Depression is a monster. Often, it can be the type of monster that goes bump in the night. Tucked under the blanket of daily function, depression can be concealed. Sometimes even its victims do not realize they are suffering until it breathes heavily on their will to survive. Here are some subtle signs of depression, and some alternative suggestions for dealing with them.
Bump in the Night, Indeed
Depression can be the outcome of sleep disturbances over a period of time. It can also cause sleep disturbances. There is a hormone, specifically, that can be linked as a key factor, outside of brain chemistry. The hormone cortisol is partly responsible for this interaction.
Cortisol levels in your body react to your state of stress. Have you slept enough? What is your diet? If cortisol is too high it can contribute to depression, anxiety, weight gain, weakness, and a host of other symptoms. If cortisol is too low you can experience fatigue, memory loss, depression, weight gain, and irritability. When you don’t get enough sleep, cortisol is released more readily, creating elevated cortisol levels and contributing to depression and anxiety.
There are several more chemicals that are involved in mood. Day to day influences such as rest can lead to long-term issues with our mental health. Even simple interventions such as lowering screen time, resting appropriately, and relaxing consistently and with purpose can help us balance. But what does cortisol have to do with balancing so many processes?
The Role of Cortisol in Maintaining Homeostasis
Cortisol is a major part of the delicate dance your body uses to function in daily life. It regulates millions of processes that keep the human-machine running. Humans tend toward a sort of quiet entropy but when the brand of chaos we experience daily changes, we notice a difference. One of the fundamental outcomes of a human in distress is depression.
So, what are those processes that affect our well-being? Let’s focus on homeostasis. Human bodies work on a simple truth — the body will always try to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is the relative consistency of the body’s internal processes.
Homeostasis is about balance. Our bodies have two basic responses to external influences. Most of us know the term “fight or flight”. The opposite must also occur in the body in order to counteract that stress response. Cortisol levels that are not optimal can create issues in balancing adrenaline and relaxation responses.
The Nervous System and Automatic Responses
Two basic systems govern the fight or flight (adrenaline) and relaxation responses — the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for identifying danger and releasing what most of us know as adrenaline, that chemical that causes mothers to pull their children from peril or causes them to fight to survive or run to get away from danger. It fills our cells with gusto and spite, and grits our teeth, and bends our marrow into the fire.
The parasympathetic, or relaxation response plays a key role in mood regulation. It soothes the muscles in our bellies and releases chemicals that allow us to slow down. Our heart rate slows and our urgency to flee or defend ourselves is resolved.
In youth research, it was discovered that individuals with a lowered ability to respond with relaxation directly coincide with increased rates of depression. In fact, those who had a more prevalent relaxation response showed mood disturbance more readily. This is a scenario where too much of a good thing can often create dysfunction in the body’s normal processes.
How Cortisol Affects Your Sleep
There are silent processes that occur in your body endlessly, your entire life. As a living, breathing, feeling organism, you are a constant, brilliant process that takes place as you go about your daily life unaware of the millions of amazing chemicals, connections, and patterns that build you. Our internal reset button, the sleep or rest cycle, is a singularly basic process that is often the first, most widely affected daily activity that suffers as a result of depression — or causes the depression itself.
Your body simply cannot settle down, or is often too settled down, and cannot create an environment for your brain to fight. That cortisol I mentioned earlier comes into play here. Cortisol is partly responsible for glucose regulation in the body because it ensures your brain receives enough glucose to function.
Cortisol levels that are too low following interruptions in sleep cycles could relate directly to glucose release being sluggish. The brain will also become sluggish. Low cortisol equals a high potential for depression.
Sleep regularly. If you find yourself craving sleep constantly, do not dismiss your body’s way of saying something is amiss. It could be impending depression. Look out for signs. If you find that your sleep is fretful or difficult, it could mean you are already battling depression.
When Anger Comes from a Place of Pain
Remember a week where you were going about your life, a series of events occurred that were manageable (but a bit frustrating), and that feeling of frustration turned into months of feeling like a failure? That is depression. If at some point in those few months you outwardly “overreacted” to a seemingly simple obstacle — a broken nail or dish, accidentally dropping an item, traffic, etc — it might be a time where you were feeling something much more complex than just anger.
Depression can also look a lot like anger. Sometimes dwelling on that wave of emotion in your head can submerge you. The emotional fight-or-flight response can appear as anger. When misplaced rage or angry feelings arise in situations that might not seem to warrant them, it can be a sign of a more encompassing depression. Are you responding with disproportionate anger in situations that do not merit it? Perhaps it is time to explore inwardly what you are actually feeling.
Carefully consider what your experience is, and where you are at this time of your life. Walk back and observe the last few months or years and evaluate what might actually be bothering you. This process is especially challenging for people who might have suffered early trauma in life or had a difficult childhood. Even simple things can trigger certain feelings for us, especially those of us who experienced trauma like neglect or abuse along the way.
