What does depression feel like: emotional & cognitive experiences
Here young people talk about their emotional and cognitive experiences of depression; they describe what being depressed or low felt like for them or certain ways of thinking they associated with depression.
Some people may find the experiences discussed here upsetting or unsettling.
Emotions and feelings
Many people described feeling “bottomless sadness”, being “upset” and “never happy” and crying a lot. They felt tearful and constantly low. The difference to “normal sadness” seemed to be the enormity of those feelings and that they were constantly present. One person described feeling that “sadness overtakes” her life and “nothing can fix it”. Hopelessness, and a sense that there was no way out of the sorrow, was very common. People also described feeling negative and low about themselves and one woman described having “real hatred for myself”.
Oh, it [not knowing the cause of the depression] killed me. I wanted someone to come along and say, “The reason you feel like this, is because either this little bit of life’s gone wrong, or it’s because this bit of your….” You know, something that I could fix, I could go out and fix and fix that bit. And then it would be fine. And I would be back to myself. And it killed me, it was so much worse because there wasn’t a reason. I would have loved it if there was a reason and I could have fixed it, if someone, you know in my family was dying and I could’ve been depressed about that, that would’ve been great, because I could’ve just been sad, and know why, and it was right in front of me, but it was this thing behind me on my shoulders that you just couldn’t, there was nothing, absolutely nothing. It was awful.
Do you, do you now think about, does it still matter to you to think about the sort of the causes, or the reasons?
No, ‘cos I think now depression is the reason. That’s the whole point. And it’s something that no-one ever says. You know my Mum said, there’s no reason for feeling like this, but no-one came along and said, “Look the reason there isn’t, the reason you can’t find a reason for being sad is because being sad is the thing. It’s just something in your mind, and it just happened and it happens to millions of people”, you know one doctor has started explaining about serotonin and all this, and I’m like, “I’ve heard this a million times.” Hormone levels made no interest to me ‘cos it’s in your mind, it’s in your head, it’s a thought.
And whether it’s hormone making that thought, I don’t care, it, if it was in my mind it was a mental thing that could be overcome mentally. And just no one said, “That’s what, that’s what depression is. There won’t be a reason for it. Depression is the reason you’re feeling sad. That’s what you’ve got to beat. Not something causing the depression. Depression is the cause of you feeling sad.” I never understood that for ages.
On the contrary, some felt no emotion at all. One person said he was “unable to enjoy” a seemingly happy and good life. They described feeling “numb”, “total nothingness” and a complete loss of interest and motivation in life. One man said “he’d gone off the boil”. One woman described herself;
“I’ve got no emotions on anything. I don’t feel happy I don’t feel sad, I’ve just got the same face on all the time.”
The thing is with that, it’s so hard to find words that haven’t been used so much that they have no meaning any more. So if I’d say, oh useless and hopeless, like yes that’s how I felt, but they’ve been used so much, they have no impact when you use them anymore.
A pain that’s either an absolute nothingness, where you could light a firework up my arse and I wouldn’t flinch, just absolutely dead to the world. I’ll go to the shop and it’s like I’m watching myself from above, or below you know. And it swings between that and absolute searing pain to the point where I’m curled on my bed and genuinely believing that anything, including dying, is better than this kind of thing, you know. I can’t think of, get me a thesaurus [laughs], but, utter despair, followed by utter emptiness.
Feeling angry or “short tempered” was also a common feeling many people had. They said they got easily “wound up” and sometimes had bursts of anger or rage for no apparent reason. A couple had been to anger management sessions to try and learn ways to manage those feelings. Few had got into fights or into trouble with police for being physically aggressive. For others, anger was more subtle and directed inwards;
“I get angry every time I think about being sad. It’s kind of a mix between low mood and angry about myself for being low.”
One woman felt that anger is too often passed off as a personality trait, rather than understood as a manifestation of low mood or depression.
You get bitched about, you get all sorts. You get hurt. You get lied to and it just, it all builds up and it just gets you thinking, and because you’ve got so much time on your hands, ‘cos I’m not doing anything, you just sit there and thinks, and then sometimes I’ll go on one of my mad ones where I can trash my flat, ‘cos I’m that low I just want something to take my anger out on, and, it just gets worse.
