Signs and symptoms of depression

Depression is associated with many mental and physical symptoms, which are often used to screen for depression in clinical settings. This summary focuses specifically on how people experience symptoms of depression. Other parts of this website focus on symptoms related to other mental health issues that often co-exist with depression, and on how depression feels from the person’s point of view. (For more information, see ‘Depression and anxiety’, ‘Depression and eating disorders’, ‘Depression and OCD’, ‘How depression feels’.)

Feeling different, sad, or emotionally out of control

People we interviewed said that when depressed they did not feel like their “normal selves.” For some this meant becoming less social. Pete described how he “would lock myself up in my room…There would be days that if I was around family or if I was around friends or if it was a regular day, I just wouldn’t speak to anyone. Not even a teacher if they actually had a question”.

Others described crying in situations when they otherwise would not. Sally said, “I came back to visit my cat and I just saw him and I started bawling because I just like couldn’t control myself. I just kept crying and crying for like 20 minutes for like no reason and then after that I realized like, there’s something probably not necessarily ok.” Sophie described that in middle school she would “get really… hopeless” and “just start crying out of nowhere”. Sara said when she’s not on medication for depression, she is “in bed, crying all the time. Every 20 minutes I could look up at the sky and start crying because it’s not blue”.

Pete describes being unable to hide his emotions when he wants to.
Interview Transcript

As an adult, it wasn’t that I was safer it was that I am trying so hard all the time to keep my emotions away from other people and it just comes out in the worst way and at the wrong time and it’s most of the time, if I am on the train or if am just walking around or if it’s just like, I’m on the bus or… It can be the randomest time and it just comes out and it doesn’t stop.

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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Jason describes what it was like when he felt out of control.
Interview Transcript

I was like, crying uncontrollably. I was, I just felt out of control. I wasn’t feeling myself. I literally feel like there was some kind of say, imbalance in my brain that was causing me not to be myself. I was, you know, being forgetful, it was in my logic. I was being antisocial as well, I was losing my friends, and so on. So, I think that was the lowest point where I knew how serious it was, but, and you know, when it struck me how big of a problem or issue it is.

DEP Jason
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Jason is from a large city in Asia, but is living in the U.S. while he completes his college education. He lives in a dormitory room and plans to return to his country of origin after graduation.

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Feeling irritable, angry, and cynical

Several people reported feeling more irritable or angry than usual when depressed. Jacob says he would “get upset and angry and irritated… it was… hurting my personal relationships, especially my romantic relationships… just getting confrontational and irritable”. A few people said that for them, anger could lead to violence. As Teddy put it he “didn’t hurt anyone” but “just kept punching walls and like making holes in them.” A few people spoke about feeling cynical towards the world. Crystal described “outwardly I saw the world as the thing that made me this way, that… damaged me”. Pete similarly describes that, “Everything I see has a negative to it, everything, the way I go about it in life I am prepared for the worst to happen all the time”.

Devin says when he's depressed he sometimes has anger attacks.
Interview Transcript

I’ve had a lot of people say and it’s true that depression and anger always walk hand in hand. And again, I’m not a very angry person, I don’t generally get angry at people. But, sometimes I have just random anger attacks and I’ve had one with my current girlfriend and that’s really confused her. So much so that I needed to get out of the house because I could not promise that I wasn’t going to do anything. And I would never even hurt a fly and that’s why it scared me so much that I needed to leave her house for a day. You know that, that scared her obviously.

DEP Devin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Devin lives with his girlfriend and other roommates in a city he recently moved to from another part of the country. He has a part-time job in a store. He is White.

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Having negative thoughts or suicidal thoughts.

Many of those who talked to us described how depression was associated with negative and suicidal thoughts. For more on this topic, please see ‘How depression feels‘ and ‘Depression and suicide‘.

If you currently feel suicidal or know someone who is feeling suicidal, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1 (800) 273-8255.

Feeling guilty

It is common for people with depression to have negative or self-blaming thoughts. Some of those we interviewed said they felt guilty that their friends and family have had to deal with their depressed selves. Ryan describes his guilt for putting his girlfriend through his depression: “I felt like she had to deal with everything that I was dealing with… it was hard for me to understand at first that she was dealing with it because she loved me, actually really supported me. So it was, it was hard at first… to be able to talk to somebody.”

Colin said he felt “guilty for being depressed” because he had “such a good family”. He described the help he received from a therapist telling him “There is really no need for self-loathing, there’s no reason to hate yourself, you’re not doing anything wrong…We all are just here trying to do the best with what we are given.” Myra also felt guilty for worrying her parents.

Others, like Sophie, said they felt guilty for not making a contribution. She said, “I never felt lazy when I was depressed but I felt like I was taking up space like I wasn’t doing anything”.

