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Depression is a common mental disorder that affects tens of millions of American adults every year. While most of us associate depression with a low mood and low ability to function, not everyone responds to depression in the same way.
If you feel depressed but are still able to maintain a normal personal and professional life, you may have what’s referred to as “walking depression.”
Walking depression refers to a type of depression that affects your moods, feelings, thoughts and general outlook on life, all without preventing you from maintaining your career and social relationships.
Like other types of depression, walking depression is a serious form of mental illness that may require treatment, even if it isn’t as outwardly visible as other forms of depression.
Below, we’ve explained what walking depression is, as well as the symptoms you may develop if you’re affected by this type of depression.
We’ve also talked about the options that are available to treat depression, from medication and therapy to simple changes that you can make to your habits and daily life.
Walking depression is a term commonly used to refer to a form of depressive illness that involves many of the classic symptoms of depression, such as a pessimistic mood, lack of interest in many activities and feelings that may involve hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt.
However, unlike other forms of depression, which can affect your ability to function throughout the day, walking depression is often masked from other people, allowing you to continue your normal life even when you’re feeling down.
Some people refer to walking depression as “smiling depression,” as it usually isn’t obvious to the people around you.
Walking depression isn’t a clinical diagnosis, meaning your healthcare provider won’t diagnose you with this specific form of depression. Like smiling depression, walking depression could be diagnosed as a form of clinical depression with atypical features.
Just like conventional major depressive disorder, walking depression can have a severe impact on your wellbeing. It can affect your mental health and self-esteem, and may make you feel like you’re worthless despite appearing confident and mentally healthy to others.
Walking depression involves many of the same symptoms as major depression, although some may be less severe or apparent. Although these symptoms may affect you, they might not get in the way of your social life or occupation to a significant extent.
Potential symptoms of depression include:
Feeling worthless, helpless or as if you’re guilty of something
Persistent moods that involve sadness, emptiness and anxiety
Increased irritability and a sense that you have a shorter temper
A pessimistic outlook on life with little or no ability to feel happy
Less interest in your usual hobbies, passions and interests
Difficulty focusing, remembering information or making decisions
Fatigue and a sense that you never quite have enough energy
Feelings of restlessness and a reduced ability to keep yourself still
Sudden changes in your appetite, eating habits and body composition
Slowed physical movement, including slower-than-normal speech
Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up at a normal time
Pains, aches, cramps, headaches and other physical discomfort
Oversleeping and tiredness that affects you during the daytime
Thoughts involving death, as well as suicidal thoughts and/or attempts
If you have walking depression, you may only experience a few of the symptoms above, and the effects they have on your life may feel less severe than those of major depression.
There’s no one-size-fits-all template for depression, including walking depression. However, it’s normal for people to experience certain common symptoms when they’re depressed, whether it appears obvious to others or is hidden from view.
Common signs that you could have walking depression include:
You feel irritated and frustrated easily. Irritability is a common symptom of depression that may occur even if you don’t feel “down.” If you get irritated easily or feel as if you’re more prone to outbursts than normal, it could be a sign of walking depression.
You feel sad, empty or experience other negative emotions. Like with other common forms of depression, walking depression also involves persistent feelings of sadness and emptiness.
Your sex drive feels weaker than normal. Depression in women is closely associated with a low sex drive. If you have walking depression, you may feel less interested in sex than normal, and sexual contact might begin to feel less pleasurable.
Concentrating on work feels harder than usual. It’s normal to feel as if concentrating, remembering things or making decisions is harder when you’re depressed, even if your symptoms aren’t obvious to other people.
If you have walking depression, you might be able to stick to your normal educational or work schedule, but completing tasks might feel more challenging and demanding than it usually does.
You often feel like something “isn’t right.” Instead of clearly and explicitly feeling sad, anxious or unhappy, you might simply have a persistent feeling that something isn’t right in your life.
You hide the way you feel from others. Instead of letting people know how you feel or showing signs of depression, you may make an effort to hide your true emotions as a defense mechanism.
Despite your symptoms, you’re still able to maintain a normal life. For some people, depression is a debilitating mental illness. However, if you have walking depression, you may be able to prevent your symptoms from affecting your work and relationships.
This may make it harder for your friends and family members to notice that you’re feeling worse than normal — an issue that could make getting treatment more difficult.
Our guide to the signs of depression in women provides more information on how you may feel, think and behave if you’re depressed.
How bad is walking depression? Like other forms of depression, walking depression can vary in severity. Although you might still be able to walk, talk and participate in life, you may suffer from a general, persistent sense of unhappiness in the background.
Although depressive disorders are extremely common, experts still haven’t identified the precise causes of depression.
However, they have identified specific health and lifestyle factors that may increase your risk of depression. These include:
Genetic factors, such as a family history of depression
Sudden changes to your life, such as a major loss or setback
Reduced social support, or a lack of a circle of supportive people
Traumatic experiences or chronic, ongoing or severe stress
Physical illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease
Medications, including for the physical conditions listed above
High levels of anxiety during childhood or adolescence
Genetic factors appear to play one of the largest roles in depression. If you have a first-degree relative with depression, you have approximately three times the risk of developing depression compared to a typical person.
