What Does Depression Feel Like? Common Symptoms And My Personal Story
Depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence.
Depression is enigmatic.
When struggling to make sense of a personal experience and articulate it in a way that makes sense to others can seem like an impossible task. It’s difficult for people with depression to pinpoint a tangible thing, just as it’s difficult for anyone to know what depression feels like, having never experienced a major depressive disorder.
Depression isn’t the same as sadness. It’s not an emotional state or always a direct response to things going on in life, such as grief, financial hardship, divorce, or major change.
One way I’ve described what depression feels like is “anti-emotion” — the persistent numbness and hopelessness feels like there’s a void, unexplainable, yet significant. Stephen Fry, an eloquent articulator of what it’s like to feel depressed, explains it like so:
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
With Fry’s wisdom in mind, this article will shine a light on depression from two perspectives. The first will explore common symptoms that are signs of depression. The other will draw upon my personal experience, to explain what it’s like to live with depression or other similar mental disorders. Let’s begin.
What are the different types of depression?
There’s no single, fixed experience of depression. The suffering and the symptoms of depression is often unique to the individual. Two people may experience depression in very different ways, so it’s always best not to assume the fine details of what someone is going through. There are, however, recurring themes. Harvard Health identify the four most common types of depression as:
This is the most commonly understood form of depression, which has a significant impact on the person’s quality life, enjoyment of day-to-day activities, functioning, and overall well being.
Persistent depressive disorder
A lesser-known type of depression, also known as dysthymia or chronic depression, is a mood disorder that lasts over a long period of time (recognised as two years or more). Symptoms are less severe than major depression, meaning people can function, go to work, pay the bills, all while experiencing low mood or a lack of enjoyment.
With this type of depression, spells of low mood oscillate with spells of “mania,” which includes high levels of energy, creative surges, little need for sleep, and grandiose ideas. For this type of issue of mental health, America has 2.8% of its population affected, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
SAD is a depressive state linked to changes in the body’s circadian rhythm, often at its most severe during the darker winter months.
There are also two types of depression exclusive to women. The first is perinatal depression, otherwise known as postpartum depression. This is characterized by major or minor depressive episodes that affect women during pregnancy or up to 12 months after childbirth. PMDD, on the other hand, is a severe form of premenstrual syndrome, affecting women shortly after ovulation, before ending once menstruation starts.
What are some depression symptoms?
The biggest symptom of depression is persistent and intense sadness, although there’s more to depression than sadness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM, produced by the American Psychiatric Association) lists symptoms of depressive disorders and severe depression as:
- Depressed mood for most or all of the day
- Lack of interest or pleasure in most activities, most of the time
- A decrease or increase in appetite
- Slowing down of thought or physical movement
- Physical symptoms like feeling tired or low on energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
- Lack of concentration and focus
- Thoughts of death or suicidal ideation
To be diagnosed, the DSM notes that low mood or lack of interest has to be present, along with five or more other symptoms, for two weeks or more.
This list gives some indication of what depression feels like and the warning signs to look out for. But if you’re concerned you might be experiencing depression, then it’s always worth talking to a mental health professional who can provide medical advice and get you the depression treatment you need.
What depression feels like
My personal account
It feels apt for me to share my account of what depression feels like, based on my intimate relationship with the “black dog.”
I first experienced depression around the age of 15. Around the age of 18, I experienced suicidal thoughts, sought professional help, and ended up taking medication. I had another spell on medication around the age of 22, combined with talking therapy.
The dark cloud of depression stayed with me for most of my early adulthood. I started meditation in my early 20s, and towards my late 20s things started to shift significantly. The level of inquiry and self-awareness that comes from meditation has helped me to investigate my experience of depression.
Below are key themes I found. In the spirit of Goalcast, I’ve added insights that I’ve gleaned from these experiences, in a way that has led to deeper self-understanding and growth.
Feelings of emptiness
I mentioned the “anti-emotion” of depression earlier. This, for me, is one of the reasons I find it frustrating when depression is compared to sadness. Depression is a complete shutting down of sensitivity and feeling. The rich spectrum of emotions becomes blunted. At one point I remember thinking to myself that I oscillated only between two experiences — numbness and anxiety!
Similar words to describe the feeling of emptiness are the void or the abyss. It feels as if whatever animates, the fire that fuels vibrancy and the feeling of being alive, is painfully absent. The metaphor of fire and darkness is apt. It feels like the flames of life are extinguished, whether you characterize it as a mild depression, a moderate depression, or something more intense, it’s always very difficult to deal with.
