11 Warning Signs of Depression

African American Woman Looking Down
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Do you (or someone you’re concerned about) really have depression, or is it a case of the blues? It's not always easy to tell the difference, especially when there’s a good reason to feel down. Grief, losing a job, or a chronic illness can all cause behaviors that might be mistaken for depression, for example.


"Sadness is an emotion, whereas depression is an illness," says internist and geriatric psychiatrist Ken Robbins of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

True clinical depression differs from the blues in two key ways:

  • Severity: Symptoms are difficult enough to deal with that they interfere with everyday life.
  • Duration: Symptoms are present nearly all the time and last for more than two weeks.

The following 11 warning signs indicate that a person isn't dealing with normal, transient emotions but with the illness of depression. Note that symptoms vary by individual: A depressed person isn't likely to have all 11 symptoms at once, and their severity may shift. Depression can be mild or major; either way, if several symptoms are present and last for more than two weeks, you or someone you’re concerned about may need medical help.

1. Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings

This symptom looks like a low mood but persists even after time goes by and the cause of the bad mood has cleared up or receded.

What to look for: Blank stares, loss of interest in life, an inability to feel or express happiness or other emotions. Or the person may report just feeling "empty" or "numb."

What else to know: Often the depressed person isn't fully aware of this symptom. Try asking, "When’s the last time you were happy?"

2. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or helplessness

In an "Eeyore-like" pessimistic way, the depressed person can't help feeling that everything is wrong and it's his or her fault (rather than the fault of the situation or the illness itself). It's a hallmark sign of major depression. In mild depression, the feelings are similar but less extreme.

How to tell: The person seems unable to see any positive flip side to things or light at the end of the tunnel -- and feels little sense of control over choices or events. The person talks and acts as if he or she has no options, can't see a different path, is useless and meaningless. He or she may fixate on past mistakes, ruminating over them and expressing guilt and self blame.

What else to know: Listen for comments like these: "It's hopeless." "I can't do anything about it." "I have no choice." "Nobody cares." "I'm stuck." "I should have/could have/ if only…."

3. Frequent crying episodes

The crying may not seem to have a direct or obvious trigger; sobs often come "out of nowhere." But it's not normal to cry every day (though the depressed person may not realize this).

What to look for: In between episodes you witness, you may notice red eyes, sniffles, cracking voice, balled-up tissues, and other trails to tears.

What else to know: Not every depressed person cries; in fact, some never do. Research has shown that women are more inclined to this behavior than men. A 2001 University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study found that crying isn't related to the severity of depression and that people who cry more may have briefer depressive episodes.

4. Increased agitation and restlessness

Some people with depression fall on the "hyper" end of a spectrum of behaviors, where others are the opposite (see symptom #5).

What to look for: The person may seem unable to relax, more irritable than usual, quicker to anger, full of restless energy, seldom calm. Look for pacing, lashing out at others, frequent standing up and sitting back down.

What else to know: For the depressed person, everything seems magnified. So small slights or irritations aren't just pebbles in the psyche, they're giant boulders that get in the way of ordinary life.

5. Fatigue and decreased energy

Typically depressed people who don't show a lot of agitation and restlessness (symptom #4) experience the flip side of those behaviors -- an increased sluggishness and slowness.

What to look for: The person may complain of having no energy, of feeling unproductive, or of "slowing down." He or she may have quit exercising, seem tired a lot, move more slowly, and have slowed reactions. "To-Do" lists never get finished the way they once did. The person may skip work.

What else to know: Fatigue is a real mind-body problem. Low mood and loss of motivation are partly at work, as well as a physiological depletion of energy -- and the two forces keep reinforcing each other.

6. Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that were once pleasurable

This is one of the single most telling symptoms of depression.

What to look for: The person no longer takes pleasure in things that once brought enjoyment, whether the lives of children or grandchildren, a hobby or craft, exercise, cooking, book club, watching sports -- or anything. The person may begin to decline invitations, refuse to go out, not want to see friends or family.

What else to know: Some depressed people lose interest in sex. For others, sex functions as a kind of escape, used the same way some depressed people turn to alcohol or drugs.

7. Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions

"Fuzzy thinking" is often apparent both to the depressed person and his or her family, friends, and colleagues.

How to tell: Various mental slips may become obvious, such as forgetting appointments and errands, making checkbook errors, misplacing objects, forgetting names, avoiding making plans, postponing decisions or deferring them to others. The person may begin writing reminders to himself or herself or take a long time reading (because it's harder to focus). It may become harder to perform complicated tasks.

What else to know: Cognitive changes associated with depression can look like dementia; in fact, people with dementia are prone to depression, and vice-versa.

8. Sleeping too much or not enough

Disordered sleep and depression are closely related; in some people, depression manifests as insomnia (inability to fall sleep or to stay asleep), while others experience the opposite extreme: All the person feels like doing is sleeping.

What to look for: Regular sleep routines are disrupted; staying up too late or going to bed unusually early; being unable to awaken on time; complaining about a poor night's sleep; sleeping long hours but fitfully -- so the person never feels rested; excessive napping by day.