I just I want people to know that I’m two different people. When I’m like this I do get a bit aggressive, and my behaviour is a bit out of order, but I’m not, I’m not normally like this. And I do want to go back to being the Sophie that gets on, has loads of friends and does normal things and leads a normal life.
Age at interview:
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What happened there?
What in my anger management? We just do what, how I feel when I get angry, what like, how I notice I’m getting angry, like if I shake or something. And we had to write all this down. And then ten things that make me most angry. And then draw them on a thermometer, in order of how angry they make me. And then say whether they make me rage mad, just normal mad, irritated mad, or just annoyed. And then I have to write down about the ten things how I could deal with them in a positive way if they made me angry again. So I was like oh this is fun.
And literally I’ve been there and I’ve done it about nine times now. It just doesn’t work. I’m not being horrible, but writing down what makes me mad on a piece of paper is making me mad. ‘Cos again, if something makes me mad, I just try and forget about it. ‘Cos people in here keep going to me, oh, the support workers are like, “People go so mad in here.” I’m like, “No they don’t go mad.” He’s like, “They do, I’ve seen [friend’s name] go mad. He was like, the other day when you two had your argument,” “And that’s [friend’s name] going mad?” He went, “Yeah.” I was like, “Really?” “Yeah.” You’re like, why is you find that so hard to believe when, ‘cos you know the night I smashed up my flat, I mean that was me annoyed.
He went, “You what, you looked really mad.” I was like, “I wasn’t mad, I was annoyed.” I went, “And I warn you now, if you ever, it takes a lot to get me there, ‘cos I just forget everything that happens, but if you ever see me in a full on rage, I’d move out of the way fast.”
Some people's moods fluctuated up and down, even daily, and some called this “mood swings”. There seemed to be no obvious trigger for the sudden switch in moods which made people feel their moods were “unpredictable”, even for them. Life was “up and down” for no obvious reason. For a few people who’d been diagnosed with a bipolar mood disorder the highs and lows of moods were even more distinct. One person described his life with fluctuating moods as “a rollercoaster”, another one as “a pendulum syndrome”'
“I call it the pendulum syndrome because you can be OK one day, but the pendulum does gradually swing back and you do get times where your mood does dip again.”
But you go from some days, like normally I’d go low one day, high the next, low one day, high the next, but now it’s like low for a week, and then a high one day, and then it could be low for another week. I don’t get many highs and lows; just get it all low now. Like nothing’s gonna happen in my life now. But, just need something good to happen.
I’m on high like, I could be, I’m so hyperactive, I could just like, I don’t know I could be so enthusiastic over something, if I wanna go and do something with my friends down the park, I’ll go, “Yeah, come on, come to the park, come into the park.” But then when I’m on a low I just don’t want to talk, I’ll just sit in my room and do my own thing, just have a grump on all day. But I don’t know, when I’m on a hyper, when I’m on a high, I just think of so many good things, but then it just doesn’t last and then I think there’s nothing else I can do.
And how long would it last usually?
I could be, I could be dead enthusiastic in the morning, and then it could just switch in a day. Could go back to just, I got on the bus the other day on the way back from my Mum’s and everything was fine, I’d had a wicked day out with my Mum, just before I, just before I fell out with her and she, she didn’t wanna know, but just had a wicked day with my Mum and then I got on the bus and I just switched to being so depressed, came back here and started self harming again. But I don‘t know what set me off, I don’t know what triggers it.
For a couple of people depressive feelings and experiences were particularly bad during the winter months. They connected this to lack of natural light and short days but also to particular cultural events occurring during winter, such as Christmas, which could make these feelings worse.
I go and have a run, you know, things like that, you come back and you know, uplifts a little bit. So during times, you know winter, dark, cold, you don’t want to go outside. You’re stuck in and it’s like you know no, there’s no natural light for a long time, you’re just, you know, it, I noticeably it makes your day a lot worse.
When did you notice that?
I made the correlation kind of, February, like I went up to like a couple of months afterwards I realised that you know it’s a very big contributing factor like driving home from things like long journeys in, you know in the dark, on your own, just continuously. And then, getting up when it’s dark, going home when it’s dark from work, you know, so that you’re sat in an office all day. So you don’t really get a chance to go out much at all, so you don’t see, effectively, any natural light for all day, apart from the office, which is just like strip lights, so at the weekends you know, that’s all you get.
