14 minutes

What Is Depression?

Medically Reviewed
Last Medically Reviewed on: March 30, 2023

These days, many people are talking about mental health and different mental health disorders and discussing things like what is depression? [1] That’s a good thing! But it also means that there can be a lot of misinformation out there about different disorders, what they look like, and how they can affect the people who have them.

Unfortunately, even when it comes to the most common mental health disorders, the media often mischaracterizes the disorder in ways that can be harmful for the people living with the real thing.

So, let’s talk about what depression actually is, what it looks and feels like, and how you can get help if you think you might have depression or are worried that a loved one might be living with the disorder.

The good news is, no matter what kind of depression you’re dealing with, you aren’t alone, and there are a lot of effective treatment options available for you.

what is depression

What Is Depression and How Is It Different From Normal Sadness?

One of the most common misconceptions about depression is that it’s just like feeling a bit sad or not having motivation. In some cases, that may be what depression looks like on the outside, but the symptoms of depression are much more complex and are usually longer lasting than simple emotions.

One of the biggest differences between being depressed and having depression is the length of time that the depressed feelings stick around, and how much they interfere with day-to-day life.

In most cases, to be diagnosed with depression, you have to have felt consistently depressed for at least two weeks. That’s important because it can be normal, after distressing events or just because of natural changes in mood, to feel depressed sometimes. But the symptoms of depression shouldn’t last very long on their own.

It’s only when these feelings last for two weeks or longer and start to interfere with normal life, that they can be called a disorder.
There are a lot of symptoms of depression other than just feeling sad as well. It’s common for people dealing with depression to talk about not feeling anything at all, or not feeling sad, but not being able to feel happy either.

We’ll talk more about the symptoms of depression in a moment. First, lets answer some common questions about depression.

Is Depression Genetic?

Clinical depression [2] does run in families, but that doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to have depression just because one or both of your parents have the disorder.

Instead, most experts tend to think of genetics as being a potential risk factor for depression, rather than a cause. People whose families have a history of depression are more likely to develop depression, but they may not get it. Other people, who have no known family history of mental disorders, including depression, may develop depression without genetic risk factors.

Like any disorder, the events in your life, your lifestyle, the choices you make, and even where you live can have a big impact on whether you develop depression or not.

So, remember, you aren’t doomed to get depression, even if you do have a family history, and you aren’t to blame if you get depression without a family history. Like all mental health disorders, depression is complex.

What Are Common Risk Factors For Depression?

Depression is a chemical imbalance that causes chronic low mood and a range of other symptoms. There can be some specific risk factors that lead to depression, but it can also seem to develop spontaneously.

So, while we do know about some risk factors, don’t use them to confirm or rule out depression as a possibility. Depression can only accurately be diagnosed by mental health and medical professionals.

These risk factors are simply used to help determine people who are at high risk of developing mental health disorders, and people whose risk is, on the surface, average, or low.

Here are some common risk factors:

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress, from a job, financial stress, situations out of your control, or other situations can all cause changes in the way you think and feel. Gone on long enough, stress can even change the way your brain functions and the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain.

That makes stress a significant risk factor for depression, and also makes managing stress one of the more important ways to control and manage stress levels when you’re dealing with the condition.

Once stress causes a depressive episode or a longer lasting depression, treating the depression isn’t as simple as reducing your stress levels. Chronic-stress induced depression should generally be treated the same as other kinds of depression, which may include a combination of lifestyle changes, stress management, talk therapy, and medications.

Having Had A Previous Depressive Episode

Depression isn’t always a chronic condition. People can suffer from depression for a few weeks, a few months, or a few years and then get better. There are also chronic forms of depression, but they are generally longer lasting and don’t go away as completely as what’s called a depressive episode, or a clinically relevant but temporary depression.

However, if you’ve had one of those depressive episodes, even if you’ve recovered and gone on to live a normal, depression-free life, you may be at increased risk of having another depressive episode. This kind of depression may be brought on by stress, specific life events, the weather, or a combination of those and other factors, and may not be entirely predictable.

Some people have depression once and never again, while other people have depression seasonally, or at different times in their lives and not others. It’s not entirely predictable person to person, but you can learn to recognize the warning signs and symptoms of an oncoming depressive episode for yourself.

