How depression feels

In the United States, clinical guidelines and/or DSM-V Criteria describe specific signs and symptoms professionals can use to diagnose depression*. In this section of the website, we focus on something different: how depression feels to young adults while they are living inside of it, as described by those we interviewed. (For summaries of how it feels for young adults to cycle in and out of depression, or how it feels to be healing from it, see ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’ and ‘Depression and healing.’)

Young adults have a variety of experiences with depression, but one thing all those we talked to shared is the feeling that they are somehow separated from the rest of the world. Each person described, in one way or another, being in their “own little world,” losing their motivation to do things, and becoming socially isolated. One person talked about “feeling so alien to the rest of the world around me.” Sam said that when he’s depressed he has to “unplug and not really communicate with anyone.”

Marty describes how he could not get out of bed.
Interview Transcript

I would just stay in my room, under my covers. And I, I remember looking outside the window and just thinking to myself, watching cars go by and just thinking to myself how, how do you get in your car and just go you know, go about your day? I remember that, that was a big part of me thinking about my depression.

DEP Marty
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Marty lives with his girlfriend in temporary housing. He is currently looking for work and a good place to live in preparation for the birth of his first child. He is Caucasian.

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For many people, that sense of isolation was accompanied by feeling overwhelmed. Some described this as everything becoming unmanageably “abrasive to my senses”: bright lights, groups of other people, noise, daylight. Others talked about everyday responsibilities like school work becoming “frightening,” or dissolving in tears while in public without knowing why.

Sam says that during bad periods of depression, his experience of being overwhelmed is itself overwhelming.
Interview Transcript

I was spending hours a day in my room, sometimes never leaving my room. And that was the second period of extended, prolonged depression that I felt. I’d been seeing a counselor with the university for most of that year, but they were very surface level chats in which I would say, yeah, this happened to me in my childhood, but I hadn’t really processed how it was still affecting me. And, all of a sudden, that changed on a dime, to be constantly coming in and setting up emergency meetings. Not because I was actively suicidal, though I was experiencing suicidal ideation at that point, but just because this sense of being overwhelmed was overwhelming and I didn’t have any other outlet with which I could articulate that.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

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Metaphors about depression

For many of those we interviewed, ordinary language and descriptions were not nuanced enough to capture the complexity of how depression feels. Instead, they invented figures of speech (metaphors), or a comparison between their depression and something else (analogies). One person with mild depression said it was like “the most uncomfortable nothing.” Others who were suffering more intensely said it was like being stuck in a hole or “very tight bubble,” being “uncomfortable in my own skin,” or living in a “shroud of darkness.” Ryan described his depression as “like you have this huge ball of yarn that you’re never going to untangle but you keep trying anyways and it’s just painstaking.” Colin says for him depression can be a form of tunnel vision, and feeling better would mean getting his peripheral vision back.

When he is depressed, Joey sees the world as a dead field; when he's not depressed, it can be more like an awesome forest.
Interview Transcript

Because you’re in this like mindset, you just see you know like a dead field, you know, with a bunch of flowers like wilted and nobody there and so, I don’t know. In a less, it’s not necessarily that religious but I do feel like that your mind like, your, whatever is going on in your mind does like almost like change the world around you and in some profound ways. And so, yeah, I guess that was kind of how I looked at it or it was like do you just want to stare at dead fields or do you want to like see, you know like, an awesome forest with a bunch of people running around, having a good time.

DEP Joey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 26

Background: Joey lives in an apartment in an artists’ building in an urban area near where he had gone to college. He works part time in retail stores and is a musician. He is White.

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Shayne sees her two cats as representing different sides of her: the outgoing, friendly side and the depressed, anxious one.
Interview Transcript

It’s funny because they represent me so much in a certain way. Walter always wants to be pet, petted and he always wants you to give him all the pets and he’s super outgoing and super loving. He’ll just sit on someone’s lap, like brand new person, never been in the house before. He’ll just sit on their lap and get hair all over them, you know. He loves it. Richard is more standoffish. He doesn’t like being picked up. He’s not the friendliest cat. He’ll let you pet him if he feels like it. So it’s funny because I think they’re both like parts of me. They both, they both reflect parts of my personality which is really cute, I feel. Because Walter always wants attention and I’m super outgoing and I always want to make new friends, and then parts of me are like, when I get depressed or when I’m like feeling anxious, I’m like I don’t want to talk to anyone right now, like. I just want to do my own thing, you know, put my headphones in and zone out, you know, like. It’s like cats.

Yeah, it’s. And then you’re more like Richard?