Over time I realized that “numbness” came from wanting to selectively shut down painful emotions. Things don’t quite work like that, though. The more I tried to escape sadness and anxiety, the more I disconnected from my emotions. I understand the “void” to be disconnection from the emotional body.
Working with mindfulness and acceptance of painful emotions, I was able to process and heal, in a way that opened me up to the full spectrum of emotion. The irony is, I’m an exceptionally sensitive person! I’m regularly moved to tears. By suppressing all of this emotional movement, I dimmed the flame.
Hopeless and the sense of time
Hopelessness is another core component of depression that is difficult to describe. The word alone doesn’t capture the fullness of the experience.
For me, hopelessness is the inability to perceive any form of joy or happiness in the future. That’s always been accompanied by an inability to see the future — literally. In my mind’s eye, when I’ve been super depressed, that function of my imagination is offline.
The odd dynamic is that depression makes you present, but not in an expansive, enlightened way, but in an inescapable, claustrophobic way. Like placing a hand over a flame, there’s a desire to recoil from the sensation. Part of you wants to flee, but there’s no option, even into an imagined future, where everything will be okay.
I’ve spent a long time trying to understand this one. I had a breakthrough when reading Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, and his theory of psychological time.
I started to get a clearer view of the mechanisms of past and future, and how my mind created those as fantasy. I realized that there is a function to hopelessness. It’s as if a higher intelligence directs you to the present, to encourage you to explore and lean into the pain, in order to heal, so it loosens your grip over you.
Hopelessness is closely linked to meaninglessness. Depression is often existential in nature, which is part of what makes it so difficult to describe.
When I was in my late teens, I’d spend hours lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, contemplating how pointless everything was. If anyone asked me why I felt the impending despair, I couldn’t answer… I’d just keep staring at the ceiling.
The pioneering work of Viktor Frankl identified that “man’s search for meaning” can be the difference between life and death. When I started to explore existential angst, I started to understand where my source of meaninglessness had come from. I’d developed a cynical, narrow view of reality, one where humans are mechanical machines, and the universe is lifeless and harsh.
Depression is a great teacher. I had no choice other than to slowly build meaning, step by step. I had to question the type of life I wanted to live, and how to give myself the “more” I was looking for. Learning how to beat depression started with finding meaning in a single conversation, a single moment at a time. It developed into serving others who were suffering by, ironically, talking about depression.
Eventually, my entire worldview shifted into one much more poetic and expressive, one where I had faith and where the mystery of life inspired me. As I changed, so did my perspective on the universe and the nature of reality itself. I started to resonate with spiritual philosophies and question if there was more to life than meets the eye, or the scientific method.
Isolation and disconnection
One final example of what depression feels like is physical, emotional, and spiritual. Depression is exceptionally isolating — it convinces you you’re completely alone, often presenting stories as to why people don’t love you, and stories about how you are cut off from the rest of the world. This feeling of disconnect is suffocating.
I felt this in my body, by feeling constricted and experiencing derealisation or feeling “spaced out.” Emotionally I struggled to give or receive love; I didn’t feel worthy, and it was difficult to accept other people in my life who cared for me. Spiritually, I had no connection to the Earth, or anything bigger than myself.
Imagine my profound joy when I read a Buddhist excerpt that said: separation is an illusion. The more I realized that I wasn’t alone, the more I was inspired to keep fighting the good fight. That took on many forms, from opening up to others about the experience, creating shared connections, to exploring the rich interconnected nature of reality.
Through meditation, I realized even when I was physically alone, I was never truly isolated. I realized when I felt unlovable, it didn’t mean I was unloved. I realized that I’m supported and that love transcends space and time, just like Interstellar said it did. I realized that there’s more to existence than we’re conventionally told and that consciousness itself is everywhere.
I hope this article illuminates the experience of depression, to give you a better understanding. Depression is all-encompassing and life-changing, even if you have some form of high-functioning depression. It’s an experience hard to define, one that requires patience and self-acceptance to navigate. It’s tough to live through, and tough to witness others live through. It can involve substance abuse or not, but either way the journey is a tough one.
Although the journey is incredibly difficult, I don’t believe depression has to be a life sentence or “the way things are.” There is a message of hope: depression can lead to increased self-awareness, understanding, and building a life of meaning. Its profound impact can lead to a renewed appreciation of life.
I’ve learned to always, always remember that hopelessness is a state experienced in the present moment that is projected onto the future, an illusion of the mind. If you’re struggling, know that there are futures you never thought possible, that one day you’ll live, and you’ll look back, and smile at how inaccurate those depressive prophecies were.