A Common, Debilitating Disease
- Depression is the leading cause of disease-related disability among women in the world today1.
- Depression is much more common among women than men, with women showing signs of depression twice as much as men2.
- Many signs of depression may be “hidden”, so diagnosing it may be difficult.
- Although depression can affect anyone at any time, the greatest risk is for women aged 25-403.
Women have many different roles in life than men, and when depression hits, signs of depression in women can manifest differently in women than in men or children. Here are ten tell-tale signs of depression in women.
1. Feeling Tired All the Time
Depression affects people in different ways, but one symptom to watch out for is when you’re feeling physically tired and sleepy all the time. If you feel fatigued or exhausted much of the time, and it’s not because you have a hectic schedule, the first thing you need to do is get a medical checkup to rule out any physical illnesses as the cause. Depression can lead to, or be caused by, a chemical imbalance in the brain, and this imbalance can cause extreme fatigue.
When I was severely depressed, it took extreme effort just to move my arms and legs. My arms and legs felt so heavy all the time, even when I was just lying in bed. They were so heavy, they ached. Lifting an arm or a leg felt like I was trying to lift 30 pounds. This is what’s known as “leaden paralysis”4, and people with this symptom of feeling like there are weights attached to their bodies have what’s labeled “Atypical Depression”. The prevalence of leaden paralysis symptoms affects anywhere from 15 to 40% of all depressed people4.
Some depressed women don’t feel like they’re carrying weights around, but they are tired, lethargic, or exhausted much of the time. They want to sleep a lot or just lay around. Moving around seems to take a lot of effort, and everything is a chore. Nothing is enjoyable. Each day is just a challenge that you have to “get through”. The fatigue sets up a vicious cycle, however, because research has shown that exercise releases chemicals in the brain that can help relieve depression. So feeling tired and giving in to it helps perpetuate the depression or even make it worse.
2. Change in Eating Habits
A common sign of depression in women is a change in eating habits. Some depressed women eat too much, while others eat too little. When I was suffering from depression, eating was just too much of a chore – it took too much effort to get up, get something to eat, chew it, then clean up afterwards. I preferred to just lay in bed and not move. I had no appetite. Also, food was no longer enjoyable. When I was depressed, nothing tasted good. My senses were dulled, everything tasted the same, and it all tasted bland. I no longer had a favorite food – all food became tasteless. Eating became another chore that I didn’t want to engage in.
Some women, however, comfort themselves with food when they’re depressed. Food can stimulate a release of chemicals in the brain that cause us to feel pleasure, and some depressed women “self-medicate” themselves with food. They overeat, and gain weight as a result. The weight gain can also start a vicious cycle, because being overweight can cause a women to feel worse about herself, thereby worsening the depression.
3. Feeling Numb
Depression can cause women to feel, well – nothing. Instead of feeling highs and lows, depressed women often feel nothing – other than sad. Oftentimes, they no longer respond when others express love or concern. Activities and people who used to bring them joy no longer do so. They quit engaging in familiar activities or visiting with friends as a result. If their loved ones persist in expressing emotion to them, they might even become irritated.
Women who are depressed may not even think about showing signs of affection to their loved ones anymore. Responding to others’ expressions of emotion may be too difficult or require too much effort. Alternatively, they just may not be able to process complicated thoughts because depression makes even simple tasks harder.
When I was at the height of my depression, everything looked gray. When I walked through a park, the leaves on the trees no longer looked very green – they were more of a grey-green. And everywhere I looked, the world had the same drab, grayish colors. I was no longer processing extremes in any sense, including tastes, colors, and textures. Everything became similar, and all of my senses were dulled.
4. Lack of Patience
Women are, for the most part, pretty patient creatures. They tolerate a lot with their jobs, their families and their kids. One sign of depression in women is when they lose their ability to be patient and become irritable instead. Things that used to never bother them now annoy them instantly. Instead of encountering a problem and taking the time to work through it, they immediately get irritated and want to walk away and not deal with it.
Feelings of anger, frustration, or even rage bubble up to the surface more often, and sometimes even in women who previously hardly ever experienced anger or rage. In addition to being quick to anger, depression also can make us quick to tears. Often, feelings of irritability can lead to tears, and tears can lead back to anger.
5. Unable to Concentrate
Inability to concentrate or stay focused on a task is also a symptom of depression. Whereas a woman may have been a good student in school or able to multi-task with her duties at home, suddenly she can’t focus on one task long enough to get anything done. Reading can become impossible, as you forget sentence #1 by the time you get to sentence #2. The chemical imbalances in the brain that characterize depression impairs the ability to take in information quickly and process it. While suffering from depression, you may find that understanding directions becomes more difficult, you get distracted more easily, and you might even find yourself unable to focus on the road while driving.
Memory problems often go hand-in-hand with decreased ability to concentrate. Because information is not being taken in and processed efficiently, the ability to remember that information becomes impaired. You may forget things that, before, you didn’t even have to think about – they just came naturally. You may have trouble starting a task or organizing your thoughts or making decisions. Depression can negatively affect many areas of thinking, especially when it comes to concentration and memory.
