When most of us think of someone who is depressed, we tend to think of the most extreme form, which is people who suffer from major depression (also called clinical depression). We think of a person who may be home, in bed, unable to function. We may imagine someone who cries often or talks about suicide. These are all symptoms of severe depression. This form of depression is usually marked by difficulty going to work, sleeping, eating, socializing, studying, or functioning at even the most basic level in day-to-day life. Major depression is a potentially deadly illness. A person with major depression may struggle with hygiene (it is too much energy to take a shower), making meals (even a sandwich can seem like too much work), or day-to-day tasks (leaving a sink full of dishes for days). This is severe form of depression but most people would notice these signs (or have friends or family who notice their symptoms) and would be more likely to receive help.
A much more common form of depression is walking depression. Depression exists on a spectrum and manifests itself in various ways. The “high functioning” form of depression is “walking depression” or “smiling depression.” Walking depression’s symptoms can be tougher to recognize because they don’t fall under the picture of what most people think of when they think of depression. People with walking depression may work, raise children, socialize, travel, and even carry out all their day-to-day responsibilities. If you have children, who are not immune to this order, they can be honor students who play varsity sports and have lots of friends. Just because someone is successful does not mean they are not suffering. Walking depression does not discriminate by age, race, or gender. People with this disorder can be high achievers who are achieving remarkable things–but they are doing so with a general sense of misery. A person with walking depression is still getting up each morning, going about their day, going to work, and putting on the facade that everything is A-okay to their family, friends, or coworkers. A person with this form of depression can be very successful professionally, have an active social life, and even be well-traveled. A person with walking depression may on paper seem to “have it all.” But there is a disconnect between the way their life appears and the life the person with walking depression EXPERIENCES. An individual with walking depression may even be MAD at themselves for feeling unhappy when they know there is no real reason to be. Kevin Breel, who did an excellent Ted talk on this topic, describes depression perfectly, “Real depression isn’t being sad when something in your life goes wrong. That is normal. Real depression is being sad when everything in your life goes right.” Having no reason to be sad but feeling sad is TRUE depression. You never know who in your life can be struggling because a person with walking depression functions, even functions on a high level, but struggles on the day-to-day. People with this form of depression live with a profound sense of unhappiness.
Dysthymia, a chronic, low-grade form of depression, can go on for years untreated. Many people who suffer from this disorder may just think what they feel is “normal” and it is what “real life” is supposed to feel like. Their depression is not disabling in the way clinical depression is but it is still a serious disorder. A person with this disorder may not even know something is wrong because it does not impact their day-to-day functioning. Or they may know something is not quite right but can’t quite put their finger on what. The reality is there is still a stigma that exists in our society as it relates to mental health issues. Many people would never want to admit to THEMSELVES let alone another that they are suffering from depression. It may be because they would feel weak or it may be a blow to their ego or maybe they don’t “believe” in depression (whether for cultural, religious, or familial reasons). However, if you do not acknowledge or believe in depression, this does not exclude you from struggling with this disorder.
How do you know if you or someone you love might have walking depression?
1.Being moody and irritable. When our day-to-day life is a struggle, which it often is for someone with walking depression, it is harder to let things roll off our backs. A person with walking depression may snap at this littlest things or be very cynical in their thinking. The negativity they are feeling internally will spill out in different ways to their external world. Things that would normally be annoying but no big deal to someone WITHOUT walking depression, can result in bursts of rage or anger in a person with walking depression. Think about it this way–reflect on a day where you woke up tired and in a foul mood. We all have these days. Even the healthiest among us can admit on days where we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, there are situations we would usually laugh off or not let bother us, that really get us going. This is what every day can be like for someone with walking depression. It is already taking everything they have to get through their day-to-day life, so when something rattles them, they have little or no ability to cope. All their coping skills are being used up just to FUNCTION in their day-to-day life.
2. Being lethargic. A person with walking depression keeps it moving…but boy is it a struggle. Work, errands, dropping the kids off at school, they may even hit up the gym. A person with walking depression may do a lot–but with a general feeling of blah. You may drink copious amounts of coffee yet not get the benefit of the energy jolt. Low energy or no energy is the new normal when you are struggling with depression. No amount of caffeine will overcome you melancholy. When someone is depressed their energy levels tend to be low or non-existent because they are struggling with deep feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness. All those negative emotions that accompany depression tend to deplete a person’s energy. Being in a perpetual negative state of mind takes a lot out of a person. It is not easy to live in a state of chronic depression.
