depressed woman

How to Recognize Clinical Depression in the Early Stages

The initial onset of clinical depression is not easy to identify. Its early symptoms are subtle, gradual and tend to develop in succession, like dominoes tumbling one after the other.

Because depression hides in the shadows in its earliest stages, when the full-blown clinical disorder arrives it may seem as if you plunged off a cliff while sleepwalking. Only after you awaken beneath the surface of the water do you suddenly realize you’re drowning.

Depression Is Not Sadness

It is natural to feel sad or discouraged from time to time. Life often hurts and disappoints us, and when the blows are especially painful it might take you some time to bounce back. But eventually you’ll learn to accept what happened and move on.

Clinical depression, however, is different. Depression buries your feelings of unhappiness and discontent under an avalanche of emptiness, hopelessness and despair, which grab hold of you and refuse to release their iron grip.

Ideally, you should seek help immediately when the symptoms of depression appear. Job loss, relationship troubles, financial setbacks and substance use problems are just some of the difficulties you may experience when depression gets out of control.

But you can’t react to what you don’t recognize, and that is why knowledge about the earliest signs of depression is so important and can have such a powerful protective effect.

Storm Clouds on the Horizon: Identifying the Early Symptoms of Depression

Depression is a progressive condition, and while there are continuities between earlier and later symptoms, early stage depression isn’t nearly as mind-altering or life-consuming as the later version. This can catch you unprepared if you aren’t aware of the differences and don’t know what to watch out for.

Here are some telltale signs of clinical depression in its initial stages:

  • Low motivation and a lack of energy: When we’re busy living our lives, it never dawns on us that motivation is required for even the simplest, most routine tasks. But when the curtain of depression falls, everything becomes a struggle. Getting up in the morning, preparing meals, getting ready for work, brushing your teeth, showering, going to the store … all of it becomes a challenge, and as you slog through your days and nights, you’ll do so without energy or enthusiasm.
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and other favorite pastimes: You may still practice the same activities, but you won’t take pleasure from them or look forward to them the way you used to. Soon, you’ll find yourself making excuses not to leave the house or see friends who share your interests. Instead of pursuing your favorite hobbies, you’ll spend your time lying on the couch in front of the TV, or idly surfing on your computer for hours at a time.
  • Loss of emotional edge: In the early stages of depression, you’ll continue to feel a wide range of emotions. But they won’t be quite the same as before. In general, your emotional reactions will lack depth and intensity; they’ll feel like pale imitations of the real thing. That sensation of dullness or deadness may seem moderate at first, but it will deepen over time if your depression is left unaddressed.
  • Vague and un-diagnosable aches, pains and physical ailments: The physical symptoms you experience may include tension headaches, sharp neck pain, backaches, numbness in the facial muscles and stomach troubles. In response, you may visit numerous doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists and a host of other specialists, but none will be able to offer relief or identify any physiological causes for your discomfort.
  • Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits: You may stay up unusually late or wake up unusually early. You may take naps every day because you’re feeling so tired and worn out. Your hunger may be insatiable or you may lose your appetite altogether. The specifics will vary from person to person, but almost everyone in the early stages of depression will experience sleeping and eating disruptions.
  • Small problems suddenly seem insurmountable: Depression will sap your inner strength and steal your resiliency. Even the smallest setbacks will begin to overwhelm you, leaving you unable to respond or take meaningful action. As your ability to manage stress and conflict lessens, you’ll feel a strong urge to withdraw, to avoid the growing list of people and situations that make you feel vulnerable.
  • Performing in school or at work becomes increasingly difficult: As depression develops, your ability to concentrate and stay focused will slowly fade away. You’ll become restless and easily bored or distracted, and your mind will wander even while performing tasks you found enjoyable or rewarding in the past.
  • The world will begin to seem like a dark, scary and dangerous place: The influence of depression will color your worldview. You’ll see sorrow and suffering all around you, and you’ll be filled with pessimism about your own future as well as the future of the planet. What you’ll be doing of course is projecting your inner feelings onto the exterior environment, and if that continues, you’ll eventually see your apathy and despair as a rational response to a world gone mad.

It Is Never Too Early to Recover from Depression

If any of these symptoms sound familiar, you should make an appointment to see a psychiatrist or psychologist right away. A trained mental health professional can evaluate your psychological and emotional well-being and diagnose clinical depression if it is present.

Treatment for depression usually involves a combination of therapy and medication, and your chances for recovery are excellent if intervention begins early.

But if your depression has progressed to a later stage don’t despair: there is still reason for hope, and that remains true even if your depression has been complicated by a substance use disorder. If you can find the strength and the courage to reach out and ask for help, health, happiness and the freedom to control your own destiny can be yours once again.

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