6. Having Mood Swings
While most people think of depression as just feeling sad all the time, sometimes depression can cause mood swings. While a depressed person may feel sad, lethargic, and hopeless most days, they may have “good days” where the feelings of sadness subside. Because they have some good days, you might not think that they are, in fact, suffering from depression. But depressed people can have mood swings, alternating between sadness and anger or sadness and happiness. Bipolar depressives can exhibit wild mood swings between depression and mania, but even “normal” depressed women can experience swings in their moods.
Some depressed women will have periods of the day when they feel a bit better, for example, maybe in the mornings or in the evenings. Because the senses are dulled, they may not feel truly happy – just a bit better. But just because someone appears okay for a few days does not mean they are not suffering from depression. It’s important to note that a sudden, marked change from severely depressed to happy could be a warning sign. Sometimes, depressed people who are contemplating suicide and who have made a decision to act on that will feel relieved – even happy – that their pain is about to end and a decision has been made. Many suicidal people have seemed to “snap out of it” days or even weeks before they committed suicide.
7. Needing Help
A depressed person can easily get overwhelmed by things that used to be no problem for them. As a result, they may no longer be able to do all the tasks they used to be able to complete in a day. At work, they may need co-workers to step in and help complete tasks. At home, chores and even personal hygiene can suffer. Family members may have to step up and take over tasks that used to fall squarely on mom’s shoulders.
The combination of physical lethargy, lack of concentration and memory, dulled senses, lack of emotion (other than sadness), and possibly decreased food intake all add up to make depressed women less able to do the things they used to be able to do. Work suffers. Family life suffers. Household chores suffer. Depression limits one’s ability to be a super-mom or an awesome wife or a great homemaker.
8. Decreased Sex Drive
Women who are depressed often exhibit little or no sex drive. They have no interest in having sex, they take longer to have an orgasm (or lose the ability to have one at all), and usually simply find sex to be not very enjoyable. To make matters worse, some medications used to treat depression can also work to decrease the sex drive.
In addition to the decreased ability to experience joy, sometimes the presence of other people – even a significant other – is just plain bothersome. Lack of sex drive is part of that vicious cycle of depression, because sex creates chemical cascades in the brain, releasing chemicals that can make us feel good. But giving in to our decreased libido and abstaining from sex prevents those chemicals from being released and elevating our mood.
9. Changing Sleep Patterns
While depression often causes tiredness and physical lethargy, some people sleep too much when they’re depressed, but others suffer from insomnia. Sometimes, depressed women are so tired, but they just can’t sleep. Negative thoughts or thoughts of doom dominate, and they can’t turn the thoughts off long enough to go to sleep – even when they’re dead tired. They lay awake all night, thinking and tossing and turning, unable to just shut down and get some rest.
People suffering from depression-induced insomnia might nod off and take short naps throughout the day, but may be unable to lay down and get some prolonged, restful sleep. This, in turn, can increase their tendency to be irritable or quick to anger. This, too, is part of the vicious cycle of depression, because oftentimes, they later feel badly about their behavior, and they end up feeling worse than ever.
10. Fixating on doom or death
Women who are depressed are often infatuated by death and doom. Thoughts become more negative than positive, and when you think long-term, you can’t see positive outcomes – only negative ones.Thoughts of suicide may occur frequently. Stories of death in the media can grab your attention, whereas previously, you hardly noticed. Death starts to look like a plausible option, and you may have thoughts such as “They’ll be better off if I wasn’t around” or “Death would take my pain away”.
When I was depressed, I sought out groups online that were full of other depressed people who were contemplating suicide, and I’d spend hours reading their posts and fantasizing about my own death. This, too, is a part of the vicious cycle of depression, and if you give in to the feelings of wanting to fixate on death, you are pulled in further to the lure of an “easy” way out. It becomes so much easier when you see and hear all these other people who are where you are – even though they’re headed to a place no one should venture to. If, instead, you resist the urges and try to focus on life and affirmative thoughts and beneficial people instead, you will be on a path to recovery.
Depression is More Than Feeling Sad
When people think about depression, they think about someone who feels sad. But depression is much more than that. It pervades every aspect of your life. It changes your entire physiology, especially the chemicals in the brain that affect how we feel, think, and behave. Your changed behavior then affects your work, your family, and your relationships.
If I had to give just one piece of advice to someone suffering from depression, it would be this: Hang in there and don’t give up. Nothing lasts forever, even though it seems like you will never get better. The fact is that, if you keep trying, you will get better. The only way you won’t get better is if you give up. There are good treatments that are effective. Sometimes it can take months or even years to find the treatment that works for you, but if you don’t give up, you will find the right one. Giving up is easy. Sticking in there and trying day after day, month after month, is hard. But from someone who has overcome severe depression more than once, I can tell you it’s worth it.
Daisy Rowley, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer of scientific articles for DoMyWriting . Daisy is a clear voice in the mental health conversation and one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of using nutritional interventions.