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What is Depression?

Depression is a disorder that affects your thoughts, moods, feelings, behavior and physical health. People used to think it was "all in your head" and that if you really tried, you could "pull yourself out of it." Doctors now know that depression is not a weakness, and you can't treat it on your own. It's a medical disorder with a biological basis.

Sometimes, a stressful life event triggers depression. Other times depression seems to occur spontaneously, with no identifiable specific cause. Whatever the trigger, depression is much more than grieving or a bout of the blues.

Depression may occur as repeated episodes over a lifetime, with periods free of depression in between. Or it may be a chronic condition, requiring ongoing treatment over a lifetime. The disorder affects more than 18 million Americans of all ages and races.

Medications are available that are generally safe and effective, even for the most severe depression. With proper treatment, most people with serious depression improve, often within weeks, and can return to normal daily activities

The Main Types of Depression Include:

Major depression This type of mood disturbance lasts more than 2 weeks. Symptoms may include overwhelming feelings of sadness and grief, loss of interest or pleasure in activities you usually enjoy and feelings of worthlessness or guilt. This type of depression may result in poor sleep, severe fatigue, difficulty concentrating, change in appetite and suicide.

Dysthymia Dysthymia (dis-THI-me-uh) is a less severe but more continuous form of depression. It lasts for at least 2 years and often more than 5 years. Symptoms usually aren't disabling, and periods of dysthymia can alternate with short periods of feeling normal. Having dysthymia places you at an increased risk of major depression and suicide.

Adjustment disorders Adjustment disorders are often precursors to major depression. If a loved one dies, you lose your job or you're diagnosed with cancer it's perfectly normal to feel tense, sad, overwhelmed or angry. Eventually, most people come to terms with the lasting consequences of life stresses, but some don't. This is what's known as an adjustment disorder when your response to a stressful event or situation causes symptoms of depression. Some people develop an adjustment disorder in response to a single event. Among others, it stems from a combination of stressors. Adjustment disorders can be acute lasting less than 6 months or chronic lasting longer. Doctors classify adjustment disorders based on the primary symptoms.

Bipolar Disorder Having recurrent cycles of depression and elation (mania) is characteristic of bipolar disorder. Because this condition involves emotions at both extremes (poles), it's called bipolar disorder or manic-depressive disorder. Mania affects your judgment, causing you to make unwise decisions. Some people have bursts of increased creativity and productivity during the manic phase. The number of cycles at either extreme may not be equal. Some people may have several cycles of depression before having another manic phase, or vice versa.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a pattern of depression related to changes in seasons and a lack of exposure to sunlight. It may cause headaches, irritability and a low energy level.

Many people with depression have symptoms of anxiety as well. Anxiety that develops after age 40 is often related to depression rather than being an independent problem.