Cognitive experiences - thoughts and mind
Another way in which people experienced depression was as particular ways of thinking, of thinking too much. Most described “overanalysing and worrying” about everything and felt they were stuck in cycles of “negative thinking”. Quite a few described how they had always been “worriers”; going over and over a range of worst case scenarios and worrying about everything. Several people said they couldn’t switch off their overactive minds and found this extremely draining. Here is what some of them said;
“I was thinking myself to a mess”
“I never ever stop thinking about things. I think about it all day, I think about it all night. I think mostly at night, but I think about my stuff in the day. Even when people are trying to talk to me, I’ll still sit there and think about what’s on my mind.”
“It’s just like a bottle really, just building up and building up and you just can’t let the cap off.”
I’ve always sort of had a sort of like a very overactive sort of thought thing, and that that kind of does bring on sometimes the sort of depression thing. And that really does annoy me ‘cos it’s like I tend to have an overactive imagination sometimes and I, before I go out anywhere I’ll imagine how everything can go wrong, in all the different sort of circumstances that it, well can go in. And then, I sort of psyche myself to out and expect those bad things instead of all the good things that should be happening. And it usually turns out good which I’m happy about but, yeah I think it’s just down to sort of I don’t know, just either an imagination or just trying to think, trying to think of different ways to deal with it, all the time, and it. I mean before you came I was thinking, well how many things can go wrong… Think, think, think, think, think, think, think, think, think, think, think …... about fifty sort of things came to mind and, all in sort of slightly different circumstances.
Age at interview:
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I think ‘cos with the, with the depression part it’s quite, you over think it, but in a very, with a very pessimistic point of view. And over thinking kind of, if, if you over think about like you know, “Should I got to,” if you’re trying to decide between like last week, bowling and ice skating, and my friends were saying, “Which one should we go to?” Only people were like, oh ice skating’s fun and it’s near the restaurant. Bowling's fun but and it’s cheaper,” like, people you know, they just, and you can look at it. But with me it’s kind of like, “I actually hate ice skating because I’m scared the ice will break.” But that’s just a constant, that’s just me, but , it’s kind of, I actually hate ice skating because like you know I don’t like this, I don’t like this and I don’t like this, and that will mean this, and it’s always a negative point of view, it’s never kind of, um, bowling and ice skating, oh bowling’s cheaper and ice skating’s nearer the restaurant; those are two kind of good things, whereas with me it’ll be like, “Oh I hate ice skating ‘cos I don’t want the ice to break. And I don’t want to go bowling because like everyone gets really kind of happy and oh no,” I don’t know, so it’s quite, it’s quite, you end up doing a lot of negative thinking, and if, I always think like I do just constantly it’s unbelievable it’s ever more like.
You know it’s like; it can be something as random as like, “Should I walk or should I take the bus?” And it’s kind of, “I’m tired, but I need to lose the weight, and I need to lose the weight so I can feel happy, so I should walk,” and then half way through your walking, “Oh I’m so stupid, why don’t I just get the bus?” And it’s, it’s just constant, that you, it’s just constant like pessimistic like, “Oh I’ve just done it wrong.” Or, “This will go wrong.” Or, it’s never like a good thing so...
Negative thinking patterns became self-fulfilling for many and prevented them from being spontaneous. Quite a few said they’d found help for this from CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, see ‘Talking treatments’.
Just feeling really, really alone, like not anyone I could talk to. Even when, even when after the first couple of weeks when I met people and made some friends, I’d just get bouts of time when I just, I’d feel there was no-one here I could talk to, nobody who , was a good friend, nobody who would understand what I was talking about. And it, like I’d sort of, I’d rationalise it, I’d go, “No that’s not true, I’ve got friends who I can talk to, I’ve got friends who I can talk to about this.” But it wouldn’t help; it would just be like I would just get these really bad feelings of loneliness and just really wanting to be back home.
And a part of like, a part of the effect of this was I’d get, I found it really, really hard to get motivated like I missed quite a lot of days going into the lab and, or like going to classes and things like that just because as I said I couldn’t do it. And I know that, I knew that it would make me feel better to get out of the house and go and do something and go into the lab with other people around, but I just, I couldn’t, couldn’t do it.
