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What is a depressive episode?
A major depressive episode is a period of time (at least 2 weeks) when you feel depressed or lose interest in things you generally enjoy. You feel sad, have low energy, lose interest in things you care about, and there could be changes to your sleep patterns.
These experiences are not typical for you. It arises and stays for a period of time and then goes away. But it can happen again and again. When you have one or more depressive episodes, it falls under the overarching diagnosis of major depressive disorder.
Most common symptoms
A depressive episode lasts for at least 2 weeks and can vary in duration. —Dr. Bobbi Wegner
A depressive episode causes low mood and loss of interest in the things you love for at least 2 weeks. Other symptoms of depression include sleep changes, loss of energy, fatigue, and irritability.
- Depressed mood, most of the day, everyday
- Loss of interest in the things you love
- Sleep changes (sleeping more or less)
- Loss of energy
- Weight loss
- Inability to concentrate
- Feelings of guilt or worthless
- Thoughts of hurting yourself and suicidal thoughts
Other symptoms you may have
- Difficulty with memory, concentration, and organization
- Weight gain
- Irritability rather than sadness, often seen in kids
- Body pain
About 7% of the U.S. population experiences major depressive disorder and depressive episodes. It can happen at any time, but the first one often happens around puberty or a little later.
Other risk factors include having a negative view of things, adverse life experiences (like job loss, grief, trauma, lack of money), negative environment (like poor living conditions, lack of social support), and a family history of mental illness. As many as 40% of people with depression have a family history of it.
If you are dealing with depression, first realize you are not alone. Many people experience it.
Secondly, understand that it is a medical condition that needs treatment. It’s not just that you’re feeling down. Untreated depression can be dangerous and is the leading cause of suicide, according to a study published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Many mental health providers are trained to help you get through a depressive episode.
Depressive episodes are part of major depressive disorder. You can have just one episode or they can recur over time. The intensity of depression can also range from mild to severe. The thing is, although depression is a medical condition that requires intervention, you will get used to noticing the early signs, which allows you to manage it earlier and more effectively. —Dr. Wegner
Although there is not one direct cause of depressive episodes, there are a few things that may them more likely:
- A family history of depression
- A personal history of depression
- Other medical disorders (both physical and psychiatric disorders)
- Poor social factors (like lack of money or social support)
- Negative thinking
The good news is that depressive episodes are treatable and many mental health providers are trained to help. About 80% to 90% of people respond well to treatment.
The most common treatment for depression is talk therapy (like cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT), medication (antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications), behavioral health changes (like exercise), and sometimes a combination of all three. You can find a local mental health provider at psychologytoday.com
Common medications for the treatment of depression are:
- Anti-anxiety medication
- Transcranial magnetic stimulation for severe depression
- Electroconvulsive therapy for treatment-resistant, severe depression only
Depression coping skills
Depression can present as irritability, not just sadness, especially in kids. Body pain and psychosomatic issues are also related to depression. It is the body’s way of expressing pain. —Dr. Wegner
- Get to know your own warning signals of a depressive episode (sleep disruption, low mood, change in appetite), and seek treatment early.
- Manage the parts of your health that you can—get adequate sleep, have healthy eating habits, exercise regularly, and try to include stress-reducing activities like yoga and meditation.
- Take medications exactly as prescribed.
- Continue to see your therapist and have regular check-ins with the doctor prescribing your medication.
- If you experience side effects, tell your doctor.
- If you haven’t had symptoms for 6 months or more, you may want to talk to your doctor about the possibility of tapering off your medications.
- Always check with your doctor first before making any changes to your medications.
Having healthy lifestyle behaviors helps prevent depression, like:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating healthfully
- Stress management like meditation
- Talking about your feeling and thoughts early
Dr. Bobbi Wegner is a Supervising Clinical Psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine, a Lecturer in Human Development and Psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and CoFounder of nouVenu: a virtual platform that provides real support for real parents from real experts. She is on The Board of Advisors of Ignite Mental Health, developed out of Harvard Innovation Lab (like Buoy). Dr. Wegner writes and speaks nationally on modern families, stress, and coping, and also has a specialization in Clinical Health Psychology. She has a column on Psychology Today (Perfectly Imperfect Parenting), is a Parenting Expert on NBC News Learn, and is on the Today Show Parenting Team. Her book on raising boys is due out Spring 2021 with New Harbinger.