Major depression is one of the most common mental health disorders. About 7% of U.S. adults experience depression each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). For those with a substance use disorder, the risk is even higher. People with drug abuse or dependence are about twice as likely as the general population to have a mood disorder such as depression.
But while depression is familiar, it’s also complicated. Researchers are constantly learning more about its symptoms, treatment and prevention. Below are some surprising insights gleaned from the latest research.
1. The world really is a grayer place when you’re blue
When you’re depressed, you might feel as if everything looks dull and gray. It’s not your imagination! Scientists have discovered that people with depression have reduced visual sensitivity to black-and-white contrasts, compared to healthy individuals. As a result, the world literally looks grayer. The more severe your depression, the more pronounced the effect tends to be.
2. Being depressed doesn’t always mean feeling sad
The hallmark of major depression is a low mood that lasts for weeks and saps the joy from your life. Not everyone experiences this mood in quite the same way, however. Many people with depression feel sad, empty or hopeless, but others become cranky. In an NIMH-sponsored study of people seeking help for depression at five medical centers, more than half showed signs of irritability, such as shouting or losing their temper. People with such symptoms were more likely to have severe or long-lasting depression. They also had higher rates of co-occurring substance abuse.
3. Depression is more than just an emotional issue
Along with a low mood, depression may lead to changes in your appetite, sleep and activity level. In addition, it may cause lack of energy, feelings of worthlessness and problems with concentration or decision-making.
4. Treating depression may help ward off a heart attack
If you have depression, treatment with therapy, antidepressants or both is not only good for your mental health; it may benefit your physical health as well. Dozens of studies have shown that depression makes people with heart disease more likely to have a heart attack or die early. In 2014, a panel of experts from the American Heart Association recommended that depression be added to the list of risk factors for people with heart disease.
5. An active body helps fend off a depressed mood
When scientists at the University of Toronto looked at 26 years’ worth of research, they found that physical activity helps prevent depression in people of all ages. For overall health, the CDC says that adults should aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking. But even if you fall short of that goal, you may still reap mood benefits by becoming more active. And if you’re already depressed, there’s good evidence that exercise can help ease your symptoms.
6. Exercise may reduce sexual side effects of antidepressants
Antidepressants sometimes cause unwanted side effects, including problems with sexual desire or performance. Fortunately, exercise may be able to help you out with this as well. In a study of women taking antidepressants who were experiencing sexual side effects, exercising for a half-hour right before sex improved their desire and overall sexual functioning.
7. Meditation can rival medication as a mood-booster
In an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on meditation and mental health, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that, in general, participating in a mindfulness meditation training program reduces depression symptoms about as much as taking an antidepressant prescribed by a family doctor. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing fully on what you’re experiencing from moment to moment and accepting it without judging it. Some therapists now include mindfulness exercises as part of their treatment for depression.
8. Setting specific goals helps counter depressed thinking
In one study, researchers at the Universities of Liverpool and Exeter in England asked volunteers to write down their personal goals. Those with depression leaned toward general, abstract goals; for example, “to be healthy.” In contrast, volunteers without depression listed more specific, concrete goals; for example, “to run a 5K race in two months.” If you want to follow the lead of the non-depressed group, pick a few specific, doable goals to focus on. Research suggests that this may boost your motivation and improve your chances of success.
9. Getting a good night’s sleep helps prevent depression
Depression can cause either insomnia or oversleeping, but it seems to be a two-way street: When sleep problems come first, there’s growing evidence that they can cause depression. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night, so don’t shortchange your snooze time. If you often have trouble falling or staying asleep, or if you are frequently sleepy during the day, talk with your doctor. In some cases, getting treatment for a sleep disorder may be just the lift your mood needs.
Depression is the common cold of mental illness: Everyone knows what it is, but even the experts don’t fully understand it. Yet researchers are constantly learning more, and the insights they’ve gained can help you manage your mood more effectively.