Depression isn’t always what you think. It can rear its vile head in many ways. Sure, depression showcases itself in long periods of sadness and a disinterested mood—but it’s much more than that. The symptoms can be quietly cunning, disguised as something else altogether.
According to the ADAA, Major Depressive Disorder affects more than 16.1 million American adults, or about 6.7% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older in a given year.
Fill the largest stadium in the United States (Michigan’s) 149 times, and there’d still be fewer people watching football than suffering from depression. Wowza.
Because some symptoms of depression can seem linked to other aspects of our lives, those dealing with depression often don’t easily realize that they have it. They brush off their symptoms, attributing them to stressful workloads, problems in relationships, or lack of sleep.
Side note: Sadness and depression are different. Yes—when you’re depressed you’re typically sad, but experiencing sadness doesn’t automatically qualify as depression. Sadness is usually triggered by a singular event and lasts a short time. Depression, on the other hand, may not be triggered by any event in particular, lasts quite a long time, and affects almost every aspect of your life.
Below are 7 subtle symptoms you shouldn’t ignore—because they may be camouflaging a deeper problem—mild depression.
1. Tossing and Turning
Most of us run into sleep problems eventually, either waking up lots at night or finding it difficult to fall asleep. The occasional sleepless night is relatively normal—not fun—but not cause for alarm. However, if you’ve noticed your sleeping patterns are off more than usual lately—not sleeping at all, feeling exhausted no matter how much sleep you get, tossing and turning all night—it may be your brain calling out for help. Research shows that about ¾ of depressed patients also have insomnia or another sleep disorder.
Bottom line: If you continuously drag yourself out of bed in the morning in complete zombie mode, it may be time to get some help.
2. Acting Out or Self-Medicating
Sometimes depression externalizes in aggressive and potentially dangerous behaviors, like excessive alcohol consumption, cheating on your partner, withdrawing from your loved ones, or walking away from your job and hobbies.
Think of your body like a bottle of coke and depression as a Mentos Mint, when you put the two together, the effect is an explosion or a release.
These behaviors are a lot like that—an escape for what you’re feeling inside.
Acting out and self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may make you feel better temporarily, but what they’re really doing is masking the pain or distracting you from the underlying issue.
If your loved ones and friends have expressed worry about the actions you’ve taken recently, it might be time to listen and internally evaluate.
3. External Pain
The brain-body connection is incredibly powerful. What the brain experiences, the body feels. That’s why depression can sometimes lead to aches and pains in your body. In fact, research shows that a high percentage of people seeking treatment in a primary care setting only report physical symptoms.
You read that right: Sometimes depression is WHOLLY physical.
What should you look out for? Unexplained back pain, sore muscles, gastrointestinal problems, and headaches. Of course, all of these could easily be attributed to something else—working out, sleeping wrong, getting sick—that’s why it’s important to get checked out and not ignore these symptoms.
4. Staying Extra Busy
Avoiding your feelings and problems can be way easier than recognizing and addressing them. Who wants to acknowledge they’re sad anyway? Why not work 3 jobs, pick up a volunteer gig, go to the gym for 2 hours a day, start a side hustle, and never sleep instead?
If option 2 sounds like you, you might want to take a few steps back and assess whether you’re busy because you want to be, or if you’re simply trying to outrun your issues.
Spend 2 minutes on social media and you’ll quickly find that being busy is directly correlated with being successful. Everyone wants to be a “hustler,” someone who’s constantly attacking their goals and “making moves.” But what’s more important than taking on a new project, is taking the time for some self-care and seeking help. Trust me, your life’s satisfaction and productivity will both benefit.
For some, “staying extra busy” can look different than staying hyperactive. It could equate to binge-watching programs on television day-after-day, gaming excessively every night, burying yourself in a book more than normal – convincing yourself that you’re pursuing your interests.
5. Appetite Changes
Most of us can pretty well predict how much we’ll eat on an average day. But if you’ve found yourself skipping meals or suddenly eating way more than before—don’t immediately blame your schedule or tummy—it could be depression.
Studies show that people with depression often experience a decrease in appetite—typically leading to unanticipated weight loss and increased fatigue. However, some people sway the opposite way and eat way more than normal.
Both situations can signal either depression or depression relapse, especially when paired with other symptoms. Pay attention to your eating habits and don’t brush off a big drop on the scale as a fluke, because it might be the first sign that depression is coming.
Most believe depression leads to feelings of sadness and sorrow, but it can also cause emotions like anger and frustration. In these cases, you may find yourself easily irritated, upset over the smallest things, and living with a short fuse.
If you freak out because your roommate left their shoes in the wrong place or snap at the waitress when she brings your order out wrong, you may be experiencing mild depression symptoms. It’s OK—you’re not alone—and you’re not crazy. But it’s probably time to get some help.
7. Excessive Guilt
Unnecessary guilt over events in your life isn’t healthy. If you ruminate over all of your past “mistakes,” from breaking up with your high school sweetheart to that time you cheated on a test, you may be experiencing depression.
It’s normal to feel bad about messing up or hurting someone you care about, but when that guilt becomes all consuming and a bit fanciful (known as pathological guilt), that’s when you run into problems.
For example, some people with depression feel guilty for being born or for having depression in the first place. These feelings, though valid, are false narratives your depression may be feeding you. And with the right help, you can slam that storybook shut.
If after reading the above symptoms there’s a nagging voice in your head saying, “That’s me!” Listen to it! And get the help you deserve.
Your mental health is equally (if not more) important than your physical health. And let me tell you, from experience, the quality of life you’ll have after seeking help and finding the right techniques to get your life back on track is worth every second, every penny, and every hour spent talking with a counselor.
Not sure how? Erin Baldwin, Assistant Vice President of Student Health and Wellness at Iowa State University suggests, “People reach out to a mental health professional like a counselor or primary care provider. For anyone not comfortable doing this, we encourage them to talk with someone they trust, like a family member, friend, or religious leader. It can be hard to ask for help, but it’s important to reach out and find a resource that is a good fit.”
Still not sure where to start? Give these resources a try:
Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741 and be connected with a trained crisis counselor 24/7, 365.
Bottom line: Depression can be sneaky. It’s not always a stark black veil of utter sadness. Sometimes it’s hushed and devious; a scratchy throat slowly cascading into strep. You don’t need to be full blown “not OK” to get help. Don’t wait. You deserve it.