If you suffer from depression, you may have asked yourself … “Is my depression getting better?”
Like most mental illnesses, it’s subjective. Everyone has their own experiences. No one can step onto a soapbox and proclaim what it’s like for everyone with depression, just like no one can step onto a soapbox and say “this is how we all feel!” Instead, we have to make due with finding similarities, general truths, and vague descriptions.
Depression comes and goes, but it can also stay. It can be mild, or severe, or anything in between.
It can be paired with other behaviors, related to coping with depressive symptoms or perhaps even the cause of them. Depression is something genetic, but it can also be environmental, or just the result of a string of really bad luck and some horrible amounts of stress.
The list goes on and on. Depression is hard to explain, but the general consensus is that when you’re depressed, you’re often in a terrible mood with little control over when or how that mood will come. You’ll be plagued with negative thoughts and you’ll lose all motivation.
So when someone asks themselves what it would be like to improve from one’s depressive symptoms, the answer should generally be pretty simple: to improve from depression is to stop feeling terrible. But that’s not true at all. To improve is to improve – let’s get more specific.
Life Is Complicated
With or without depression, life comes with its ups and downs, and many would argue that life can have a lot of pretty stark downs and relatively few comparable ups.
“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows”, you’ll hear pretty often, and it’s not uncommon to hear about how life beats you down, challenging you to get back up.
Coming off of a depression isn’t a matter of just being happier – it’s a matter of being more capable.
When a person is depressed, their ability to deal with life and its copious challenges is diminished. Motivation is hard to come by if it ever does rear its head, and when bouts of happiness come through, it can sometimes feel like your negative thoughts are just waiting for the right moment to snatch it out of your hands and replace the positivity with worry and regret.
When you’re getting better, the first and most obvious sign is that you’re more confident.
You find yourself not constantly worrying and doubting about what you should be doing or not doing, and instead, you find yourself actually doing. You find yourself not just feeling demotivated and worthless, but you’ll feel the urge to get up and get things done.
That urge, that needs to do something, to be proactive in some way – it’s a clear sign that things are going in the right direction. That is if you’re dealing with more severe symptoms.
Like you’d expect, depression is never something you just wake up with, and it’s not something you wake up without – there are a transition, days and weeks where things get harder, worse. And again, it takes the time to improve.
In cases of milder depression, it can be a bit harder to recognize when it’s finally “over”.
The Depressive Spectrum and You
As we learn more about the mind, mental health, and the best way to broach the subjective and complicated nature of a lot of mental illnesses, the current best way to describe most mental illnesses is on their own and combined spectrums of severity and occurrence.
Basically, a mental disorder based on anxiety will fall somewhere on the anxiety spectrum, and that includes specific forms of anxiety like social anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and phobias, as well as general anxiety disorders.
In a similar vein, depressive symptoms put you on the large spectrum of depression. Simple enough, so far.
Spectrums aren’t exclusive.
You can be diagnosed with multiple mental disorders, many of which may be related to one another.
They’re not just related to that one often causes the other, but in that one can cause the other or be caused by it – or occur simultaneously due to the same factors. Because of these variations, the spectrum helps people better understand their disorder – but it’s up to the professional mental health community to provide treatment in a wholly individual matter.
Think of it all as connected – a huge network of causes and effects.
Back to you, though. No matter where you are on the depressive spectrum, improvement is always self-measurable.
It doesn’t matter if you started out with severe symptoms or mild depressive symptoms – if you got a professional diagnosis, then that same professional will be able to point you towards a few different methods of testing your levels of depression. How?
How Depression is Measured
I just talked a whole lot about how depression is a subjective experience, one wherein every case often comes with unique circumstances that affect how, why and to what degree a person is struggling with abnormally high levels of negative thinking.
When measuring someone’s depression, then, therapists usually use methods that strictly focus on the negativity of a person’s thoughts, regardless of the context. The goal of a diagnosis in cases of depression isn’t to find a treatment, but to assess how overpowering someone’s thoughts are.
That’s still pretty subjective, but since the only person you should be comparing yourself to is your past self, subjectivity doesn’t matter here. The only change in perception does.
Measuring these changes is usually done through a test. Common tests include:
- The Beck Depression Inventory
- The Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale
- Clinically Useful Depression Outcome Scale
- Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology
- The Patient Health Questionnaire
All of these tests are built to be brief, sensitive to change, backed with a uniformity that allows case references and general research, and capable of assessing a patient’s severity based on the classic symptoms of major depression as per the DSM-IV, including measuring a patient’s suicidal thoughts, pleasure, social behavior, and more.