And feeling really, and as a result of that feeling really kind of guilty and angry with myself, ‘cos it was kind of like I should be, I should be doing like, I should be going out and doing stuff, but why, why am I not? What, what is it? And it was just kind of, yeah just, like I said just kind of thinking myself into a mess. And I sort of, it’d end up like I’d be like this for a couple of days, and I just sort of go up and down, up and down and it became worse and worse and worse, and eventually just have a crisis and kind of break down crying and thinks like that. There’s a couple of times I had to sort of, I was sitting in the lab and I’d kind of go, “I have to go out for a bit,” and I’d run out the door and just go and sit in the park and just be crying for half an hour, or something like that. It usually made me feel quite a bit better actually, but …
Yeah, it was just kind of, I just, I don’t know, sort of, I could describe them as crises, but I’d just kind of, I’d get into this, just this pattern of thinking negatively and I’d just go down and down and down and down and down, and eventually just crash for a while.
People also described how their mind would distort even the most positive events and turn them into negative experiences. For example if they’d succeeded in an exam, they’d convince themselves that it was “a fluke” or a mistake, and in reality, they actually were “worthless” and didn’t deserve good marks.
Can’t work, can’t sleep, sometimes can’t eat and just feel everything is pointless. I know I felt like everyone wanted to hurt me, to pick on me. With depression even good things you might have experienced seem to become twisted in your mind and appear bad. The world becomes distorted and appears as if against you. It’s a very tiring thing to go through and completely destroys any motivation, confidence, and self-esteem you may have had.
Other cognitive experiences people described included difficulty concentrating or focusing, overemphasising the smallest of negative feelings or living in “a cloud” of their own. A couple also had memory problems. One man explained:
"The case with anxiety and depression is it really is the power of your own inquisitive mind that sends you over the edge, and it’s just you’re battling against yourself at the end of the day, so, however much you think about it, it kicks you when you're down.”
You said that you’ve always felt that you’re not quite straight in the head, is I think the expression you used.
That was what I said.
Can you explain what you mean by, what is it like?
Straight in the head. I mean it feels like, obviously everyone experiences different emotions. It feels like my brain chemistry and my brain wiring’s different from most other people. I think that might be just because I’ve got Asperger’s but, often, often thought that I find it quite difficult to deal with some emotions. Like, I hate conflicts and arguments, and I’m not too keen on anger.
Age at interview:
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I can see everything happening, but you know like, it’s not like I’m watching what other people are doing, I can see what I’m doing as well, and I don’t get how I do that. It’s like I’ve got another pair of eyes that are positioned about a metre away from me or something, ‘cos I can see everything, and I don’t know how I do it. That’s what I mean; it looks like I’m looking through, the world through a window. ‘Cos I can see everything. I can see myself, but I can’t feel myself if you get me. I see it happening in my head, what’s going on, but I don’t know that I’m doing it, I don’t know how to turn it on and off. Like there’s sometimes where I really want to see what I’m doing, so I can see if I’m acting mad or anything, and I can’t do it, but then there’s other times I just want to enjoy myself and forget it and I’m just seeing myself sat there. And I don’t know how I do it. It’d be a really nice gift to have if we could turn it on and off.
Age at interview:
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It’s quite scary when you put something somewhere and then two minutes later you can’t find it. Or I know this happens to a lot of people you know all the time, but it’s, happens very frequently with me, you go into a room and you’ve forgotten what you’re going to get, you forget to phone friends, phone back friends which obviously can be worrying for them if you don’t phone them. What other things... oh yeah, forgetting what I’m saying, forget what I was saying the whole time, and having to say, “What was I saying?” Which is a bit, it’s you know not very nice. And apparently that’s due to anxiety, but yeah it’s, kind of makes you, it’s a vicious circle ‘cos it makes you anxious when you’ve forgotten something really basic, which makes you anxious which means it carries on.
Yeah absolutely. How long has it been going on?
The other type of memory loss I’ve had is, not remembering some things when I’ve been really ill which is quite helpful because the mind sort of, the mind protects you from really bad feelings you had in the past, if you know what I mean.