What else to know: Depression is a leading cause of sleep problems, in part because it interferes with natural biological rhythms.

9. Poor appetite or overeating

Again, the symptom tends to show up as one extreme or the other: The person loses interest in eating or falls into a pattern of constant, emotionally triggered eating.

What to look for: Missed meals, picking at food (especially if this is a change for the person), lying about food intake; loss of interest even in formerly favorite foods, mindless munching and other mindless eating, throwing up after eating; weight gain or weight loss.

What else to know: Depression is a common cause of the eating disorders anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. It's true both that depression can lead to eating disorders and that people with eating disorders can develop depression.

10. Expressing thoughts of dying or suicide

Depression is one of the conditions most commonly associated with suicide. It begins to seem like a logical way to end the pain and suffering. As many as 90 percent of those who commit suicide are clinically depressed, have a substance abuse problem, or both, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. (Many people with depression self-medicate with alcohol, which lowers inhibitions and increases the risk for suicide.)

What to look for: The intention may be expressed directly, such as, "I wish I were dead" or "I want to kill myself," or "I want to end it all." Or the threats may be indirect: "You'd be better off without me." "I can't go on." "I wish it were over." "Soon I won't be around any more." Also beware of a preoccupation with death or evidence of plans to follow-through, like buying a gun, hoarding pills, giving away money, or suddenly changing a will.

What else to know: If you think someone you love may be suicidal, don't leave him or her alone. Rather than leaping right to asking, "Are you thinking about suicide?" Robbins says, ask a series of questions that build on one another to assess the person’s state of mind: How are you feeling? Are you feeling depressed? Are you feeling hopeless? Are you wondering if life is worth living? Are you considering suicide? Have you made a plan? Encouraging the person to talk about the intended suicide actually lowers (but doesn't remove) the risk of following through. Keep the person safe until he or she can be brought to a doctor or therapist. Or call 911 or a suicide hotline (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (800) 273-8255).

11. Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that don't ease with treatment.

Depression is stressful. The physical effects of chronic stress, added to poor self-care brought on by changes in energy levels, sleep, and appetite, can cause an array of health problems.

What to look for: Increased self-medication (through pain relievers, alcohol, or abuse of prescription meds), increased complaints that don't seem to fit any kind of pattern, increased doctor visits (or refusal to see a doctor despite obvious complaints).

What else to know: Obviously any of these physical signs can be clues to health problems that are unrelated to depression. The point is to notice if these behaviors are clustering with other symptoms of depression -- and to get them addressed by a health professional so that they become one (or two, or three, or five) fewer bothersome aspects of the depressed person's life.

Silver lining: Getting a loved one to a doctor on the pretext of evaluating chronic symptoms allows you to also report the worrisome depressive symptoms, and get them checked out and, if necessary, treated. This is valuable, given that so many people with depression are in denial. After all, the majority of cases of depression, even the most severe, respond to treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.


Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

14 days, said...

I'm 16 and I started having depression since I was 15 I lost interested on everything I cry most of the time and nothing makes me happy I've been threw a lot of drama and it made it worst but I just wish I couldof get out ofthis darkness

30 days, said...

I am 13, and I have had depression since I was in third grade. I use to put on a smile, and pretend it was all ok because I never wanted to hurt anyone. I feel hopeless, and just like a peice of crap. I have never really told anyone the truth about how I feel because it would only make things wors. When I was 5 or 6 my unkle abused me and abused my little cousins in front of me, he also made me watch a movie that scared me and still gives me nightmares. He is the reason why I jump at my own shadow. And when my mom was pregnant with me, my dad found out and left us with nothing, even though I see him he has never told me he loves me. Also I am in love with a boy that thinks that I hate him because I am afraid that if I told him he would brake my heart and that would be the last straw for me. I think about killing my self to make things better, I feel like my death would be good for me and everyone els. I use to be able to keep everything in but I can't anymore. There is so much more that has happened to me and I have always felt like I am alone, but now I know death is not the answer. ( remember I am only 13 )

2 months, said...

I been crying my self to sleep almost for 2 years now (im 24 now). My friends (of 15+ years) who I needed the most just threw me away like it was nothing when they all got busy and when I needed them the most. They were always selfish but I always just tried to forgive them. Then while that was all going on my kickboxing coach who I trusted for over 7 years and really respected just started to blame me for everything. All these people when I needed them they just walked away like it was nothing. This isn't everything but ill stop here... I just want to feel loved and I just wanna feel happy again. I haven't been happy in a long time. All I feel is pain and sadness. I usually dont talk about my feelings with anyone but its been getting worse and worse. Now sometimes I cry when I wake up or when im driving or before sleeping. All I feel is hate in the world. Sometimes I think about ending it all but one thing thats stopping me is my mom. I love my mom so much that I could never do that to her. Shes the only one who I truly care about. I cant tell her about my problems because I dont want her to feel the pain because of me. Once I told her and she was so concerned she couldn't sleep and was so worried about me so I decided to go see a counselor. It helped at first then it started to stop helping. Only thing thats helping me cope with this is weed and drugs. I smoke everyday to help me forget but it always catches up to me eventually. Everything is falling apart

3 months, said...