Having A Family Member With Depression Or Another Mental Health Disorder

While depression is not entirely genetic, meaning that someone who had depression won’t necessarily pass it on to their children, and that there aren’t any specific genes that we know cause depression, genetics can be another risk factor.

If someone in your family has been diagnosed with depression you have a greater risk of developing the disorder. You might also have a higher risk of depression if you have a family history of other mental health disorders.

The more people in your family that have mental health disorders, and the more closely related to you those relatives are, the greater the potential risk.

However, no amount of family history means that you will certainly have depression or any other mental health disorder, and managing your other risk factors for depression can still help to lower your overall risk of developing depression.

Certain Chronic Medical Conditions

Having chronic health conditions can also sometimes be a risk factor for depression. The reason for the added risk differs depending on the condition. For one thing, some chronic conditions might be related to depression, and someone who has one is more likely to have the other, like Fibromyalgia.
When conditions commonly occur together they have a greater chance of being comorbid, which may mean that the conditions are related, that they have similar causes, or that one condition can lead to the conditions that cause the other.

In other cases, having a chronic health condition may make depression more likely because of the added stress of having and managing the condition, the realities of living with the condition, or the isolation and lack of access that can sometimes associated with certain health conditions.

For an example, having HIV was a bigger risk factor when HIV was first being discovered and studied, not because depression and HIV were caused by the same things, but because having HIV was both more disruptive for your life, more isolating, more stigmatized, and more likely to end with serious health consequences and death. The depression that often came with HIV was because of the way people dealt with the condition and the additional problems they faced, not necessarily because of the HIV itself.

Certain Medications

Some medications may also impact your risk of developing depression. Usually, these medications have depression as a potential side effect, and warnings to seek help right away if you start experiencing the symptoms of depression, or if you start thinking about self-harm or suicide.

The good news is that medications that cause depression don’t usually cause long-lasting side effects. The symptoms of depressions should go away shortly after you stop taking the medication, and you can work with your doctor to find some alternative medications.

In the case that your symptoms do persist after a medication brings on depression or makes existing depression worse, you should work with your doctor or doctors to come up with a new treatment plan to help manage whatever pre-existing conditions you were dealing with and the new or worsened depression.

You shouldn’t try to deal with depression on your own, and you shouldn’t dismiss any low feelings you get while taking a medication known to cause or worsen depression.

Some Character Traits

Character traits can also increase your risk of depression, though we don’t know precisely whether these traits cause depression, or whether people with a higher risk of developing depression are also likely to have these traits for the same reason.

To be clear, like genetics, having these traits is not a guarantee that you will develop depression, they are simply one risk factor among many.
For instance, one trait that can impact your risk of depression is how optimistic or pessimistic you are. The more likely you are to think that things will generally work out in a positive way, the less likely you are to develop depression, while the opposite is true if you tend to think that things will work out in a negative way.

Other traits, like thinking you generally have control over the outcome in your life, can be protective, while the opposite is also a risk factor.
There are many different character traits that can be factors in developing depression, or in overcoming depression.

To be clear, those traits aren’t bad, or your fault, or the only reason someone does or doesn’t develop depression. They are just risk factors, like how having pale skin can increase your risk of sunburn. Nothing more.

Having A History Of Trauma

Having a history of trauma can also increase the risk of developing depression, along with other mental health disorders. For example, trauma can increase your risk of PTSD, which can have many similar symptoms to depression, and PTSD and depression can be comorbid as well.

Trauma can also be a problem because it increases the amount of stress you have to deal with as well. Traumatic experiences are inherently stressful and dealing with the aftermath of the actual event can be stressful as well.

A history of trauma may also change your perception of your control over life or alter some of your traits in ways that can make depression more likely.

Lastly, the high stress of trauma can also change the way your brain works and the balance of neurotransmitters in your brain. Repeated trauma can make those changes more likely or more severe, which can lead to other kinds of mental health disorders over time.

Treatment for mental health disorders can be as effective for dealing with imbalances resulting from trauma as effectively as any other mental health disorder.

Experiencing Loss

Loss can also sometimes be a trigger for depression, especially combined with other risk factors like social isolation, a history of trauma, or chronic stress.

