Most people experience feelings of stress, unhappiness or anxiety during difficult times. A low mood may improve after a short period of time, rather than being a sign of depression. Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days.
Most people go through periods of feeling down, but when you’re depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months, rather than just a few days.
Some people think depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition. They’re wrong – it is a real illness with real symptoms. Depression isn’t a sign of weakness or something you can “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together”.
The good news is that with the right treatment and support, most people with depression can make a full recovery.
One of the most difficult aspects of depression is the feeling that life isn’t worth living. That sense of hopelessness and helplessness can be debilitating and soul destroying. The future can look very bleak if life feels pointless.Not having a sense of purpose is just one of the main symptoms of depression. Other symptoms include:
- Feeling sad or low.
- Struggling with motivation even for mundane things like getting up in the morning.
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy.
- Changes in appetite (losing or gaining weight).
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.
- Loss of energy or feeling fatigued.
- Feeling worthless or guilty.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Postponing decision making.
- Movements/speech becoming slower.
There can be physical symptoms too, such as feeling constantly tired, sleeping badly, having no appetite or sex drive, and various aches and pains.
You can feel as though you are meaningless and empty, and you may withdraw from social environments for fear of becoming a burden to friends and loved ones. The woes of the world seem to be weighing on your shoulders. It can take all your efforts just to survive the day.
Common causes of depression
There’s no single cause of depression. It can occur for a variety of reasons and it has many different triggers.
For some people, an upsetting or stressful life event, such as berevement, divorce, illness, redundancy and job or money worries, can be the cause.
Different causes can often combine to trigger depression. For example, you may feel low after being ill and then experience a traumatic event, such as a bereavement, which brings on depression.
People often talk about a “downward spiral” of events that leads to depression. For example, if your relationship with your partner breaks down, you’re likely to feel low, you may stop seeing friends and family and you may start drinking more. All of this can make you feel worse and trigger depression.
Some studies have also suggested that you’re more likely to get depression as you get older, and that it’s more common in people who live in difficult social and economic circumstances.Some of the potential triggers of depression are discussed below.
Most people take time to come to terms with stressful events, such as bereavement or a relationship breakdown. When these stressful events occur, your risk of becoming depressed is increased if you stop seeing your friends and family and try to deal with your problems on your own.
You may be more vulnerable to depression if you have certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem or being overly self-critical. This may be because of the genes you’ve inherited from your parents, your early life experiences, or both.
If someone in your family has had depression in the past, such as a parent or sister or brother, it’s more likely that you’ll also develop it.
Some women are particularly vulnerable to depression after pregnancy. The hormonal and physical changes, as well as the added responsibility of a new life, can lead to post natal depression.
Becoming cut off from your family and friends can increase your risk of depression.
Alcohol and drugs
When life is getting them down, some people try to cope by drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs. This can result in a spiral of depression.
Cannabis can help you relax, but there’s evidence that it can also bring on depression, particularly in teenagers.
“Drowning your sorrows” with a drink is also not recommended. Alcohol is categorised as a “strong depressant”, which actually makes depression worse.
You may have a higher risk of depression if you have a longstanding or life-threatening illness, for example cancer.
Yet research has shown that a sense of purpose can help lift you out of survival mode and into living your life again. A sense of purpose is having something so meaningful in life that it lifts you to greater levels of achievement and accomplishment. In short, it’s having something to believe in. A sense of purpose brings hope. It helps you make decisions. It gives you something to live for. Studies also show that having a sense of purpose can boost your emotional resilience and enable you to cope better with life’s stressors.
How to regain a sense of purpose in life
Define your core values.
What do you truly believe in? What would you never compromise on? Identifying what your core values are is one of the first steps to aligning yourself with a sense of purpose and setting goals for your life.
Do something creative.
You don’t have to be a great painter or writer to be creative. Yet having a creative project – something you’re invested in completing – can help with a sense of purpose. It may be doing a jigsaw, taking up cross-stitch, painting your bedroom, or pruning your roses. A creative project gives you something to live for.
Loss of energy is a common symptom of depression. Moving around, even a gentle walk, can help shake up that energy and release some of the fog in your brain.
Speak to a therapist.
If all of the above just feels too much, then talking to a professional may help you get back on track. Counselling and psychotherapy can help you explore the causes and symptoms of depression, and can help you identify ways to re-enter your life in a way that helps you feel supported and understood.: Talking therapy is a way to hear your thoughts out loud, which can help you to regain a sense of purpose.
Bereavement and loss
People react in different ways to loss. Anxiety and helplessness often come first. Anger is also common, including feeling angry at someone who has died for “leaving you behind”. Sadness often comes later. Feelings like these are a natural part of the grieving process. Knowing that they are common may help them seem more normal. It’s also important to know that they will pass.
Although bereavement is very common its universality does not make it less of a shock or any easier to handle when it happens to us. Prince Harry illustrated this perfectly, and very poignantly, when he spoke out about the impact his mother’s death had had on him.
Prince Harry said that he had found it too sad to think about so he had simply stopped thinking about it. His way of dealing with his mother’s death had been to push it all down and block it out for years, and this had affected his mental health later on. The prince’s response to bereavement is not at all unusual, blocking out grief and sadness is an understandable and natural reaction to the pain of loss. Unfortunately, though, not thinking about something does not magic it away. So the unprocessed emotions remain underneath, and can lead to what is called ‘complicated grief’ surfacing later. This is the hidden, ignored and unprocessed feelings, which have lain buried for years coming to light in a way that can seriously impact on your wellbeing. A psychological study found that 25% of people who had experienced bereavement had been diagnosed with complicated grief.
In a way all grief is complicated, because it is not just one feeling, but a whole bunch of reactions and emotions evoked by a loss such as shock, numbness, a sense of surreality, longing, regret, sadness, guilt, agitation, and anger. So, even if addressed and dealt with in the first hours or days, grief can take quite a long time to process, and there is no prescribed amount of time it ‘should’ take.
However, avoiding these emotions and evading talking about them with others can store up trouble for the future, and lead to complicated grief.
How to cope with grief and loss
There’s no instant fix. You might feel affected every day for about a year to 18 months after a major loss. But after this time the grief is less likely to be at the forefront of your mind.
There are practical things you can do to get through a time of bereavement or loss:
- Express yourself. Talking is often a good way to soothe painful emotions. Talking to a friend, family member, health professional or counsellor can begin the healing process.
- Allow yourself to feel sad. It’s a healthy part of the grieving process.
- Keep your routine up. Keeping up simple things like walking the dog can help.
- Sleep. Emotional strain can make you very tired.
- Eat healthily.
- Avoid things that “numb” the pain, such as alcohol. It will make you feel worse once the numbness wears off.
- Maybe consider counselling if you feel stuck and unable to move forward.