Sadness, Mild Depression, and Chronic Depression
Early intervention and medical treatment are the best responses if depression starts to take hold. At the same time, since everyone feels unhappy sometimes, it is important to distinguish between serious chronic depression and mere sadness. Everyone is unhappy sometimes in response to some public or private event or, at times, for no obvious reason. There is, however, an important difference between sadness and depression.
Here is how Emma Parker Bowles, who has bipolar disorder, described her experience with depression in an essay in the Daily Mail: “I can feel when an episode is coming on. And the curse of it is that it is not triggered by anything. I know this is not everyone's experience; for many it is triggered by an event or a devastating loss. For me, I can sense that it is on the horizon, like an animal when an earthquake is about to happen. I try to keep going about my business but everything is overshadowed by feelings of dread and foreboding. I start to feel emptier and emptier, like there is a leaking valve in my soul and it is starting to seep away. Indecision creeps in, concentration creeps away. Everything is bleak and grey.”
Bowles's experience is clearly different from common sadness, which everyone experiences. Brief periods of sadness are normal and they don't keep people from functioning in other ways. Occasional sadness is part of the balance of a life. When it lasts for many days or weeks, however, it can become pathological.
Sadness is not depression. Sadness does not cause you to lose all interest in people and activities, or to withdraw from society. It does not leave you unable to get out of bed, leave your home, or make even the smallest of decisions. It does not wreak havoc on your eating and sleeping habits. Most important of all, sadness does not make you suicidal and obsessed with death.
If you have bipolar disorder and feel sad now and then for a day or so, you may not be showing a symptom of an illness. In fact, it might even signal a healthy mental outlook, since it is normal to feel sad in response to sad events. People with bipolar disorder, however, must be especially careful in distinguishing between feeling a little blue and the beginning of a depressive episode. If you are not sure, check with your doctor or therapist. Keep ahead of your feelings to keep them under control.
Mild and Chronic Depression
Sometimes minor or mild depression can follow specific incidents. Or it can be a lingering condition called dysthymia. Therapy may identify the cause of the depression and antidepressants might be prescribed on a short- or long-term basis, depending on your illness and the practices of your doctor.
Mild depression allows people to function, but half-heartedly. They may seem to be going through the motions, their minds elsewhere. Some studies have raised doubts about the effectiveness of antidepressants prescribed for cases of mild depression but the condition still should be treated if it affects a person's quality of life. Lifestyle changes, therapy, and some medications may be able to relieve symptoms and prevent the condition from getting worse.
Antidepressant medications may or may not be right for you if you become depressed. Antidepressants by themselves are not an appropriate treatment regimen if you have bipolar disorder. In fact, they can make things much worse by sending you into full-blown mania. Depending on your personal situation and the preference of your doctor, you may be given temporary medications and different long-term medicines to control your moods, including depressive episodes. This is one more reason it is so important to be under a doctor's care for bipolar disorder.
Major, chronic depression goes far beyond sadness. In fact, to sufferers, death might seem the only way to escape from it. You do not have a “good cry” in response to major depression; instead, you might cry uncontrollably, without an obvious cause. Or you might reach a point where you don't bother to cry, as joy, motivation, and a reason for living seems to be sucked out of you.
This is the metaphor Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, who suffered from depression, used when she created the eerie creatures she called Dementors. These ghostly entities circle, corner, and then paralyze victims as they draw joy from them, leaving despair and depression. They were among the most terrifying threats in a series of books filled with scary magical and mystical creatures.
Major depression is not something you can snap out of by remembering an upbeat saying or forcing yourself to smile. It requires medical intervention.