Losses of loved ones have a profound impact on us, and sometimes that impact is longer lasting or more severe than typical. If the normal reaction to loss lasts longer than normal, is more severe than typical, or begins to impede normal function for longer than typical or more than the person can handle while maintaining their typical lifestyle, it may rise to the level of a mental health disorder.

Like other kinds of depression, these changes may be a long-lasting disorder or just a temporary one, but they can still benefit from treatment and attention.

In some cases, grief may turn into depression, either episodic or chronic, though, like the other risk factors on this list, loss does not always mean that depression will follow.

Significant Life Changes

Like chronic stress and loss, significant changes in someone’s lifestyle can sometimes lead to depression. For instance, moving across country can change your situation, lifestyle, schedule, and even your circadian rhythm or rhythm of the seasons might be out of sync with the place you live.

Changing jobs, becoming a parent, and other big life events, including positive events, can all be triggers for depression and other mental health disorders.

This kind of trigger can sometimes be confusing, especially if it happens after becoming a parent, retiring, or making a significant accomplishment that should be a happy time. Remember that this reaction is still natural, and that you shouldn’t blame yourself if you don’t feel the way you want to in response to specific events.

It’s okay to let yourself genuinely feel whatever feels true to you in the moment, even if that turns out to be depression.
The good news is that treatment is available for depression, and can be effective no matter what circumstances brought these feelings on.

Substance Abuse

Certain kinds of substance abuse can also increase your risk for depression. Using drugs can also be isolating, stressful, or expose you to other kinds of stress that can increase your risk of depression independent of the drug use.

At the same time, many drugs can make it easier for your brain to become depressed, even drugs that are commonly used like alcohol or tobacco.

Other drugs, like cocaine, can cause significant problems because they change the way your brain works and the balance of neurotransmitters. Specifically, cocaine can cause overproduction of serotonin which then makes your brain reduce the amount of serotonin it produces even later, after the cocaine wears off.

Party drugs can frequently have that risk, or other problems at the same time.

These risk factors can all also be good reasons to reach out for help sooner, especially if you start to notice that you’re dealing with a chronically low mood or some of the other signs and symptoms of depression that we’ll discuss in a moment.

When Is Depression Most Likely To Develop?

Unlike some mental health disorders, there’s not really a set time when depression is more likely to develop. Children can have depression, and it’s a common mental health disorder among both teens and adults.

Depression is slightly more likely to develop after a high-stress situation, loss, and trauma, but even then you may not see symptoms for months or years after a high-risk situation resolves. Sometimes depression has no known trigger and seems to develop organically.

That does mean that this disorder can be somewhat unpredictable. But, the good news is that this disorder is fairly well understood and there are a lot of treatment options available to the medical community.

Signs And Symptoms Of Depression

There are a lot of potential signs and symptoms of depression. It’s important to remember that you can only be diagnosed by professionals, but if a lot of these signs and symptoms sound familiar it might be a good idea to talk with a medical professional about your concerns.

Here are some common symptoms of depression:

  • You feel tired all the time
  • You don’t have much motivation
  • You have a low mood all or most of the time, especially in the morning
  • You feel like you need to hide how you feel in social situations
  • It’s hard to want to do things, even things you used to enjoy
  • You have a hard time remembering things
  • You have a hard time taking care of yourself, like taking a shower, eating regularly, or brushing your teeth.
  • Your appetite has recently changed
  • You regularly eat too much
  • You regularly eat too little
  • You sleep too much
  • You sleep too little
  • You feel restless, or like something is holding you back
  • You have aches and pains that don’t go away with treatment
  • You have regular headaches that don’t go away with treatment
  • You feel anxious, sad, or empty a lot of the time

You might have noticed that some of the common symptoms of depression are contradictory, like sleeping both too much and too little. Some of that is because different people have different symptoms, and also because your symptoms may not be consistent over time.

For instance, people with depression may also deal with insomnia that stops them from sleeping most of the time, but then sleep much longer than they should when they are able to get some rest.

You can also have other symptoms associated with your depression, especially if you have another comorbid disorder. Comorbid just means that you have two different disorders at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that either disorder is worse than usual.

However, it is important, if you’ve been diagnosed with more than one mental health disorder, to ask how and if that impacts your treatment and how to best move forward with both diagnoses.

