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What to Do About Depression

Although it’s a serious health condition, major depression is widely misunderstood. According to statistics from the National Mental Health Association, 54 percent of people view depression as a personal weakness, while 41 percent of depressed women are too embarrassed to seek help. Despite the social stigma of getting depression treatment, depression can wreak havoc on your personal life, professional life and overall quality of life if left untreated. At its worst, depression can result in suicide. Depression is also a risk factor for coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. If you have symptoms of depression, it’s important to realize that you’re not alone, and to seek out help with the following steps. Your very life may depend on it.

1. Determine Whether You Have Depression

Major depression, a serious mental disorder, is sometimes confused with sadness, a temporary low mood that is a normal reaction to unhappy events in life like the death of a loved one or losing a job. Although these life events can trigger depression in some individuals, most people will, eventually, be able to recover and return to their normal mood-state. If you’re not sure whether you have depression or a temporary case of the blues, make an appointment to talk with your primary care physician.

Your doctor will evaluate you for depression symptoms, some of which may include:

-Feeling sad or having a low or irritable mood most of the time

-Inability to feel pleasure from usual activities

-Feeling worthless, hopeless or guilty

-Frequent thoughts of suicide

-Change in appetite

-Lack of energy

-Trouble sleeping

-Difficulty concentrating

If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms for a period of two weeks or longer, you may be clinically depressed. There are also free self-evaluation tests for depression you can take online, including tests offered by MayoClinic.com and WebMD. However, it’s important to see a trained health professional who can make an official diagnosis. Your doctor can also determine whether your depression symptoms result from a nutritional deficiency or an underlying health problem. A lack of certain nutrients, such as B vitamins or essential minerals, as well as some health problems, including thyroid disorders, may cause depression symptoms in some people.

2. Develop and Stick to a Treatment Plan

If your primary care physician determines you have depression, you’ll likely be referred to a mental health professional—such as a psychiatrist or social worker—who can help you develop a treatment plan. In many cases, your treatment plan may include talking to a therapist once or twice a week. If your depression is moderate or severe, a doctor may prescribe an antidepressant medication, such as a selective serotonin reinuptake inhibitor (SSRI) which works by increasing the amount of serotonin, a mood-related hormone, in your brain. According to MayoClinic.com, a combination of therapy and antidepressant medications is usually the most effective treatment for depression.

Other depression treatments include light therapy—exposing yourself to full-spectrum light for 15 to 30 minutes per day—and group therapy, in which you work through your issues in a group environment. Less commonly, treatment-resistant depression that doesn’t improve with antidepressants may necessitate additional or alternative treatments, such as hospitalization, electroconvulsive therapy, or vagus nerve stimulation.

Whatever your treatment plan for depression, it’s essential that you stick to it and don’t stop taking your medication or stop going to therapy as soon as your symptoms subside. Quitting depression treatment before your doctor deems it safe can result in a return of depression symptoms, and abruptly stopping antidepressant therapy can even cause withdrawal symptoms.

3. Take Care of Yourself

Whether you’re currently receiving treatment for depression or your doctor has determined your symptoms aren’t serious enough to require medication, it’s important to take good care of your health to prevent depression symptoms from developing or returning.

Some important self-care steps for staying depression-free include:

-Exercising regularly (You’ll gain the most benefits by exercising for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week)

-Eating healthy (Avoiding unhealthy foods high in saturated fat and sugar, while focusing on nutritious foods high in vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish)

-Getting about eight hours of sleep every night

-Avoiding alcohol and other recreational drugs

-Engaging in positive social interactions with supportive friends and family

-Reducing stress by cutting out stress-inducing obligations, meditating, practicing yoga, journaling or talking to someone about your worries

-Getting some sunlight exposure each day or using a light therapy box

For most people, following the steps outlined above (getting a professional diagnosis, sticking to a treatment plan, and leading a healthy lifestyle) should bring about some reduction in depression symptoms within a matter of weeks. If you’re feeling suicidal and are afraid you might harm yourself, go to the nearest emergency room or hospital, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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