Ask Martha: Am I Depressed, How Can I Tell & What Can I Do About It?

In the first of our new mental health advice series, CBT therapist Martha Ryan advises a reader who thinks she might be depressed.

Common Signs of Depression

  • Changes to sleep pattern such as early morning wakening, difficulty falling asleep or a broken night’s sleep.
  • Changes in eating habits and appetite; mostly a reduced appetite.
  • Isolation, not wanting to go out and avoiding family or friends or when you do go out you feel the need to perform and wear a mask; pretending to feel good.
  • Taking less care in appearance or personal grooming.
  • Depression can often feel worse in the mornings.
  • The focus is usually internal and negative and thoughts tend to be of the past with themes of regret, blame or guilty feelings. The future tends to looks grim or hopeless when depressed.
  • In severe depression there can be a passive death wish, whereby the person feels life is not worth living – this can escalate to feeling suicidal.

Dear Martha,
I never feel particularly happy; I always feel a bit meh and find it hard to get excited or enthusiastic about anything. My sister wants me to go to the doctor and see about going on medication, but isn’t that a bit extreme? Could I be depressed, or is this normal?

Martha Ryan, CBT therapistDear Debbie,
Thank you for sharing your experience with me. Debbie, you raise some good points, so I want to cover them to really help give you a better understanding of what might be going on. I’ve broken this down into three main answers to make sure I answer you thoroughly.

1. Don’t discount what other people say

One of the things that jumps out at me is that your sister feels you need medication. There are two ways to look at this. One, is that family insight is often very useful for a person, their GP and therapists to get a better understanding of what’s going on for an individual, as it’s calling on an outside perspective to get an insight.

Having said that, the other way of looking at this is by looking at what YOU think about YOUR experience? You know you better than anyone else. There could be a tendency to have your sister (or other peoples’) opinions influence your own. Definitely take the feedback, especially if it comes from someone who you trust.

What she is giving you is gold because she is describing her experience of you. While that’s great to have, you need to reflect on your own experience of being you. Leave aside a clinical diagnosis of depression for now, because initially that can get people confused and distracted from what’s actually going on for them. To start with, simply ask yourself a few times during the day: “how do I feel?”

Tune into your feelings both emotionally, and physically in your body, and connect with your experience in a non-judgmental way.

2. Understand your feelings

Based on what you described, I think it’d be helpful to start focusing on the ‘wanted’ rather than only on the ‘unwanted’. So again, another thing that struck me in your question was that you tend to describe how you don’t feel… So you said “I don’t particularly feel happy or enthusiastic or excited…”

While this information is good to have, it’s even better to know exactly how you feel in a given moment. We have a rainbow of emotions that are all there to guide us into what we need or want to do. So for instance, when you say you feel “meh” most of the time, I’d be interested to know what emotion matches that description.

When people chase the condition of the “if … then…” promise, it means that happiness is always outside of their grasp.

Let’s say for example it’s feelings of boredom or disappointment: the beauty of that is that your feelings are giving you a message. If you’re feeling bored or disappointed in yourself or with life, then the message is it’s time to do something that inspires and ignites you.

It’s key to understand this, however: Don’t chase promises of external factors that you think will make you feel good. So for instance, telling yourself, “if I get a new job, if I lose weight, if I go travelling, if I find a partner…then I’ll be happy.”

When people chase the condition of the “if … then…” promise, it means that happiness is always outside of their grasp. Rather, this is about finding the answer from within. So you might ask yourself, “if I feel disappointed right now, then in this moment what would help me feel inspired and excited and ignited?” It could be as simple as a gentle walk or a warm bath or organising a photo album or phoning a friend to meet for a coffee.

3. Get help – there’s lots of it available

Finally, if you’ve been consistently been feeling “meh” for a while now, there’s no harm going to your GP to chat about it. Or let’s say you put in place the suggestions above and still feel “meh,” it would be good to go to your GP to get their opinion.

It could be a pattern of negative thinking with a pessimistic outlook on life that’s causing your emotional distress, or it could be a depressed experience. You’ll only really find out by chatting to your GP. It’ll benefit you either way as it will give you clarity on what’s going on for you, and more importantly know the steps to take that are helpful.

It’s so important to go to your GP to describe your experiences of your mood, energy and outlook as well as your feelings.

Even if you are depressed, it doesn’t necessarily mean the immediate answer is medication. Yes, medication is a definite treatment response for depression, and has great effective results. But you need to bare in mind that depression can be experienced in its mildest forms to its most severe.

This is why it’s so important to go to your GP to describe your experiences of your mood, energy and outlook as well as your feelings. At any time in our lives, we can feel depressed but that doesn’t mean we’re suffering from a clinical depression, nor does it mean that it’ll be like this forever.

In the sidebar are a few signs of depression to watch out for. Again, the intensity of how people experience these will vary from person to person, but these are some of the main themes in depression, and so it’s important to remember that everyones experience will be different and unique to them.

It really is about talking to a loved one or a GP, because it doesn’t have to feel this way. There are so many options to help from self-help books, mindfulness tapes and classes, support groups, one-to-one or group therapy, taking basic actions of self care and medication and hospital intervention if required. If any of these symptoms resemble what’s going on with you, just chat to your GP and find the helpful solutions that will bring you to the pleasant and desired feelings.

Martha Ryan is an accredited CBT Therapist, Mindfulness Teacher and Life Coach; Do you have a mental health and wellness question you’d love Martha to answer on the website? We’d love to hear from you: email your requests and queries to where they’ll be handled in the strictest of confidence.