Yeah, and then I’m more like Richard. So, I like my cats. They’re, they’re super funny. They remind me of me, that’s why I like them. They’re like my little babies that are fuzzy and have, walk on four legs [laughter]. So, yeah.

DEP Shayne
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Shayne lives in a house with two roommates and three cats. She works in research, exercises regularly, and does art. She is White.

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For Elizabeth, being depressed is like being a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, which just doesn't fit.
Interview Transcript

You know when you’re trying to do like, a jigsaw puzzle and you think you have the right piece and it just doesn’t fit in. Something clicks that’s just wrong and you, I just feel wrong. I feel like I’m that piece that just really wants to fit and it just can’t no matter how hard you’re trying.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

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Numb, empty, comfortable in misery

Many people talked about emptiness of one kind or another as integral to their experience of depression. Jackson described the feeling as being “dead inside.” Colin said depression is being “empty and lost and so un-expressibly sad.” For Sophie, it is a “constant sort of flat line state,” going through the motions feeling “empty and gray.”

After a bout of intense sadness and crying, Leanna feels the numbness of depression descend. This is the scariest part of being depressed.
Interview Transcript

I usually felt a lot, like it was like a nice comfortable numbness afterward, of just like how, what I would just think of someone who is like on hard drugs like heroin would feel, like just like a calm, nothing can affect me now. Like now I can actually just go through my day like a cement block, and that’s terrible because that numbness from the depression is something else in itself honestly. The numbness is like the scariest thing that I think my friends and family have witnessed with me. It’s just that literally where is, where is she? Because that’s, that’s her body, but that’s not her.

DEP Leanna
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Leanna lives with her husband and many pets in an apartment complex in a suburb outside a large town in a rural area. She is Caucasian.

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When he was depressed, Jacob didn't feel enjoyment: he just felt empty.
Interview Transcript

So I was doing all the right things, I was doing really well in school, I was on a bunch of athletic teams, I had friends, so there was nothing really wrong per say with what was going on. I just felt like I didn’t really understand why I was doing all these things I was supposed to be, people were supposed to enjoy high school and I didn’t. I just went everyday kind of begrudgingly and I mean, I didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of it. I was like what was the point of what I am doing here? And I didn’t get a whole lot out of my social relationships either, you know, friendly or romantically. I felt like I was just going through the motions and doing what typical high schoolers do. But I wasn’t, I wasn’t feeling the impacts like I thought I should be. Everything just felt sort of empty.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

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Many people do eventually become motivated to ease the dark feelings associated with their depression. But for others the miseries of depression can grow to feel very comfortable. For some, it creates a passive yet powerful pull to “wallow” or “give in” to depressed habits and feelings. For others, these feelings grow to be the familiar ground on which they want to remain. As Leanna put it, “… depression can kind of sometimes be like a security blanket, it can kind of be like something you want to immerse yourself in because it’s such a strong feeling that you think that like this is how I’m supposed to feel.”

Pete's depression sometimes keeps him locked up in a 'comfy prison.'
Interview Transcript

…into my room and lock it up. And it’s just to me, it’s, it’s just, it’s like being in a very comfy prison. So it’s like it’s, it’ssomething I don’t want to do, but it’s so familiar. It’s just so familiar, it’s just so cozy.

So it feels safe and relaxing?

Yeah, but even wanting to go back there, just makes me like mmmm…like why would I want to go back to a place that I want to go to every time I get upset?

DEP Pete
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Pete lives with his mother and cat in an apartment in a large city. He is Hispanic. He has worked various jobs in the past and is looking for work.

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Elizabeth describes wanting to protect her depression because it feels comfortable, and hiding it from professionals she saw after a suicide attempt who might force her to address it.
Interview Transcript

So a psychiatrist brought me into a room which I was very happy about at that point and I remember her asking me you know, “Were you trying to hurt yourself?” And obviously the answer was yes, people don’t just take a bottle of pills to not hurt themselves, but I told her, “No.” Because I was really in a place at that point where I was trying to get help and I was trying to get better, but I was in a place where I was really trying to protect the depression, because depression is a disease where it really just completely envelops you and you want to fight against it and you want to get better and you want to feel good, but it’s comfortable in a way because you’re used to it and it’s safe and even though it’s horrible and painful, you know it very well. So I said no to protect myself and the depression and obviously she didn’t believe me because that was crazy.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

Click here to view Elizabeth's profile page

Low self esteem

Depression for many people includes pervasive feelings of low self-worth. Many people said their depression includes feelings that you “don’t measure up,” are “not worthy,” or are “not good enough [and]… not doing enough.” Sometimes these feelings stem from a history of abuse or neglect. In other cases, they are connected to gender and body image: a number of women we interviewed said that when they hit adolescence, self-consciousness about their bodies grew to self-loathing and became central to their depression.