I am 11 out of 11, I would never follow through on suicide or dying but it has been a thought. Everyday I feel like I’m failing, like I have nothing to add, nothing that will benefit people. I try my hardest everyday to make other people’s lives better because I don’t feel like mine is worth anything. I have trouble opening up to people including family and gaining trust in friends is extemely difficult. People look at me as confident and secure and if they ever learned about how I feel they would worry. I consistently think “who would miss me?” “Who would even care” I have felt this since I was 14 years old and I’m now 26 years old. I feel no different than I did before. I hide my feelings in gambling, working, buying expensive things, drinking, exersizing. I never seem to get ahead and sometimes just wish someone would understand with how I feel. But they never will, people don’t understand how difficult an internal battle with yourself is.

5 months, said...

My depression (I don't know if I really do have severe depression, all they did was a checklist) is affecting my school and social life. Going to school is something I dread every morning. I was truant all through middle school. I don't have the energy to get up. I can't help it. Not a day goes by where I don't blame myself for what I do and think of suicide. I can't cry at all. What is wrong with me?

5 months, said...

I have ten out of 11. No hyper. My loss of memory much stronger, I have A.D.D. My body ache have been a while. Lately I’ve been sleeping a lot more then usual. I keep blaming my marriage.

6 months, said...

I'm a junior in high school. I have about 9 or 10 out of the 11 since I would never commit suicide as it would tear my family apart. I know a lot of older generations consider us 21st century kids to be bratty, but the schooling system has gone so down hill in the way that they push every ounce of energy out of us and expect us to do everything in our capabilities to go to the best colleges, get the best grades. At my school, I was practically cornered into 3 AP classes and I get 5-6 hours of homework daily, this with all of my clubs, and my job. I am being stripped of my childhood. I no longer feel at peace and there is always a lingering feeling of angst, like something bad or sinister is about to come, I cry every day and I can't pinpoint how this started, all I know is that about a week after the start of my junior year (5 weeks ago) this has been constant, its even made me sick. My grades are going downhill at this point which scares the death out of me and is not helping what I think is starting depression, I no longer want to hang out with my friends, etc. I want to tell my teachers to give me a break but these days nobody cares about 'depressed teens', they expect them to act as a normal teen would, but depression is not normal and I am no longer able to achieve what I used to, it is a slump that I need help getting over, and i'm afraid if no one is there to help me, console me, or let me get through it, I will not be getting through it.

8 months, said...

I have 10/11 the only one I don't have is the suicidal eeekk I feel even more depressed.....

8 months, said...

My husband exhibits the majority of the symptoms mentioned in the article, but he is in denial, and is violently opposed to the idea that he is suffering from depression. He shuts down if I even get close to talking about it.

9 months, said...

I have a constant anxiety that I would get the worst disease in the world. this fear is stuck in my mind and haunts me. I am always scared , sweating and making things up in my mind .. this is surely a depression.

9 months, said...

I am 18 and I have 7 out of 11. So only 4 of these I don't have. Wow.

11 months, said...

I feel like I'm always letting someone down. Most of the time I feel like a complete failure, I'm doing things I wouldn't have done to avoid problems. I've been suffering with depression since 7th grade. The stress of not disappointing people is too much sometimes.

about 1 year, said...

i have 10 out of the 11 is that bad????

about 1 year, said...

I'm not sure if i have depression but i seem to cry everyweek and i hardly eat as much as i use to i hardly sleep now and ive been cutting since october last year and i seem to want to do sucidal stuff at times and feel hopless sometimes i seriously don't know whats wrong with me i seem to cry all the time i seem to cut and sometimes i dont want to be here no more

about 1 year, said...

I have all 11

over 1 year, said...

I have 8/10 of these symptoms.. I am a mix of 3&4 though.. Also does me almost never crying count as a symptom? Its in the what else to look for.. If so I have 9/10

over 1 year, said...

I'm not sure if I have depression, I exhibit a good lot of the traits listed, but at the same time, they're not on a daily basis. I think that I might have bipolar disorder, rather than depression. I'll go through several days feeling just fine or zealous, then have one to two days feeling hopeless (suicidal too). I tend to block people out and speak less on those days (not that I have anyone to speak with anyways, aside from my boyfriend.), as well as cry often. It's a cycle really. I'm fine, then I'm sobbing my eyes out feeling hopeless. It's not very beneficial to my love life of course, especially considering that my boyfriend suffers from chronic deprssion...

over 1 year, said...

I am a caregiver of a person with moderate to severe Alzhiemers . I also have two very ill family members. One is terminal. I am the matriarch of my family and have always been always been the one people my family went to for guidance and help. This is a role that I willingly gave. I suffered a head injury due to an car . My husband was driving .but has no memory of it or my head injury. accident.Due to the head injury I have problem with numbers, easily distracted . disorganized How do I know what is depression and what is a normal reaction to a difficult situation.