In the age of knowledge and Dr. Google, there is a lot of misinformation about clinical disorders resulting in people either catastrophizing a few bad days or minimizing a depressive episode. People use terms like anxiety and depression loosely to signify a particular feeling in a moment of time. Some might have a few bad days, and say “I am so depressed,” while others will dismiss their depressive symptoms, qualifying them as being in ‘a funk’ or being ‘stressed.’ Given that 1 out of 4 people will struggle with a mental health disorder at some point in their life, it is important for us to be informed and educated about the most diagnosed mental illness: depression, says Dr. Saliha Afridi.
Although depression is a clinical mental health disorder which can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional, it is important for all of us to be aware of the signs and symptoms of this condition. The signs and symptoms of depression include low or tearful mood, an inability to enjoy the things you are used to enjoying, feeling withdrawn from friends and family, low energy, low concentration, low motivation, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, as well as a disruption in your sleep or appetite (too much or too little). Five or more of these symptoms must be present every day, more often than not, over a course of the last two weeks, and they must cause significant impairment in a person’s personal and professional life.
Most people who read the above signs and symptoms imagine a person sprawled over their bed crying, or slouched on their couch inhaling a tub of ice-cream, when the reality is that many people who are depressed look like they are “just fine,” and while they dig deep to show up for meetings, or family dinners, inside of themselves, they feel disengaged, disconnected and discontent. Celebrities such as Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga have all come out and talked about dark periods in their lives, where they made their appearances on sets or shows, looking fine, but inside felt the darkness of depression. So yes, you can be depressed and show up for your work, your children, your partner, and your life, but the ‘impairment’ is in the way you show up being less engaged, and less rewarding.
Some people might start to self-medicate during their depression, to lift themselves out of a low mood. They might start shopping unreasonably, going out and socializing excessively, over committing to work to keep their mind busy, or using substances to numb themselves of their dark thoughts and feelings.
So what should you do if you realize that you are struggling with symptoms of depression or have clinical depression?
Talk to a professional. This is the most important and critical step that most people do not take. They will usually say, “I am not that bad” or “my situation does not warrant a psychologist” when the truth is that they have been struggling with their depression for months on end. In fact, the majority of the people who are struggling with depression, never actually get the help they need and accept that life is an unhappy struggle. Seeking consultation and support from a professional will not only ensure that you get the proper diagnosis but also help instill hope in a time when you feel sucked under by your low mood.
Make sure you’re getting enough exercise. This is not easy to do when every move you make requires you to summon every ounce of energy inside of you—however, I encourage you to move even if you do not feel like it. Research shows that light exercise can be equally effective as antidepressants, without the side effects! So write a prescription to yourself to move 20 mins in the morning sun every day as part of your treatment of depression.
You are what you eat. Up to 90% of our serotonin (the neurochemical involved in anxiety and depression) is produced in the gut. If your gut is not happy, you can assume that you won’t be happy. Eat foods that are of the earth and give life, instead of those that are processed or unhealthy.
Guard your sleep. Depression can cause havoc on your sleep cycles so it is important to make an effort in this regard. Remember, sleep is done in the night but made in the day, so make sure you spend the day consciously tending to your circadian rhythms. Get some sunlight first thing in the morning, have blue light screen protectors on all your devices, limit your caffeine intake after 11am, and have a bedtime routine that ensures quality sleep.
Take time off technology. While you may be tempted to scroll your days away in entertainment technology, the constant stream of news, content, and social media can further burden and overwhelm your mind. Take a breather, step out to unwind or catch up on some easy reading to help your brain relax and recuperate.
Spend time with your tribe. According to one of the longest studies done to date by Harvard University, the most significant predictor of happiness is whether you have close, intimate relationships in your life. Social connections mitigate the effects and the strain of depression on your life. No, social media friends do not count; instead these are the people you call when you need money, or those who share in your joys and sorrows. Connect with those people in your life and spend time with them. Remember, they do not have to be family members or people you are related to but rather those who are a great source of strength and help relieve pent up frustrations.
Listen to the depression. While many people are focused solely on getting through it or treating it, they might miss what is being asked of them by the depression. Often times depression can communicate a disconnect from ourselves or what is most important to us, or it can be a way that our psyche pulls us away from the noise of the world (withdrawal) and makes us consider what is important to us and how we want to be spending our time. As Rumi said many centuries ago, “These pains are messengers, Listen to them,” so listen to what the depression is asking of you?
It is also important to note that depression can present itself differently in men, women, and children and also manifest as physical complications such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain (something that people first report to primary care doctors—somatic complaints as a result of depression—who then refer the individual to psychologists). However if you suspect that you have not been feeling like yourself lately, it is best to consult with a professional, even if you decide to take the journey back to wellness on your own.
About Dr. Saliha Afridi:
As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr Saliha Afridi has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples and families.