Learning to spot your depression symptoms can help you prevent a downward spiral. Here’s how to get more in tune with yourself.
With many conditions or illnesses, you know when you’re feeling sick. You start experiencing pain or discomfort, burn with fever, or just ache all over. But when you have a mental illness like depression, the symptoms may not be as clear. They can develop gradually, even when you’re undergoing treatment. Paying attention to even subtle changes in your emotions and behavior can help you understand how depression affects you and allow you to reach out for help when depression symptoms surface.
Signs of Depression: Looking Inward
It may be difficult for you to recognize when depression is returning. “Often, the problem is that people don’t have insight into what’s happening to them,” says Adele Viguera, MD, associate director of the perinatal and reproductive psychiatry program at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “They try to explain it away; they tend to minimize what they’re going through.”
Tracking your moods and symptoms can help you understand your emotions and spot signs of depression, such as slight changes in your mood, and situations or events that could trigger a depressive episode.
To chart how you’re feeling, keep a calendar that you use each day and jot down your mood using a simple scale — from 1 to 10 or 1 to 3, whatever makes sense for you. If you start to notice more bad days than good days, it may be time to schedule a visit with your doctor.
“Bringing in such a calendar to the doctor’s office can help with treatment, and adjustments can be made accordingly,” says Dr. Viguera.
Writing in a journal is another technique to get in tune with your moods and feelings, and it “can be very helpful for some people,” Viguera adds. When charting or journaling, note any common symptoms or signs of depression and how severe they are, such as:
- A feeling of sadness that persists
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual
- Changes in appetite (eating more or less than usual)
- Withdrawing from social interaction
- Losing interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities
- Lack of energy
- Problems concentrating and remembering
- Feeling hopeless, helpless, or negative
Learn Your Triggers
Paying attention to your lifestyle habits, including daily routines, sleep schedule, and eating habits, can also help you manage depression, as any disruption in those routines could trigger — or signify — a depressive episode. A depressive episode can also be triggered by the stress of work or home responsibilities or life events, such as the death of a loved one, trauma, or a difficult relationship.
“Identifying triggers should be part of therapy,” says Viguera. “There should be a plan for how to respond to these triggers constructively, like take a walk or call a friend.” However, you can’t always prevent a depressive episode or identify a cause. “Sometimes there is not a trigger,” she adds.
A Little Help From Your Friends
Often family members are the first ones to notice depression symptoms, says Viguera. They may mention that you haven’t been acting like yourself or that they’re worried about your emotional health.
Loved ones can also encourage you to seek treatment. Scheduling an appointment with your primary care physician or a psychiatrist is a good start, and if you’re having trouble recognizing your own symptoms, taking a loved one with you to your appointment can help your doctor get a clear picture of your condition. A friend or family member can explain to your doctor your particular symptoms, how you’ve changed, and their concerns about your mental health.
You can also enlist the support of a loved one if you feel a little uncomfortable talking about your feelings and need the support of a confidant with you to express yourself. Outside your doctor’s office, loved ones can help you adhere to your recommended treatment and therapy.
Your Doctor-Patient Relationship
It’s important to discuss any early signs of an impending depressive episode, says Viguera. Remember that a depression symptom could be difficulty sleeping or having a hard time concentrating at work.
To build a constructive relationship with your doctor, look at it as a partnership — you need to be open about everything so that your doctor can help you get better. “Patients should be honest about how they are feeling, if they are compliant with their medications, what side effects they may be having, and what difficulties they may be having in therapy,” says Viguera.
Regular follow-up visits with your doctor are very important, as “depression is a recurrent and chronic disease,” Viguera says. “During an episode, you should meet with your doctor at least once a month.” Severe symptoms may require more frequent visits. When you’re feeling well, you should follow up with your doctor about every three to six months.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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