How to Tell if Your Bad Mood Is Actually Depression

Feeling sad, tired and hungry all the time? It could be clinical depression.

A woman sitting alone and depressed in sunset

Prince Harry, the son of Princess Diana and Prince Charles of the British royal family, sat down in April 2017 for a candid talk about his experience with grief and depression on the podcast Bryony Gordon’s Mad World. Harry shared that he spent most of his life saying, “I’m fine,” when people would ask how he was doing. For years, he hesitated to talk about his emotions following Princess Diana’s death in a tragic 1997 Paris car crash. But eventually, he realized he’s part of “really quite a big club."

Even though so many people have depression, many shy away from discussing it or seeking help—some may not even realize that what they’re feeling is depression. “No matter who you are, a conversation has to be the beginning,” says Harry, who eventually opened up to family, sought counseling and used boxing as a way to vent frustrations.

“I can’t encourage people enough to just have that conversation because you will be surprised firstly, how much support you get and secondly, how many people literally are longing for you to come out,” adds the Prince.

So how can you tell if you’re actually clinically depressed? When is it time to get help?

The difference between a bad mood and depression

“Depression is a persistently low or irritable mood that’s gone on for two weeks or more,” says Emily Bray, DO, a psychiatrist from Portsmouth Regional Hospital in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “Regardless of what else is going on in your life, with depression, you tend to stay low. In fact, you may not be able to take pleasure in things you used to find fun and interesting.”

On the other hand, if you’re in a bad mood, your emotions could change from minute to minute, hour to hour, says Dr. Bray. You may cry, have a hard time getting out of bed, feel drained or unable to concentrate—symptoms that come along with depression as well. But you’re more likely to feel an emotional boost if something good happens; if you participate in an activity you find interesting, you may forget about your worries.

Clinical depression also tends to come along with five or more symptoms such as:

  • Sleeping too much or not sleeping enough
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Weight changes
  • Feeling constantly tired
  • Lack of concentration
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Thoughts of death or suicide: If you or a loved one is contemplating suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call, text, or chat 988. If someone is actively suicidal, call 911, stay with them until help arrives or drive them to the nearest emergency room.  

But just because you can’t name five clear-cut symptoms doesn’t mean you should shy away from getting help. “If difficult times are affecting you emotionally, I would still recommend some brief supportive therapy,” says Bray.  

With brief supportive therapy, a counselor can help you work through specific issues on a short-term basis. He or she will ask open questions, listen while you reflect on the challenges you’re facing and offer coping strategies.

Get help for depression

For clinical depression, you may need a type of therapy that digs a little deeper like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT challenges harmful thought patterns and helps you to change any behaviors like binge eating, which may encourage those thoughts. Your psychiatrist might also recommend an antidepressant medication like fluoxetine, to take alongside talk therapy.

Get help if you suspect that you have depression. Left untreated, depression can lower your quality of life, increase your risk for suicide and make it harder to treat any other medical conditions you may have. However, with the right help, remission is possible.

Tips to improve a bad mood

These mood-boosting habits can help lift your spirits:

  • Improve your sleep schedule: A lack of sleep can put you in a foul mood and worsen clinical depression.People with depression often fall into a vicious cycle of staying up at night because they’re sad or anxious, which makes them feel even worse the next day,” explains Bray. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night, using these tricks to fall asleep faster.
  • Try to get out of bed … even the small steps count: “Getting up and doing things, called behavioral activation, has been shown to lessen depression symptoms as well,” says Bray. “Get out of bed, shower, get in a little physical activity, clean the house—it sounds small, but studies show that the act of moving really can help.” A short, outdoor walk is another smart way to get moving—just 20 minutes at a brisk pace can raise levels of feel good brain chemicals for up to twelve hours.
  • Drink more water: Dehydration can put you in a mental fog, sap your energy and worsen your mood. Increase your daily water intake with these six tips.

Take care of yourself: Exercising, spending time with friends and eating a healthy, balanced diet are all proven ways to boost your mood, relieve depression and keep you well, says Bray.

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