The image that we often get of a sad girl with tears on her face sitting in a dark corner is hardly the full story of depression. It is this very image that many people have that may limit their understanding of what it truly means to have depression. Do I cry more than I used to? Sure. Do I hide in a dark corner? I’d like to, or at least curl back into my bed. Am I sad? Not really; hopeless and desperate, but not sad.
To those who have not experienced depression, the question of “how depression makes your body feel” might be a strange one. What does a mental illness have to do with your body, anyway? Sure, some chemicals may be a bit out of whack, but that’s in the brain, right?
Depression can steal your physical, emotional and mental energy. Fatigue is actually one of the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder. When I get up in the morning, I wake up exhausted, even if I manage to get eight or nine hours of sleep. My body feels weak and my brain feels foggy. My brain tells me I’m too tired and it’s not worth the effort anyway. Getting out of bed is a monumental feat. I force myself up after pressing snooze a few times and get on with my day. By lunch, I feel like I’ve been up a full day already.
Depression can hurt. Research suggests depression can actually cause the brain to feel pain more intensely. Furthermore, depression as an illness frequently shows up with aches and pains. For me, a combination of stress and depression contribute to chronic pain in my neck, shoulders and upper back. When I don’t get at least eight hours of sleep, my localized pain becomes generalized pain. My whole body hurts, and I just want to curl into a ball. Cold weather and drafts make it worse. Depression plus the common cold can be a nasty combination.
Depression can feel physically heavy. It can feel like someone is constantly pushing your head down and your body towards the ground. Holding your head up and smiling can feel impossible. Sometimes, it feels like gravity is just working twice as hard on you. And, more often than not, anxiety — diagnosed or undiagnosed — can come with the depression. I feel a sensation of pressure weighing on my chest. I feel like I can’t breathe well or I’m not getting enough oxygen. It becomes very hard to focus on anything, because relieving that pressure becomes the only thing I can think about.
I’ve found depression can hold sleep captive and return it at the most inconvenient times. It can cause you to overeat, and it can cause you to have no appetite. Even though you’d like to do more, exercise more, eat better, these things can become the hardest things to do. When someone confides that they have depression, they are not revealing a weakness. Rather, they are demonstrating their strength despite a difficult, often chronic illness.
If you have depression, keep fighting. You are strong. Celebrate the small victories.