3. Being rigid and unwilling to change. With walking depression, you try not to break your routine (examples: can’t stand the idea of traveling somewhere new, won’t quit the job you hate, won’t leave the partner you have fallen out of love with, don’t want to meet new people or go to new places, etc.). When you are struggling with walking depression, it takes all you have to just get through the day. You may be unhappy with a certain aspect of your life but changing it would take energy that you just do not have. You don’t want to venture outside of your routine and comfort zone for fear the stress of the change would make you come apart at the seams.
4. Overeating or not eating much at all. Using food (or avoiding food) as a way to cope with your unhappiness. It can go either way depending on the personality type. Change in appetite is something to look into.
5.Unable to look forward to anything and a general sense of cynicism. Maybe your son is graduating college. Or you finally booked that trip to Hawaii you have been putting off for years. Maybe your daughter will be getting married next year. But you just can’t find the energy to care. Happy life events do not bring you joy. If anything you dread having to put on the show of “being happy” at such events. Even worse you feel resentful of the people in your life who DO seem to be happy. You wonder if they are “faking it” or wonder how anyone can so happy over something so trivial. You may suffer a lot of Instragram envy. Or Facebook envy. Or envy of your college best friend’s annual holiday card with a beautiful picture of her and her “happy” family. You try to rationalize why you feel as miserable as you do and simultaneously feel irked by people who appear to be happy.
6.Feeling chronic negativity towards others. This piggybacks a bit off the cynicism towards others. A person with walking depression can come off bitter. It takes so much out of them to just function, it can get them irritated if you ask the simplest thing of them. A person with walking depression can come across like they have a chip on their shoulder because while they are doing everything asked of them, they are doing it with a sense of irritability and resentment. They may speak negatively of others and negatively about life in general because of their struggle to keep it together. Remember, if you feel unhappy with your own life it is almost impossible to feel happiness for others.
7. Drinking more. Or self-medicating in some form. Prescription pills. Smoking marijuana. A person with walking depression might only feel a slight sense of relief after a couple of glasses of wine. Or a few puffs on a joint. Or whatever their poison of choice is. It is a red flag that you are struggling if substances are the only way you feel any sense of happiness.
What to do if you think you or some you love has Walking Depression?
- Seek help. A good first step would be to tell your primary care doctor who may prescribe antidepressants or recommend a psychiatrist/therapist for you to speak with. When you have walking depression, you may not have the motivation to seek help. If you recognize these symptoms in a family member or friend, try to push them to seek support. People with walking depression do not need to continue to suffer in silence.
- Tell your friends and family. Reducing your isolation can help you overcome the disorder. Friends and family can be a source of great support (and who knows who amongst your social circle has gone through the same). There is no shame in struggling from time to time with your psychological health. A new movement to make physical health just as important as mental health is on the rise. We need to continue as a society to work to become a mental health stigma free country. Carrying the secret that you are not happy is a heavy burden to bear. Often walking depression is a consequence of living a life that you are not happy with. Let your loved ones know you struggle. Admitting the truth can be a relief in and of itself.
- Get exercise. Walking is shown to alleviate lower grade forms of depression and is good for overall health. In fact walking is one of the go to recommendations for milder cases of depression. Any form of exercise can help you to treat your walking depression.
- Meditate. Often when one is struggling with walking depression, they are very much a prisoner of their mind. One can be stuck ruminating (which is to think deeply about something over AND over). Ruminating tends to dig us into a hole–a hole of negativity. Try just five minutes of meditating a day to begin to break the cycle. There are many great apps on your phone that can lead you through meditation for beginners and some great YouTube videos as well. I recommend downloading Headspace to your phone and watching “Meditation for Beginners” by Leo Gura from actualized.org (his youtube channel is actualized.org–lots of good videos on there).
- Journal. This can help you manage your symptoms and channel your thoughts and feelings. Journaling can help you clear your mind and make you more aware of why you are feeling what you are feeling. It can even be helpful to journal to find patterns in your thinking. If you are in counseling, you can use a journal to discuss patterns about your thoughts and behavior with your therapist.
- Lighten your load. Don’t spread yourself too thin! We live in an age where “being busy” is a badge of honor. If you are suffering from walking depression, you should try to really focus on self-care and see what responsibilities you can get off your plate. Chronic stress can be a contributing factor to your disorder. Less is more when you are struggling with walking depression.
- Develop gratitude. Practicing gratitude has been shown to influence one’s mood and increase overall happiness. It can help you begin to shift your thinking from the negative to the positive. Start every day thinking about three things you can be grateful for.
You don’t have to do all of these suggestions. Just try some. Or one. There is not one size fits all approach to treating depression. Walking depression is very treatable but the first step is acknowledging how you truly feel. And remember the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” I wish you courage.
If you are someone you love are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1800-273-8255.
To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649