Signs of depression

What depression is

This article explores the five most common signs of depression in its early stages. The advice given here relates to situational depression related to adverse life events. For advice on long-term depression please consult your medical doctor or a psychotherapist.

Depression is a mood disorder characterised by persistent low moods; thoughts related to helplessness, or the pointlessness of life; low motivation; feelings of dread; lethargy; insomnia; and daytime tiredness. Depression  can appear as mild, moderate or severe in scope. This article addresses mild or moderate signs of depression.

The aim of this article is for you to recognise creeping depression before it turns into something worse. We will also look at some ways to resolve early stage depression.

Note. Some of the symptoms described may relate to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). If your symptoms appear at regular intervals during late autumn and winter, please consult your medical doctor for treatment. 

Early signs of depression

Here are five indicators of early stage depression:

Loss of pleasure in activity

The technical term for this is anhedonia, referring to loss of pleasure, or interest in activities you usually enjoy. This could relate to socialising, work, exercise, sex, listening to music, or watching favourite films and tv. A typical reaction when thinking of doing any of these things is that you find them pointless, or that you have very little motivation for them.

This symptom is grounded in dopamine depletion in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that fires up when we engage in rewarding activity. When it is low we no longer feel that the activity is worth doing.

Depressive anhedonia must be distinguished from low dopamine caused by drug use. Both alcohol and cocaine, for example, will reduce dopamine levels once their effects have worn off.

Emotional numbness

This is partly linked to anhedonia, except the person feels disconnected from their emotions around other people. It could be described as a feeling of emptiness or indifference to relationships. It may be accompanied by apathy or withdrawal from partners, family and friends.

Racing thoughts

Early stage depression is often triggered by repressed feelings related to life problems (see below). Because the problem is accompanied by dread, or the thought that one cannot cope with life problems the person runs away from the problem and blocks it from awareness. This can lead to emotional numbness, but also anxiety over the hidden danger. This anxiety, in turn, triggers a flock of thoughts related to almost any other problem you might have.

This can often lead to confusion over what it is one is depressed about. The mind jumps from one worry to another – money, jobs, health, the home or other people – but rarely settles on the real source of the problem.


This is related to emotional numbness (see above) but also overwhelm by worrisome thoughts and dread. Since the person often feels apathetic about doing any activity they retreat to a safe space (e.g. the bedroom) where they can be alone. Unfortunately, doing this often makes things worse as they get entangled in anxious, confusing thoughts that lead nowhere.

Comfort eating and drinking

Some people in early stage depression (but not all) compensate for their empty feelings through comfort eating. Typically, they gorge on junk food high in carbohydrates as these can temporarily lift low mood. Alternatively, if the person is a habitual drinker they may use alcohol to drive away troublesome thoughts and anxiety. However, so long as the core problem remains unresolved, drinking to excess may may things worse rather than better,

Use of comfort eating and alcohol may also lead to tell-tale signs of rapid weight gain.

Common triggers for depression

The first step in identifying the trigger for early warning signs of depression is to pinpoint what was happening around the time the signs first emerged. Then going on to identify the painful thoughts and feelings that arose from that life event. Here are some examples of common life events that might trigger the depressed state.

Relationship issues. Poor behaviour from a partner or a friend might give rise to dread that the relationship might be coming to an end (this judgment may, or may not be true). If the pain is too much for you, you might consciously repress the threat, although those painful feelings remain unresolved.

Potential loss. This can apply to relationships, but also potential loss of someone through illness and death, or of a child who is leaving the family home. Or it could refer to the loss of your home itself. Again, if painful feelings are repressed signs of depression may appear.

Work-related problems. This could refer to conflicts with colleagues, or with management. Or else to the threat of redundancy. In some cases anxiety over work-loads, or your ability to manage may be the source of your distress.

Financial hardship. Unexpected bills, action for debt recovery, loss of income or the struggle to make ends meet may give rise to catastrophic thoughts that you are about to go bankrupt (again, these thoughts may or may not be grounded in fact).

Family care issues. If you are a caregiver to young children, or to elderly parents, you may be finding the demands on you too much to bear. The issue may have crystallised around a recent accident, illness or other disaster to a member of your family.

Shame and guilt. If you have done something you are ashamed of then dread of exposure might be too frightening to face. Hiding from your fears is a common source of depressed mood.

You may need a trusted friend or partner to help you explore the issue that is upsetting you. Alternatively, you can go to a psychotherapist who can assist you.

What to do about early signs of depression

Once you have identified the issue that is troubling you the next step is to accept what is happening as a fact of life. Acceptance enables you to stop resisting and running away from your pain and do something about it. Focusing on what you can change, leaving be the rest.

Next identify the unhelpful thoughts that are adding to your suffering. The two most common thought patterns in depression revolve around hopelessness (e.g. ‘I’m trapped”) and helplessness (e.g. “I can’t cope”). Write down the thoughts, looking at them rather than through them, then use thought defusion to let them go.

Use self-compassion to soothe yourself and release distress.

During this process, or following on from it, seek out a trusted friend or partner to talk though your issue. Another option is for you to speak to a psychotherapist about it.

Finally, consider your options and possibilities. These could include taking professional advice, speaking to people who are in conflict with you, getting help to reduce the burden, taking time out for yourself, or making changes to the way you live. If you are depressed at any stage, then taking small actions to improve your position on a daily basis is one of the keys to overcoming it.

Further advice on overcoming depression in this article here.


Depression is feeling like you’ve lost something, but having no clue when or where you last had it. Then one day you realize what you lost is yourself.



Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay


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