Loss of interest in usual pleasurable activities

Of the young adults we interviewed, many described losing interest in things that that used to bring them joy. Some people attributed this loss of joy or to a specific event, but could not pinpoint the cause. People first noticed something was wrong when they stopped enjoying activities that they used to love. Colin says he stopped creating art, which he used to love to do. Pete could no longer sit through a movie, did not find joy from playing video games, and foods that he used to enjoy, like sushi, “didn’t taste the same”.

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’s 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, you know, 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 friendly or romantically. I felt like I was just going through the motions and doing what typical high schoolers do. But 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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Joey describes losing interest in just about everything when he was depressed.
Interview Transcript

I didn’t have like any ideas of like what to do that would like make me feel good. Like, at times in past it’s like, oh I could go hang out with my friends. Oh, I could like go play this game or something, or you know, I could go make some food or you know, talk to somebody, or something. And this was just like, there’s nothing, there’s, every idea that I thought of just sounded like the stupidest, dumbest thing in the world and yeah, you know. You wake up enough days in a row where every single idea seems like shit and it’s just hard to, I don’t know.

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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Other people noticed that the people around them seemed happier than they were. Crystal describes that at summer camp she was “struck by how badly I tended to react to certain things that excited other people. There was an activity and it was simple, everyone was having fun but just looking at it I was just like confused, it didn’t excite me. I didn’t want to engage with it.”

Meghan describes noticing others having fun and not remembering the last time she was happy.
Interview Transcript

I was doing my homework and stuff and working and I could see all these people around me just having so much fun, like they were doing their work but they were laughing with people and they were talking. And I was in a, like cafeteria and I just remember like a week or so after I moved, I was looking around and I just couldn’t even remember the last time that I had laughed or just enjoyed being in a social environment, because at that point just everything was just so abrasive to my senses like, I just didn’t even want to be around anybody because I didn’t feel comfortable with where I was and what I was doing and I just was so ashamed that I hadn’t realized what was going on with myself sooner.

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.

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Lacking motivation

Some people said depression drains their motivation. Mara describes by being aware of this, saying she “can fight through this and if I can suffer now, I am going to be able to reap the benefits later and I’m going to be stronger for it”.

Jacob describes how achieving milestones left him feeling unsatisfied and led to his lack of motivation.
Interview Transcript

There were some days where I just couldn’t motivate myself really to do anything. Mostly because I couldn’t, couldn’t see the point cause I had achieved enough milestones and seen those milestones actually don’t make me feel any better. So at that point I realized that maybe, maybe this isn’t a thing that’s even fixable and then you get into the cycle of why do I even bother then so it’s just sit here and do nothing. But it’s not even a conscious choice to not do anything. No matter, even if you want to you just can’t cause you can’t physically bring yourself to do it. So I’ve definitely been there, luckily that sort of fades.

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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Trouble concentrating or remembering

Reduced ability to focus, remember to do daily tasks, or to balance multiple responsibilities were also discussed by people in the interviews. Some said that when depressed, they made uncharacteristic mistakes. Jason, for example, noted that when he is depressed his “short term memory is impaired” and that he will “send emails and I forget to include the name… [or] I forget I have an important exam at 2 PM”. Impaired concentration impacted people’s ability to work or do well in school. Meghan says she wasn’t doing well in school, because, “I just couldn’t take really 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”.

Pete describes having difficulties working at summer camp and focusing on simple tasks.
Interview Transcript

I am doing working directly at the summer camp with the kids. I’m dealing with them all the time and I remember like I would have no problem remembering 20 kids names. I could barely remember 2 this year. I…I was just very forgetful with of a lot of things. It took a great effort on my part to do, to take precautions and to me, knowing that I am getting forgetful for stuff like this. So now I am keeping a list of everything, I am keeping like checks and checklists and before I didn’t need to do that. I just could keep it all in my head, it would be no problem. It was like second nature, but now I have to work really hard at concentrating, at simple tasks, at just remembering a task, because I easily just get lost, I just easily space out now. Sometimes it’s not like I space out and then get depressed, sometimes I just space out. But I know the depression is because of that.

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.

Click here to view Pete's profile page

Physical symptoms of depression

Physical symptoms of depression include joint pain, backache or stomach irritation. A number of people we interviewed reported feeling these physical symptoms. Maya for example says there were “so many things wrong” with her physically, and that depression and “chronic health issues” absolutely flow “hand in hand.”

Whitney describes her depression as feeling like she has the flu.
Interview Transcript

But it’s hard for me to go out and do things normally. If I start feeling really depressed and don’t wanna get out of bed and I feel sick. I mean it’s, it’s physically impaired me. I’ve felt like, I’ve been sick, like having the flu almost.

