Nearly everyone experiences times of feeling down. Sadness that lasts a day or two or even a few days is normal. But when it lasts for two weeks or more, it could be a sign of depression. Depression affects millions of Americans every year. However, though depression affects both women and men, it seems to strike women far more often. There are notable differences between temporary sadness and true depression. True depression is characterized by:
- Chronic sadness, anxiety or a sense of emptiness
- Pessimism and hopelessness
- A sense of worthlessness and/or guilt
- No longer enjoying things that were once pleasurable
- Low energy, fatigue
- Trouble focusing and making decisions
- Sleeplessness or too much sleep, repeated waking at night
- Appetite changes – either up or down
- Unexplainable body aches
- Suicidal thoughts
Researchers have identified a number of factors that increase the likelihood of developing depression. Among them:
Genetics seem to play a significant role in women’s risk for developing depression. If someone in the family has experienced depression, it is more likely that someone else in the family will also become depressed. Genes are not solely responsible for predicting depression; they more likely work in conjunction with environmental factors in creating risk. It’s important to note that just because someone in the family has had depression does not guarantee that others will also, and depression often shows up in situations where there is no family history of the condition. Nonetheless, it remains a notable risk factor.
Hormones and Brain Chemistry
Hormones impact brain chemistry in ways that can cause depression. Depression in women can be triggered by:
- Premenstrual changes. Some women struggle with a condition called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Women with this condition undergo the same hormonal changes leading up to menstruation as other women, but for some reason they react to these changes more intensely. Women with PMDD may feel unusually depressed, irritable and anxious during the week before their period.
- Postpartum. Just after a woman gives birth, her hormones are particularly active. She is also faced with the new and enormous responsibility of caring for another human being. The experience can be overwhelming, and many new mothers feel mildly depressed for a while as a result. But for some women that depression lingers and can worsen without treatment.
- Menopause. Women who have never been depressed before sometimes feel deeply depressed while going through menopause. The good news is that after menopause depression becomes far less common for most women.
External events can contribute to a woman’s risk for depression. Environmental risk factors include the death or separation from a loved one, abuse, social adversity, heavy responsibilities (at work, at home or even caring for elderly parents) or traumatic experiences. Not all women who face these sorts of challenges become depressed, but when they are present women are more apt than men to become depressed as a result. Depression is frequently accompanied by other conditions, most often an anxiety disorder. But depression also often co-exists with eating disorders, substance abuse, heart disease and diabetes. Scientists are still seeking to understand why women seem to experience depression more often than men. It could be that women are more willing to admit their struggle and seek help. It could be that women are biologically predisposed to be emotionally vulnerable. It may even be that traditionally female roles contribute to a woman’s risk. No one reason is a full explanation for female depression, and no one factor or factors make it a certainty that a woman will become depressed. It is certain that getting help for depression is the quickest way out.