Nadina has always felt inadequate, even in her gender, and thinks this feeling underlies her depression.
Interview Transcript

I always just kind of felt like there was something wrong with me. Whether it was my, my gender, in particular. I just kind of felt like even at a young age I noticed there was a difference between boys and girls and I kind of had this inkling that people would prefer you were born a boy instead of a girl. And that made me really, just I had very low self-confidence because of that…

Because I just felt so horribly inadequate, just like I couldn’t do anything right, you know like, I can’t you know, I’m not as smart as other people, I’m not as pretty as other people, I’m not this, I’m not that…

Just like I couldn’t do anything right, ever. And I think that’s really what it comes down to with my depression is feeling like I’m never good enough, like never can do something right.

DEP Nadina
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Nadina lives with her parents in a suburb near a small city. She completed college and works as a freelance illustrator. She is Caucasian.

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For some people, perfectionism is a marked feature of low self-esteem. For people with this tendency, good feelings about themselves depend on excelling at everything. When the fragile system of perfectionism fails, as it unavoidably must, depression rushes in. As Crystal puts it, the smallest failure can result in “punishing myself to… an extreme extent.”

Julia feels she will never be as good as other people. This, in turn, feeds into her depression.
Interview Transcript

Because I get very perfectionistic about things so, ever since then I’ve had this mentality that if I’m going to do well in school, I’m going to do better than everyone else which is really anxiety provoking and having really high expectations of myself really makes me feel depressed because I’m constantly comparing myself to other people and just feeling this overarching theme of inadequacy. You know, like I’m never going to be good enough, and I keep raising the bar for myself and then feel like a failure all the time if I don’t meet an expectation and if I do, there’s always something beyond that. So yeah, I mean just that constant theme of feeling like everyone else is better than me and that, that made me feel depressed for a while and it still does. That’s something that I struggle with is that I’m very insecure and I think things like that really contribute to my depression. It’s just like, feeling different, feeling insecure and inadequate and not feeling like I’m able to connect with people. And just like having a fear that I’m going to end up alone, like all these things are just like in the back of my head. So it kind of keeps me from having like a meaningful life because I’m very negative and skeptical.

DEP Julia
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Julia is a family therapist. She is single and lives alone in an apartment with a cat and a dog. She takes medication and sees a therapist. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Julia's profile page
Ryan's perfectionism makes it hard for him to counter depression with any sense of satisfaction about his accomplishments.
Interview Transcript

… definitely the self-doubt factor plays in. Because no matter how I’m doing, how good I’m doing I’m always in that perfectionist state of mind and that’s actually self-destructive sometimes without me knowing it. Everybody will be like “this is great [name] this is great.” Ya know, and I’ll be like “no, it’s no where, where I want it.” You know, with my music it’s always been like that, with my writing it’s always been like that. And definitely with my work it’s always been like that. So I think that’s just one of the things that kind of alters my everyday life is that.

DEP Ryan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 19
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Ryan lives with his girlfriend and her family in a suburb but is looking to move. He works as a janitor. He is White.

Click here to view Ryan's profile page

Being trapped in negative thought patterns

Negative or destructive thought patterns are a common part of depression for many people. People we spoke to described this as “negative self-talk;” others as being “trapped in my head,” “thoughts going crazy,” or “a mental self-sabotage spiral of just doubt, self-doubt.” People recognized these patterns as dysfunctional, but they are not easy to overcome because, as Jeremy put it, “negativity begets negativity.”

Meghan describes her depression as 'all in her head,' her mind is uncontrollably racing with negative thoughts, to the point where she can't focus.
Interview Transcript

And it was just all in my head. It was not that anything had ever happened to me it was just all of a sudden something in my, something in my mind just decided to go wacky and….it, it really started to become a problem my senior year in high school and I, that was about a year and a half into the start of it all and I had such a negative outlook on life like I had said. I, it was hard for me to wake up and just approach the day-to-day things.

So the last three months of high school were very terrible in the sense that I, I was just always so sad and I wasn’t doing well academically, I didn’t finish great. I just couldn’t really take anything seriously and I couldn’t devote myself to anything because I couldn’t focus, my mind was just always racing with thoughts that I couldn’t control.

DEP Meghan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Meghan is a college student and has a job on campus. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Meghan's profile page

(See also ‘Depression and everyday tasks’, ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Depression and anxiety’, ’Depression and eating disorders’, ‘Depression and healing’, ‘Depression, bias and disadvantage’).

References

*Mitchell, J., et al. “Adult depression in primary care.” Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement. Updated September (2013).

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