DEP Whitney
Profile Info
Age at interview: 29
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 9

Background: Whitney is unemployed and is staying with her father who has custody of her 9-year old daughter. She is White.

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Lack of energy or fatigue

Lack of energy was a common symptom people experienced with their depression. Some described this feeling as “not wanting to get out of bed.” As Joey put it, “you’re just like tired but for… no reason.” Violet said, “I have no energy. I just want to curl up in a ball, I don’t really want to think about anything, I don’t want to do anything.”

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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Sophie describes feeling weighted down and fatigued.
Interview Transcript

Well and like a wave situation I would be, I would be alright for maybe two or three weeks then something would happen and I would just sort of crash back down and it was, it was unpleasant, as unpleasant as it was when it was constant. And when it’s constant it’s sort of, you’re always, I, the, it’s not even the loneliness, the feeling of being weighed down that doesn’t go away. It’s constant from the moment you go to sleep and from the moment you wake to when you go to sleep and it’s, it I don’t know. I liked to sleep a lot when I was at its worst because I couldn’t feel anything so it, I guess, it was that feeling of loneliness and feeling empty and gray and just I couldn’t look forward to anything. It’s just this constant sort of flat line state where you’re just and you just you’re just trying to go through the motions but it’s hard. It takes a lot of energy, like in, you get tired really easily, you just want to be home away from people, it, everything outside of that was just too much.

DEP Sophie
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 14

Background: Sophie is a practicing fashion designer and a college senior studying fashion design. She lives with her parents and brother. She is Caucasian and of Mexican descent.

Click here to view Sophie's profile page

Difficulty performing daily activities

When depressed several people said they did not take care of themselves — for example, they could not attend to their hygiene or participate in regular life activities like school or work. Crystal said she needed someone to “help me get into the shower, like the basic things” and that she “can’t really eat on my own”. Ben similarly said, “I was at the point where I wasn’t taking showers… And that time I was a lot skinnier than I am now, just not really looking too good”.

Jason said his depression makes it hard to exercise. He would rather “just… stay in my room and do nothing. Just lie in bed all day feeling… down… and I have a lot of… bad thoughts… I didn’t feel like I had the energy or…. the capacity or…the will power to go exercise.”

Sleep problems

While many people said they slept more than usual when depressed, others people reported not being able to sleep or sleeping at unusual times.

Natasha describes how being depressed changes her sleep patterns.
Interview Transcript

I guess, usually when I’m like feeling like very bad and depressed I don’t sleep normal hours or like, healthy hours. I’m like up all night and then I sleep through the day. So, I would like set my alarm to get up for class I would ignore it and go back to sleep and then I would wake up and feel bad that I missed class and I would get even more down and then it’s just sort of like a spiraling kind of thing but you feel bad about missing class so you stay in and feel bad and then you start missing stuff and it piles up and you feel even worse and worse, so yeah. I guess when it starts it’s like very difficult to stop it. If I don’t stop it quickly it, like, gets out of control.

DEP Natasha
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Natasha is a student at a large university who lives in a dorm room on campus. She is African American.

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Changes in sexual desire

People we interviewed also reported changes in sexual desire. Elizabeth says, “I’m not feeling happy or I’m feeling suicidal or I’m feeling unworthy it does, it doesn’t make you feel worthy physically either”. Some, like Whitney, became more sexually active when she was depressed. She says she, “kinda lost respect for myself and depression only made that worse cause you kinda cling to other people and they said you engage yourself in risky behaviors, a lot, and that’s something that I regret”. (See also ‘Depression and relationships‘.)

Changes in appetite

Eating more or less than usual can both be signs of depression. Some people described battling overeating, while others, like Sally, said “the food was really good I just didn’t have an appetite”. Some people described gaining or losing a large amount of weight in a short period of time. Meghan says she gained weight during her senior year of high school, and this made her feel more depressed. She says, “I just felt helpless because I wasn’t myself mentally, I wasn’t myself physically, I just didn’t even recognize myself”.

Elizabeth describes how she rapidly lost a lot of weight.
Interview Transcript

I was about 15 years old when I started having issues with food, I remember coming to the dinner table one night and I saw food on the table and something just hit me saying, “I can’t eat, I can’t eat this, I can never eat again. Oh my gosh, how have I ever eaten all of these years.” And it’s something that I never really fully understood until I started going to therapy. I lost a lot of weight. I was probably, I probably lost about 20 or 30 pounds in a month and a half.

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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Some people described their issues with eating as part of having an eating disorder. (For more see Depression and eating disorders.)

See also ‘How depression feels’ and ‘Depression and feeling different when young’.

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