Depressive Symptoms

Was this helpful?
(11)

What are the signs of depressive problems?

Depressive symptoms include feelings of anxiety, emptiness, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, loss of interest, sadness, and tiredness. Your mind may feel slow, and concentration may be difficult. You may think about death or suicide. Depressive symptoms can be normal responses to difficult events; however, severe or persistent symptoms may indicate an underlying disorder.

Depressive symptoms can be related to psychiatric conditions, such as bipolar disorder, major depression, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, or substance abuse. While the specific causes of the depressive symptoms of psychiatric conditions are not known, they are thought to be related to chemical imbalances in the brain. Psychiatric disorders may run in some families, and environmental factors, such as childhood traumas, significant life changes, and stress, can increase the risk of developing a psychiatric illness.

Depressive symptoms can also be related to medication side effects or chronic medical conditions. Medications and substances can directly affect the nervous system, which can result in depressive symptoms. Medical conditions, such as dementia, can contribute to depressive symptoms by damaging brain tissue.

The link between depressive symptoms and some chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and chronic pain disorders, is not well understood. The combination seems to worsen both the depressive symptoms and the symptoms of the condition. Depressive symptoms can also make coping with chronic medical conditions difficult.

Severe depressive symptoms can have serious, even life-threating, complications. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for the inability to care for yourself or to provide basic needs (food, water, or shelter), or for threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior.

If your depressive symptoms persist or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with depressive symptoms?

Depressive symptoms may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that frequently affect mood may have other psychological, cognitive or physical symptoms.

Psychological and cognitive symptoms that may occur along with depressive symptoms

Depressive symptoms may accompany other psychological or cognitive symptoms including:

  • Anxiety, irritability or agitation

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior

  • Confusion or forgetfulness

  • Difficulty with concentration or attention

  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading

  • Hallucinations or delusions

  • Heightened arousal or awareness

  • Mood changes from depressed mood to elation

  • Poor judgment

  • Social withdrawal

Other symptoms that may occur along with depressive symptoms

Depressive symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, depressive symptoms may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Being a danger to oneself or others, including threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior

  • Sudden change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

What causes depressive symptoms?

Depressive symptoms can occur with some psychiatric conditions. While the specific causes are not known, depressive symptoms associated with psychiatric conditions are thought to be related to chemical imbalances in the brain. Psychiatric disorders may have a genetic component, and environmental factors, such as childhood traumas, significant life changes, and stress, can increase the risk of developing a psychiatric illness.

Depressive symptoms can also be related to medication side effects or chronic medical conditions. Medications and substances can directly affect your nervous system, which can result in depressive symptoms. Medical conditions, such as dementia, can contribute to depressive symptoms by damaging brain tissue. Depressive symptoms can occur with other chronic medical
conditions, but the relationship is not well understood.

Psychiatric causes of depressive symptoms

Depressive symptoms may be caused by psychiatric conditions including:

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Dysthymia (milder form of depression than in major depressive disorder)

  • Major depression

  • Postpartum depression

  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder

  • Seasonal affective disorder

  • Substance abuse

Other causes of depressive symptoms

Depressive symptoms can have other causes including:

  • Brain tumors

  • Chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS

  • Chronic pain

  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease

  • Head injury

  • Side effects of medications, such as antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and opioid pain relievers

Serious or life-threatening causes of depressive symptoms

In some cases, depressive symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Acute delirium (sudden onset of mental status changes due to illness or toxicity)

  • Alcohol poisoning or drug overdose

  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)

  • Stroke

  • Traumatic brain injury

Questions for diagnosing the cause of depressive symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your depressive symptoms including:

  • When did you first notice your depressive symptoms?

  • How would you describe your symptoms?

  • Did any stressful events occur before your depressive symptoms developed?

  • Does anything make them better or worse?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Do you have a family history of mental illness?

  • Do you have any other psychiatric or medical problems?

  • What medications are you taking?

  • Do you drink any alcohol?

  • Are you using any illicit drugs?

What are the potential complications of depressive symptoms?

Because depressive symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Difficulties at work, in school, in social environments, and with relationships

  • Drug and alcohol use and abuse

  • Drug overdose or alcohol poisoning

  • Increased risk of injury

  • Self-harm

  • Suicide or violence

Was this helpful?
(11)
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Major depression. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001941/.
  2. Do I Really Need Help? The Ohio State University Medical Center. http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/mental_health/mental_health_about/mood/....
  3. Kravitz RL, Ford DE. Introduction: chronic medical conditions and depression--the view from primary care. Am J Med 2008; 121:S1.
  4. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.