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Depression: Symptoms, Triggers, and Tips for Coping

If you’ve ever felt depressed, you know that being told to “cheer up” doesn’t work. Many well-meaning friends and family members don’t understand that depression is different from that temporary feeling of being down in the dumps, sad, or disillusioned when your date cancels on you, you’re bored with work, or COVID-19 has you stuck at home with nowhere to go.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.”

Depression doesn’t discriminate or care about who you are. It doesn’t worry about whether you live in a mansion or an apartment, or whether you’re young or older.

It is only concerned with one thing – keeping you stuck in an endless cycle of sadness, continually feeling alone, worthless, helpless, hopeless, and disengaged from people who love and care about you.

Millions of people in the world are impacted by depression, and yet, there is still some reluctance to talk about it. This is what led Matthew Johnstone, writer & illustrator, to share his story about depression with the World Health Organization. Matthew overcame the “black dog of depression” and shared his story in this video: Black Dog of Depression

What’s great about Matthew’s story is that he doesn’t allow depression to define who he is. Instead, he learned to think of it as something that is fleeting and separate from himself. The black dog of depression can be tamed, trained, and sent to the doghouse when it misbehaves.

The first step to taking control of this unwanted behaviour is to recognize depression’s symptoms, which can vary between men, women, older adults, children, and teens.

Ten (10) common symptoms to be aware of:

  1. A feeling of helplessness and hopelessness – when you feel there’s nothing to look forward to or nothing will help you to feel better or improve your life.

  2. No interest in daily life or activities – you’ve lost interest in hobbies, social activities, sex, fun, or pleasure.

  3. Changes in body weight or interest in food.

  4. Changes in sleep – either insomnia or sleeping too much.

  5. Easily angered, irritable, short-tempered, restless, and maybe violent.

  6. Change in energy – your body might feel drained, heavy, exhausted.

  7. Self critical – unforgiving about mistakes you think you’ve made or your perceived faults.

  8. Substance abuse, gambling, reckless behaviour.

  9. Trouble concentrating, focusing, or making decisions.

  10. Physical issues – headaches, body pains (stomach, muscular)

While you might think the black dog appears when it feels like it, there are always reasons for its visits. Getting at the underlying causes is important if you are ever to train and tame this black dog and get him/her to obey you.

Triggers or risk factors of depression to consider:

  • Loneliness or isolation

  • Relationship issues

  • Stressful life events like losing a loved one, divorce, financial issues

  • Illness or pain – cancer, autoimmune conditions, fibromyalgia

  • Family history of depression – depression tends to run in families. This doesn’t mean, however, that you will also experience depression.

  • Negativity – seeing the glass half empty, negative thinking, low self-worth, self-critical

  • Trauma or abuse – childhood or adult

  • Substance misuse to help cope with depressed feelings and circumstances

The most important message in Matthew Johnstone’s video is that depression is treatable. Recognizing the symptoms and triggers are only half the battle.

If you’re unsure about when to seek professional help, this mental health continuum will help you recognize when your symptoms and triggers require it. You’ll see from the chart below that if you’re experiencing the kind of symptoms or behaviours in the ‘Healthy’ or ‘Reacting’ sections, self-care and social support will help. On the other hand, if your symptoms or behaviours fall under the ‘Injured’ and ‘Ill' sections, it’s important to seek professional support.

The next step is talking about how you’re feeling and getting the support you need!

Five (5) Steps to Taming the Black Dog of Depression

  1. When you find yourself lonely or isolated, take steps to connect with someone you trust and who is non-judgmental. Isolation feeds the Black Dog of Depression so it’s important to reach out to others whether you feel like it or not.

  2. The black dog would love it if you stopped moving your body. Walking, running, yoga, stretching, music, and dancing are all antidotes to depression.

  3. Feed your body with nutritious food and limit your intake of alcohol/drugs (except when prescribed by your doctor).

  4. Seek professional counselling or therapy. With the help of various therapeutic modalities, you can learn important training techniques to befriend and manage your black dog of depression.

  5. See your Doctor. Sometimes medication is helpful when used in combination with therapy and lifestyle changes.

Like anxiety, depression is a mix of behaviours, thoughts, and feelings that can take hold and become a pattern.

In addition to following the 5 steps above, journal writing and implementing mind/body techniques, such as Emotional Freedom Technique or Tapping, help interrupt the all-too-familiar patterns. This strategy helps settle your nervous system so you can begin to think differently, feel grounded, and choose to do the things that support your mental and physical health.

The way you describe and think about depression also makes a difference. When you say “I’m depressed” you are claiming the depression rather than thinking of it as something fleeting or separate from who you are as a person. Saying “I’m feeling depressed” or “I’m experiencing some depression” allows you to acknowledge your feelings and thoughts in the moment, knowing they are temporary, can change, and they don't define you as a person.

Finally, whenever the Black Dog of Depression presents itself, it’s handy to have a quick, accessible means of support. If you are struggling with symptoms of depression, fseap is here for you 24/7. Connect with your EFAP for immediate support or to access counselling to find out more about how you can manage depression and find more joy in your life.


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