What Is Depression?
A fog. A shadow. A heavy weight. A great emptiness.
These are some of the ways people have described depression, one of the most prominent health struggles in our society. According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression.1
And yet, despite its prevalence, those who experience depression oftentimes feel alone in their suffering. They may feel as though there is no one else who understands exactly what they are going through. To some degree, this is true. No two experiences with depression are the same.2 For instance, Gina may feel unable to get out of bed, while Cindy may excessively work out to distract from the shame-based thoughts that seemingly engulf her. Rosalia may feel paralyzed by emotions of worthlessness, sorrow, and self-loathing, while Terry struggles to feel anything at all.
What Is the Difference Between Situational Depression and Chronic Depression?
Situational depression is a natural human emotion that everyone experiences. A temporary state of sadness, situational depression can be in response to anything from dreary weather or a fight with a loved one, to the loss of a job or the end of a relationship. Oftentimes situational depression can be resolved with time and adjustment to whatever distressing change has occurred to create a sudden shift in mood.3
Chronic depression, known as clinical depression, while similar, can develop into a more serious condition where the individual experiences more than a low mood in response to their circumstances. Clinical depression is generally more long-term and can be severe enough to interfere with one’s ability to function. It may sometimes lead to certain chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, becoming disrupted and oftentimes requires more resources, like medication and therapy, to be resolved.3
While there are differences, situational depression and chronic depression can also go hand in hand. For instance, a distressing event or circumstance can contribute to the onset of an individual’s clinical depression. Conversely, that same event can exacerbate the clinical depression an individual has already been living with for years.
Whether situational or clinical, depression is a very real experience for millions of people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and social status, and its effects can oftentimes feel isolating and insurmountable.
What Does Depression Feel Like?
There are many different combinations of symptoms that may indicate depression—over a thousand, in fact.2 Of these, two of the most common indicators of depression include a low mood and a loss of interest. In addition, some other indicators include:
- Feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness
- A lack of energy
- Changes in appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Difficulty concentrating
- A lack of motivation, excitement, or anticipation
- Feelings of emptiness or numbness
- Chronic aches, pains
- Overwhelming sadness or despair
- Feeling unable to make decisions
- Feeling as though nothing has any point
- Feeling weighed down, sluggish
- A desire to isolate, detach from others
- Feeling disconnected from your body
- Suicidal thoughts*
How Is Child Sexual Abuse Related to Depression?
Research suggests that by the age of 30, 85% of child sexual abuse survivors experience a mental health issue such as depression.4 This prevalence is due to a few reasons. Namely, even after the abuse has stopped, and the survivor has aged into adulthood, the effects of trauma can linger in both the mind and the body. And one of the more common effects is depression.
Why depression specifically? In some cases, the effects of childhood sexual abuse can feel so overwhelming and debilitating that depression may develop as a result. This is especially true for survivors who experience other physical or emotional effects of trauma, such as chronic pain, sleep disturbances, or anxiety. In some cases, the pain of what a survivor experienced during and after the abuse can seem so unbearable that the brain’s response to coping is to avoid or numb emotions altogether. And while this type of survival technique was useful, even necessary, for the child or teen to cope with their trauma, over time such emotional numbness can serve as a gateway to depression.
Another factor is that the trauma of child sexual abuse can increase the likelihood of a survivor feeling disconnected not only from themselves but from others. They may avoid forming or continuing relationships with others in order to protect themselves against further pain, loss, or betrayal. This loneliness can oftentimes facilitate some level of depression, which will heighten feelings of isolation and disconnection further.
Many survivors also struggle with feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and self-loathing that stem from their abuse. Over time, these emotions can wear down an individual’s sense of self and reframe how they perceive their role in the world. Based on the pain, shame, and sense of powerlessness the abuse caused, a survivor’s brain may process and make sense of the trauma by drawing conclusions that become negative self-beliefs. These negative self-beliefs reinforce the sense of purposelessness that accompanies depression and can make it more difficult for a survivor to break free from a depressive cycle. Some of these beliefs might include:
- I don’t matter, so nothing else matters.
- I have no control over anything, just like I didn’t back then. So why even try?
- Given all the pain I’ve experienced, it’s better not to feel anything at all.
- Based on how I’ve been treated before, I’m not worthy of love or support.
- Something terrible always happens. There’s nothing good to hope for.
- If I can’t “handle” my own trauma, clearly I can’t handle anything else in my life.
To learn more about negative self-beliefs and why they are common among survivors, visit here.
Is It Normal to Experience Both Depression and Anxiety?
Yes. Despite their seemingly opposing states—with anxiety being a high-energy state and depression a low-energy state—it’s common to experience the two symptoms as a cycle.5 For survivors, this cycle is often spurred by anxiety linked to their trauma. Because of the frightening, painful, and confusing experiences they suffered as a child or teen, a survivor’s brain will remain in a state of hypervigilance, always bracing for any signs of danger.
Living with near-constant tension or feelings of dread can tax the mind and heart, and feed feelings of anxiety which may persist even when no threat is present. And while a survivor is often fully aware that these high levels of distress are no longer serving them but rather making life more difficult, their anxiety will continue to dominate much of their everyday. With this continued, relentless anxiety, a survivor may feel helpless and defeated, which can lead into depression.
Another way anxiety can connect to depression is that a heightened limbic system can, over time, exhaust both the mind and the body. Often times this fatigue can increase the likelihood of experiencing a depressive state.
How to Cope with Depression
Depression can make the world seem like a hopeless place. But there is hope for survivors, no matter how debilitating your depression may feel. While depression is among the most common of mental health issues, it is also one of the most treatable. In fact, 80% to 90% of people who experience depression respond to treatment.2
Again, we strongly urge you to seek treatment as soon as possible by consulting with a medical professional. With their guidance, you can determine what resources will be most helpful to you. And while medication is an important factor for many people managing depression, it isn’t the only factor. Treatment may also include therapy, support groups, and making adjustments to various areas in your life.
These options may feel overwhelming right now, and it might seem impossible to get started, which is why one of the most helpful steps in beginning to manage depression is acknowledging where you are at, how your trauma may be impacting you, and what you need right now. This honesty with yourself can sometimes feel uncomfortable or painful, but by identifying what your needs currently are, you can more easily find solutions to fulfill those needs.