Depression is treatable, and walking depression is no exception. If you think you’re affected by walking depression, the first step in seeking help is to talk to a licensed mental health provider about your symptoms.
You can do this by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, or from home using our depression treatment online service.
Your mental health provider may ask you about your symptoms, your past medical history, your family medical history and other aspects of your health.
Although there’s no specific walking depression test, your mental health provider may ask you to complete a depression assessment such as the Hamilton Depression Scale (Ham-D) or Beck's Depression Inventory (BDI) to evaluate your symptoms.
If appropriate, your healthcare provider may suggest doing a depression brain scan, and treating your depression using medication, psychotherapy and/or changes to your habits and lifestyle.
Depression is often treated with medications called antidepressants. These work by increasing the levels of certain natural chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that are involved in regulating your moods and behavior.
Common types of antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).
Antidepressants are effective at reducing the severity of depression symptoms and promoting recovery, but they don’t work overnight. If you’re prescribed an antidepressant, it may take two to four weeks before you notice any improvements in your moods and other symptoms.
You may also notice that non-mood symptoms, such as your sleep habits and appetite, start to get better before your moods, thoughts and feelings.
If you’re prescribed an antidepressant, make sure to take it as directed. Don’t stop taking your medication or adjust your dosage without first talking to your healthcare provider.
Our guide to depression medications provides more information about popular antidepressants, how they work, potential side effects and more.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a common form of treatment for depression. It’s often used in combination with medication to help you gain control over your symptoms and change the way you think to make your depression less severe.
Common forms of therapy for managing depression include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), problem-solving therapy (PST) and interpersonal therapy (IPT).
These methods use different techniques and approaches to help you change your thinking and better deal with your depression symptoms.
Like medication, therapy works, but results aren’t always immediate. You may need to take part in multiple therapy sessions over the course of weeks or months in order to adjust your thinking and gain new skills for dealing with the emotions involved in depression.
Need someone to talk to about how you’re feeling? We offer online therapy with licensed counselors to help you deal with anxiety, depression and common issues such as chronic stress and daily burnout.
Although a healthy lifestyle isn’t a replacement for medication and/or therapy, making changes to your habits and lifestyle may reduce the severity of your walking depression symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Try the following habits and lifestyle changes to better manage your depression:
Let your loved ones know how you’re currently feeling. One of the difficulties of walking depression is that other people may not know you’re feeling mentally unwell, stopping them from offering help.
When you’re feeling depressed, don’t feel afraid to confide in your partner, a trusted friend or a family member. Remember that these people can serve as a network of support for when you’re not feeling your best.
Avoid isolating yourself from others. If you’re depressed, you may feel tempted to spend most of your time by yourself. However, research suggests that limiting social contact with others can raise stress levels and make depression and anxiety worse.
Try to spend time with other people, even if you don’t always feel like it. Meeting with friends or family members for lunch, dinner or just a fun occasion can help you to get into a social mood and reduce your risk of becoming isolated.
Set goals to help you recover. Setting small, realistic goals can give you a valuable roadmap to follow as you work towards recovery. Try setting small, realistic goals that you can work on, such as going one day without a depressive thought.
As you make progress, adjust your goals so that you’re constantly working towards a healthier, more balanced mental state.
Try to get regular exercise. Exercise doesn’t just improve your physical health — it’s also linked to improvements in your moods. For example, regular physical activity can stimulate the release of endorphins and promote improvements in brain function.
Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, even if this is just a quick walk or bike ride. According to the CDC, even small amounts of aerobic exercise can offer benefits for your physical and emotional health.
Try practicing mindfulness meditation. Research shows that mindfulness meditation — a form of meditation that involves focusing on the present and accepting feelings and sensations without judgment — can help to treat depression and anxiety.
Try setting aside 10 to 15 minutes a day to meditate at home, or consider joining a local meditation class in your area.
Don’t feel ashamed about being depressed. Depression is extremely common, and being depressed doesn’t mean that you’re weak, that you’ve failed in life or that you’ve got any reason to feel ashamed.
Instead of trying to hide your depression, understand that feeling depressed is a natural part of life that, like many other setbacks, can be overcome.
Our more detailed guide to dealing with depression shares other techniques that you can use in combination with medication and/or therapy to reduce the severity of your depression and make progress towards feeling better.
Although walking depression isn’t a specific clinical diagnosis, it’s common to experience major depressive disorder without showing obvious symptoms to other people.
If you feel like you’re depressed but are able to maintain your normal life, it’s still important that you get help, either by talking to your primary care provider or by accessing help from home via our online mental health services.
Depression is treatable, and the right combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes can often help you to overcome your symptoms and enjoy a rich, rewarding life once again.
Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience.
As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.
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