falls on deaf ears.
Many people think of depression as an almost catatonic, dysfunctional, suicidal state of mind. I have seen that type of depression invade a person, and I will never forget it. But, much more common, and more insidious, is low-grade depression – the kind that steals your sparkle, and burdens your soul, but does not shout out loudly enough to demand treatment.
In 2000, in his book The Science of Optimism and Hope, Dr. Martin Seligman, considered by some people to be the father of the positive psychology movement, wrote about “the remarkable epidemic of depression occurring in young people in the United States today.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 30 million American adults suffer from some form of mood disorder, and 3.3 million of them live with chronic, low-grade depression, which is known as dysthymia.
Though it is sometimes referred to as “mild” depression, mental health experts take dysthymia very seriously. Unfortunately, many people with dysthymia do not. Instead, they just struggle laboriously through their lives, toughing out their fatigue, headaches, insomnia, irritability and stress. What they don’t recognize is that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance, and it’s very unlikely to disappear on its own.
I learned last week, as I attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Behavioral Medicine that simply treating this type of depression can often relieve many of the other problems people face.
Have you battled endlessly with your weight, or marital problems, or addictions? Do you struggle to control diabetes, or asthma, or heart disease? Do you suffer from insomnia, fatigue, headaches, or other pain? While these things are not caused by depression, behavioral medicine experts know that they are amplified in people who are depressed.
Study after study shows that people who are depressed report more pain, fail to quit smoking more often, drop out of more fitness and diet programs, and are more likely to ignore doctor’s recommendations about their diabetes or other diseases.
What if simply getting your mental health in shape could help you put the rest of your life in order? I recently suggested this to a friend who was complaining about her insomnia and her weight gain. “I tried antidepressants once but I didn’t really think they did anything,” she told me. “But you did lose weight, didn’t you?” I said. “Well, that was because I decided to join Weight Watchers,” she replied. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that her successful step towards weight loss happened while she was treating her depression!
Antidepressant medication is certainly not the only answer. Indeed, many mental health experts believe medication alone is only a partial treatment, and should be combined with talk therapy. But even psychotherapy alone can help many people get there heads above water enough to help them regain control of their lives. I’ve seen all of these approaches work, and the lights go back on in people’s faces. It’s a small effort with huge implications for the rest of your life.
For more about depression, its symptoms and its treatment:
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, signs of dysthymia and other depression include:
Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” feelings
Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
Fatigue and decreased energy
Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
Overeating, or appetite loss
Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment