If you’re reading this article, then you’re likely concerned that you or a loved one may be exhibiting symptoms of depression. It’s not an isolated experience: Mental health issues have been on the rise, especially since the onset of the pandemic.
While depression affects each person differently, there are some common hallmark characteristics ― and they don’t all look like you might expect. Not everyone who has depression is crying all the time, for example.
We asked therapists to identify those early warning signs, and to share some advice on how to seek help if you spot them.
1. Your energy is low
A decrease in energy can be associated with other conditions, like insomnia or a common cold. However, if you notice fatigue that remains persistent without other physical symptoms, then it may be a sign you’re developing depression.
Mary Tate, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Tate Psychotherapy, said this is one of the most conspicuous symptoms in the beginning stages. “For many people, high levels of fatigue and low energy are often the most noticeable,” Tate said. “Depression can affect our sleep patterns and increase stress, which affect serotonin and dopamine, which play a critical part in regulating our mood and energy.”
2. You can’t seem to focus
Some people have a hard time focusing in general, whether that’s because TikTok is a click away or they’re not able to switch their mind off of work. Whatever the case may be, having difficulty focusing can be an early warning sign of depression.
“Depression affects behavior activation and this is how we all get things done throughout our day,” Tate said. “Small tasks such as brushing your teeth and putting clean clothes on may feel like monstrous tasks.”
Other tasks that may seem difficult to concentrate on can include reading a book, getting homework done or paying attention in a meeting.
3. You’re more anxious than normal
Anxiety is normal, and can even help us to get things done. However, too much of it can be debilitating.
“Depression is often accompanied by anxiety and vice versa,” said Dr. Kristin Gill, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Minded, an online psychiatry company designed for women. “Symptoms that are commonly seen in both anxiety and depression include difficulty concentrating, sleep problems and fatigue. It is also important to note that women are twice as likely to develop both depression and anxiety compared to men.”
“Because anxiety and depression have overlapping symptoms, it is important to discuss your symptoms with a health care professional to determine whether you are suffering from depression or anxiety, or both, as this will inform recommendations for treatment,” Gill said.
4. You’re isolating yourself socially
If you’ve been turning down invites to grab drinks with friends after work or you don’t feel like going to your weekly book club meeting, it may be because you’re developing depression.
“Depression can affect one’s ability to nurture themselves, let alone a relationship,” Tate said. “A person may notice reduced libido, negative attitude and self-isolation.”
This isolation can weaken relationships and friendships, which in turn may fuel depressive feelings even more. It’s not uncommon for other people to notice a person’s symptoms of depression before the person themselves does.
5. Your hygiene is suffering
Brushing your teeth, taking a shower and putting on deodorant are all hygiene-related tasks that generally don’t require a lot of effort for people without depression.
According to Jennifer Kelman, a licensed clinical social worker and JustAnswer mental health expert, someone living with depression may find it hard to complete daily tasks that once felt easy.
“The simple act of caring for oneself and practicing good hygiene can feel too difficult and overwhelming as the lack of energy takes over,” Kelman said.
Neglecting one’s hygiene can potentially lead to even more isolation and withdrawal from daily activities, which in turn can exacerbate depressive symptoms, creating a self-reinforcing cycle.
6. You’re sleeping too much, or too little
Sleep is an important factor in maintaining both physical and mental health.
“Insomnia is a common symptom of depression, with about 80% of people experiencing bouts of insomnia when they are depressed. Insomnia in depression typically includes difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and waking up too early,” Gill said. “Sleeping too much can also be a feature of depression, and some people experience both insomnia and hypersomnia during a single episode of depression.”
7. You’re more irritable than usual
If you’ve noticed you’re more irritable or short-tempered lately ― or maybe someone else has brought it to your attention ― it could be an early warning sign of depression.
“Depression is often referred to as anger turned inward,” Kelman said. “Those that are suffering may be irritable and display signs of anger often toward themselves for being ‘down’ or ‘sad.’”
You may also notice that smaller, more trivial situations cause you to blow up. Let’s say you accidentally dropped a glass, or you couldn’t change the channel with the TV remote. These situations are frustrating, but if they provoke an unwarranted reaction, it could be a sign of depression.
What to do if you’re experiencing these symptoms
If you or someone you love is showing any of these signs, it might be time to talk to a therapist or a physician who can help address these symptoms. (Of course, access to therapy isn’t always easy or affordable; here are some options to make it cheaper, and some other mental health support ideas.)
Small lifestyle habits can also make a huge difference. Texting a friend, going for a short walk or ordering something nutritious for dinner can have a positive effect on your mood.
Depression is just like any other medical condition that deserves care and treatment. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.