How to Tell When You’re Improving
Tests aside, there are other ways to tell that you’re on the successful warpath towards beating down on depression.
I mentioned feeling more confident and capable – capable being the keyword – but there’s more.
Depression affects our life in layers, making its way to our core in ways we can actually observe. In the same way, you can observe your life improving and moving away from the effects of depression by watching for distinct changes in these layers.
Take your work life, for example. Work is important to the human psyche. Work is something we do, whether or not we enjoy it, for the purpose of survival. But it’s not just because work puts food on the table. To most people on the planet, a life without work is not actually the definition of paradise. Human beings get easily bored, and when we’re without a purpose, without ambition, without a path, then our life becomes miserable.
Depression often first manifests itself as lowered work performance, because we lose our ambition, lack our drive, and our passion plummets. You begin to lose focus, you can’t keep your eye on the ball and your ideas and plans become hazy like they’re hidden behind a veil of fog.
Instead, all that is replaced with uncertainty. Doubt. Your poor performance comes with consequences, and it reinforces the negative feelings depression brings to the table. Naturally, when you begin to improve, so does your work. You’ll have more energy. You’ll think outside the box. You’ll want to go the extra mile. You’ll prepare better and have the urge to start better habits of time management and efficiency. You’re not slowed by doubt.
Next, there are our relationships. While the passion for what we do and how we see our future is integral to who we are, the one thing we usually protect and seek even more than that is the connection to our fellow people: our friends, and especially our family.
When depression seeps in, these relationships become harder to care for. Forget to forge new relationships – the relationships you already have to begin to suffer, as the depression makes it harder for you to pay attention to what others say, or to have any enthusiasm. So when you beat away at your depression, you’ll see an improvement in your communication with others, and you’ll look forward to – and even plan – meeting up with friends and getting together for the holidays.
Finally, we get to our hobbies. We all have hobbies. Activities we seek solace in, little things we do to keep the edge off, built off stress, distract ourselves or just unwind after a hard and productive time. From sports to knitting to gaming and more, whatever it is that might’ve kept your creative spark alive or given you a reason to look forward to your portion of “me time” will no longer seem enjoyable. You’ll lose pleasure in the things that brought you joy.
When you’re improving, you’ll find yourself either picking up new hobbies or going back to old ones. A game you used to enjoy is enjoyable again. You pick up a book, and it’s as intriguing as the day you bought it. Drawing once more puts you in a place of relaxation, rather than becoming an activity you can’t complete because of your impatience and lack of passion.
It’s unfair to say that improving from a case of depression means becoming your old self again. Some people do bounce back in almost their entirety – but in most cases, you’ll be different. You may have different likes and dislikes, new hobbies, a brand-new perspective on life, a new plan for your future and new ideas for how you want to spend your time. A depression can be life-changing. And as unique as depressive experiences tend to be, some ask whether they should be measured and compared at all.
Should Depression Be Measured?
I recounted a couple tests typically used to measure depression and gave a basic overview of what they’re supposed to be capable of. These tests typically exist for two purposes: 1.) to give you an idea of where you lie on the spectrum, and 2.) to help measure your improvement.
The problem with the first purpose becomes clear quickly. When it comes to measuring, and diagnosing depression, there isn’t a real standardized test everyone hops onto. Professionals are often trained to either operate several different rating systems or make their own fluid judgment based on a patient’s symptoms and the way these symptoms relate to the DSM-IV criteria of a case of major depressive disorder.
That, combined with the fact that it’s not really helpful to compare yourself to others when taking into account the highly subjective nature of depression, means that these tests are best used to figure out whether or not you’re doing better, rather than determine exactly how bad your depression is.
While the tests aren’t perfect, measuring depression is still important. We talked about the spectrum and how many are moving away from strict definitions of different depressive disorders and are instead moving towards a more malleable definition of a depressive spectrum with different severities.
Unique But Not Alone
This helps others without depression better understand why there can be cases of a depressive diagnosis with such wildly different symptoms, personalities, and involved factors. But it also serves a different purpose – it helps promote inclusivity and a bit of solidarity.
We experience depressive symptoms in different ways, but we’re all struggling together – and given how depressive symptoms alone don’t define a depressive disorder, the spectrum also helps shed some light on how mental illness shouldn’t divide society because we’re human. Don’t feel alone, or discouraged from seeking out the advice of others just because their journey might’ve been different. Your path towards improving will look different, and be unique, but it always helps to be open to other perspectives and experiences.
That should be the final takeaway – figuring out how you’re coping with your depression and your treatment is a highly individual journey, but it’s one many other have gone through with success. It may take you longer than some others, or you may improve faster than most – but what matters is that you find your way, and help others find theirs as well.