You should also know that depression can affect people differently, and there are different kinds of depression that sometimes need different treatment and different coping mechanisms. It may take a while to find the right combinations of treatment, or even to know for sure what type of depression you’re dealing with.

How To Know When It’s Time To Ask For Help

Getting help for mental health disorders can be challenging and even frightening, especially if you aren’t very familiar with the disorder or have some common misconceptions about mental health.

It’s important to know that getting help for depression and other mental health disorders isn’t a sign of weakness or that you’ve failed. It’s just like having other kinds of disorders, like a broken bone or problems with your digestion. Getting help isn’t weakness, it’s recognizing that other people have expertise that can help you live your life more fully.

As to when you should get help, that’s largely up to you. It’s generally a good idea to get help if you feel like your feelings are holding you back, or if you feel like your depression is getting worse. You should also seek immediate help if you’re thinking about hurting yourself or attempting suicide. There are other options, and treatment can help you find better alternatives.

Your symptoms don’t have to be very bad for it to be worth getting treatment. Remember that therapists aren’t just there to help with mental health problems. They can also help with the day-to-day challenges that make any life difficult or just give you someone to talk to and to work out problems with.

If you think you might benefit from depression treatment, it’s probably a good idea to reach out.

Types Of Depression Treatment

There are a lot of different options out there when it comes to treating depression, and not everyone responds the same way to different kinds of treatment. Finding the right balance of treatment options is important for getting a successful outcome.

Talk therapy is one of the best-known types of treatment for depression [3], but did you know that there are a lot of different approaches to talk therapy, both individual therapy, and group or family therapy?

Common approaches include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Psychodynamic Psychotherapy
  • Therapy pets
  • Holistic or Integrative therapy
  • Humanistic therapy
  • Client-centered therapy
  • And many more!

Each of these therapeutic method targets the symptoms of depression and helps people cope with and overcome their depression in different ways. Different therapists will be familiar with a range of approaches, and often therapy is a blend of different techniques applied however the therapist finds works best for the patient.

Group therapy, family therapy, or interpersonal therapy can also be helpful, and can offer different insight and treatment approaches than individual therapy alone. Lifestyle changes may also be recommended to deal with depression. Things like spending more time outside, exercising, or developing a mindfulness practice have all been shown to help reduce feelings of depression and increase feelings of happiness or contentedness.

These approaches can be adapted to people of different ability levels and temperaments to suit the individual needs of the patient. Medications are another treatment option. Medication works by altering the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain to help combat the physical signs of depression, like lower levels of serotonin or dopamine, or altered brain structures that may produce more or less of certain neurotransmitters than normal.

Finding the right medication for a patient can take time, and different medications affect different people to a different extent. Medication treatment for teens can also be challenging because teens are undergoing a lot of physical changes in both their bodies and their brains, so the medication that works for a while might stop working as their bodies and brains mature.

This process isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a sign that brains and neurochemistry are complicated, and that it takes work and flexibility to find the right combination for different people. We truly are all unique, and mental health medication is one more way to prove it.

How To Get Depression Treatment For Teens

How To Get Depression Treatment For Teens

There are a lot of options out there when it comes to getting treatment for depression. We would encourage adults to reach out to their primary care doctor or a local therapist to learn more about the options and different kinds of treatment available.

When it comes to treating depression in teens it can be more complicated. Puberty means that a lot of changes are happening very quickly, including changes in the brain.

For teens that are having a hard time, or who haven’t had much success in other kinds of treatment for their depression, Base Point Academy offers another option. In a controlled and safe setting, we provide personalized treatment for teens, along with the support they need while we work to find the right combination of treatments and coping tools.

Depression is complicated, but with treatment, it can get better.

If BasePoint Academy sounds like a good option for your teen, contact us to learn more about the program and how we can help. We also offer complimentary same-day assessments for teens if you aren’t sure which program is best for you and your teen.

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[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2020, October). What is depression? Retrieved from on 2022, November 28

[2] Christiansen, S. Verywell Health. (2021, February 9). What is clinical depression? Retrieved from  on 2022, November 28

[3] Cleveland Clinic. (2023, January 13). Depression. Retrieved from on 2023, March 22