Pride in Appearing Normal
You are at a party or entertaining friends, and your charismatic smile lights up the room. You are funny. Your sense of humor has always been a comfort object for you. You are a depression chameleon. Your friends think everything is fine and that everyone is having the same fabulous experience they are. You are getting drinks, moving plates, removing empty snack trays, and dancing.
You are taking used cups, old plates, and dirty dishes to the kitchen just to be alone for just a few precious moments. You are adapting so well that you are sacrificing peace of mind to convince your audience you are fine. This skill set can often come from a place where you had to appear normal to avoid trouble or abuse. This is another handy skill that people learn from trauma. Depression can look like it does not exist at all.
Depression does not have to be a companion you are quietly proud not to show the world. Depression can very much be something you are open about, in safe spaces, with safe people. If you are proud of the skeletons you bury, it is time to air out the house. And before you can even finish that mental sentence — no, you are not a burden.
Depression can place you on autopilot. When something else is steering the ship, it might feel relieving especially if you regularly deal with stress. And in this day and age, who is not dealing with some form of stressor? Being human can sometimes feel like being an organism that survives despite its circumstances. You are not alone in this feeling. It is our condition.
One of the outcomes is repetitive actions like tapping or turning off light switches multiple times. Maybe you shake your leg absently or adjust that comfy couch blanket so often your feet just stay cold and you stay fussy. Which (going to guess here) leads to you adjusting or looking at the thermostat 15 times, or toggling the fan in the room with 3 whole settings 9 times. Just me? Maybe. When that room temperature will not adjust correctly, how irritated are you? Refer to the above. Rinse. Repeat.
Depression repetition can come out in conversations as well. If your conversations are repetitive or shallow it could be that you are preserving your own suffering. You are not a burden. It would be perfectly okay to be real with someone. Auto-pilot mind creates comfortable scenarios that you can access for repeat interactions, so you do not have to use as much bandwidth to interact.
The Body Will Express Mental Pain In Many Ways
Frequent headaches, neck aches, aching hands, or feet. Your body and mind are not just some abstract relationship that exists while you inhabit this meat costume and drag yourself through the day. The body and mind are so deeply connected that mental injuries, like depression, can show themselves in highly physical ways. Your mind manifests suffering in ways that you can understand in simple terms.
Do you ever wake up and feel like you have been hit by a bus after what you recalled to be a relatively normal night in your average bed? That could be a sure-fire sign that your brain is working out kinks while you sleep and trying to manage the depression you might be feeling.
Depression will convince you, in a number of ways, of the abundance of things you cannot do. Do not let your mind lie to your body. Get up. Move. Stimulate yourself mentally if you have a movement disorder. Do something that requires patterned thoughts and build confidence in your mental stability. Play a game, challenge yourself to a crossword puzzle, workout, go for a walk, walk the dog, walk the cat, the gerbil, the lizard. At least challenge yourself to an hour on the Internet trying to find a harness that will suit your gerbil for a walk.
Craving Trash Foods or Having Weird Cravings
Just like your body will tell you something is wrong through pain, it will also tell you to eat something. Or not to eat something. As mammals, we have a pretty nifty built-in no-no system for things we are not supposed to eat. They will smell nasty, or be prickly and untouchable. I am looking at you, sea urchins.
Here is where that cortisol comes back to get you. Low cortisol means low sugar, remember? Guess what! That pint of ice cream craving has some science to it. Your body will tell you you need fatty, sugary foods to soothe yourself. Ignore it. If you are battling depression, the last thing you want to do is smash a bag of chips that you dipped in a pint of ice cream and then try to motivate your sluggish cells to cope.
It is important to note though, if you are battling fatigue, dealing with depression, having pains, and deeply craving salty foods, it might be time to see a physician. Those could be signs of other disorders. Never hesitate to seek help.
Depression can be a silent killer of your will. It can take over the steering wheel when you least expect to be challenged. Depression can be a quiet manipulator of your mind. It can look like “I’m fine” when you are not. If you have tips for dealing with depression, comment below.
- Smagula, S. F., Krafty, R. T., Thayer, J. F., Buysse, D. J., & Hall, M. H. (2018). Rest-activity rhythm profiles associated with manic-hypomanic and depressive symptoms. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 102, 238–244. https://doi-org.libproxy.eku.edu/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2018.04.015
- Thau L, Gandhi J, Sharma S. Physiology, Cortisol. [Updated 2020 May 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
- Yaroslavsky, I., Rottenberg, J., Bylsma, L. M., Jennings, J. R., George, C., Baji, I., Benák, I., Dochnal, R., Halas, K., Kapornai, K., Kiss, E., Makai, A., Varga, H., Vetró, Á., & Kovacs, M. (2016). Parasympathetic nervous system activity predicts mood repair use and its effectiveness among adolescents with and without histories of major depression. Journal of abnormal psychology, 125(3), 323–336. https://doi.org/10.103/abn0000149