What Does Depression Feel Like?

signs of depression

Verywell / Laura Porter

Sadness is something we all experience from time to time. For some, this feeling is temporary and goes away on its own. But for others, this persistent feeling of emptiness, unhappiness, and hopelessness becomes a regular part of their day.

If your mood has changed over the last few weeks and engaging in routine daily tasks is getting more difficult, you may have depression, and you're not alone.

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. According to data from 2017, it is estimated that 17.3 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had a least one major depressive episode in the past year. 

Depression, a mood disorder that can cause mild to severe symptoms, can affect how you feel, think, and manage daily activities.

What Depression May Feel Like

Many people believe that depression needs to be debilitating and cause significant problems in their life in order to seek help. What they don’t realize is that some of the more subtle signs of this disorder are often the first indication that something is going on. Here are some examples of how depression may feel to you.

  • Depression feels like there is no pleasure or joy in life. According to Anjani Amladi, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist, it’s so much more than being sad. According to Amladi, “depression robs people of things they once loved, and for many people, they feel like nothing will bring them joy again.” 
  • Concentration and focus become much more difficult, which makes any kind of decision-making challenging. Amladi says that sometimes people describe this as being in a fog as they are unable to think clearly or follow what is happening around them.
  • For many with depression, it feels like there is no way out. Everything feels hopeless like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Amladi says this can lead to a feeling of failure and worthlessness. In more serious cases, it can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions.
  • Depression also has a significant impact on sleep. This often manifests as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, frequent nighttime awakening, or feeling tired upon waking despite getting an adequate number of hours of sleep. “This can lead to a feeling of exhaustion and low energy which can prevent people from even being able to get out of bed, or perform daily activities like showering, eating and brushing their teeth,” Amladi says. 
  • Sometimes depression can be physically painful. Amladi says it is not unusual for people with depression to feel body aches, headaches, muscle tension, and even nausea.

Information presented in this article may be triggering to some people. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How It Feels According to People With Depression

Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist, and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, says the most common question asked in her practice is: "How does depression feel?"

“Some people ask me this question for comfort and to ensure that they are not alone with their experience, while others feel so confused by their tumultuous feelings that they struggle to clearly identify their inner experience,” she says. 

With that in mind, here are some of the responses Magavi hears in her sessions:

  • "Depression feels like a weight on my chest, which brings me down everywhere I go."
  • "Depression is receiving praise at work but still feeling worthless."
  • "Depression is the loneliness I feel when I see other couples and families laughing and enjoying their lives."
  • "Depression is feeling like I am a failure as a person, family member, and friend."
  • "Depression is when I cannot take care of my children because I cannot take care of myself."
  • "Depression is not brushing my hair and teeth because I simply cannot move."
  • "Depression is smiling when others laugh, hiding behind the fabricated mask, and wishing I could just disappear."
  • "Depression is my life and shadow, which haunts me every day."

Christian Sismone, someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety her entire life, says it’s important to provide a non-clinical perspective. She shares these examples:

  • “Depression makes my mind feel like a turtle running in chunky peanut butter.” Sismone says this is most evident when she is not able to have clear thoughts. 
  • “Depression feels like I'm suffocating in my emotions, and at times I feel as though I can breathe, but only through a straw.” Being someone who attempted to end their life 10 years ago, Sismone says the complicated emotion of depression can feel too great.
  • “Depression can feel like an old friend that doesn't quite fit, but you know the ins and outs.” For Sismone, learning how to work with depression instead of running away from it, helped her move forward.

What Are the Different Types of Depression?

Since depression is such a complex disorder, it can be difficult to define and diagnose with just one set of generalized criteria. Because of this, other categories define different types of depression. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the two most common forms of depression are major or clinical depression and persistent depressive disorder.

Major depression is the most commonly diagnosed form of depression characterized as having symptoms of depression most of the day, nearly every day for at least two weeks that interferes with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life.

Persistent depressive disorder dysthymia is diagnosed after a person has symptoms of depression that last for at least two years. 

Other forms of depression include: 

Common Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Depressive symptoms can range from mild to severe and include:

  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in actives you used to enjoy
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and pessimism (expecting only bad things to occur)
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Increase in aches and pains, headaches, digestive problems
  • Lack of self-care (not bathing, grooming, etc)
  • Withdraw from social activities
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

Tips for Friends and Family 

If you have a friend or loved one dealing with depression, you might be wondering if there are things you should look or listen for. The good news, according to Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360, is you don’t need to have a great understanding of what depression feels like to you, just try to be curious about what depression feels like for them.

His advice? Try to understand it enough so that you stay aware of the symptoms and look for the little things that indicate your loved one is doing well or that they are struggling.

“What’s most important is that we are trying to care for them and when we are aware of their struggle, we can check on them and ask what we can do to help,” Gilliland says. 

A Word From Verywell

Depression is a serious mental health issue. Although symptoms can look different depending on the severity, it’s not uncommon to experience many of the feelings described above.

That said, if you’re experiencing more than a few symptoms of depression or are worried that your symptoms are worsening, it may be time to schedule an appointment with your doctor or mental health expert. 

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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression Basics. Revised 2016. 

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Major Depression. Last Updated February 2019.