It is difficult to describe depression to someone who has never struggled with this mental health disorder. Depression is a condition that is only really understood by those who have experienced it themselves.
People have different ways of coping with their depression. Some may use a substance to self-medicate, some may turn to food and some may withdraw or isolate. Some individuals, however, have what is called “high-functioning” depression. This is a less severe form of depression that is easier to hide from others.
While high-functioning depression looks different for everyone, there are a few common traits that are fairly universal.
Let’s start with the hardest thing to define…
What is depression?
Major depressive disorder is a serious mental health disorder that impacts 21 million Americans each year. Depression is not the same thing as the feelings of sadness or low energy that accompany a difficult life event.
Those temporary bouts of sadness are directly attributed to a specific negative event, perhaps the death of a loved one, a divorce, a job loss or a breakup. Many people can recover from such events without the need for professional intervention.
Clinical depression, however, features a combination of symptoms that persist for more than two weeks. Symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sadness, hopelessness or despair
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite that lead to sudden weight gain or loss
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Intense feelings of guilt, worthlessness or shame
- Problems with concentration or decision-making
- Thoughts of suicide or death
Because depression is a complex and often mysterious mental health disorder, the cause is not always known. Experts have identified some potential risk factors, including a family history of depression, certain medical conditions or side effects from medication, brain chemistry imbalance, traumatic life events, and co-occurring substance use disorders.
These are all descriptions that tend to accompany acute or chronic instances of major depressive disorder.
But is there such a thing as a “minor” version?
What is dysthymia?
Dysthymia, also referred to as persistent-depressive disorder, is a milder form of depression that persists for more than two years. Someone with dysthymia may have adopted some coping mechanisms that help them function, even though they struggle with mild symptoms of depression.
Dysthymia can be characteristic of high-functioning depression.
Never heard of dysthymia before? Maybe you know it by a more commonly used name.
What is smiling depression?
“Smiling depression” is a general expression used to describe high-functioning depression. It’s basically a non-clinical synonym for the “functional” aspects of dysthymia.
The term “smiling depression” refers to an individual’s effort to conceal their emotional distress from friends, family or colleagues, who they fear may become worried about them. By suppressing their feelings and hiding behind a smile, so to speak, those with high-functioning depression are able to put on a positive front and function fairly normally.
Some of the reasons why someone might conceal their dysthymia might include:
- To avoid becoming a burden to others
- To not appear weak
- To avoid drawing attention to their problems
- They honestly don’t believe they have a serious mental health issue
5 signs of high-functioning depression
Someone struggling with high-functioning depression still experiences many of the classic signs of clinical depression. However, this form of persistent depression has some unique features, including:
- The symptoms of depression are less intense than major depressive disorder, therefore seeming more manageable.
- The person is able to perform at work and maintain normal, healthy relationships, despite the mild depression.
- In an effort to hide their true emotions from loved ones, they may struggle with chronic somatic symptoms, such as headaches and stomach distress.
- The individual may self-medicate with a substance.
- Even though the individual is able to complete daily tasks, everything they tackle takes a tremendous effort.
Any form of depression, including high-functioning depression, is difficult to live with. A treatment regimen involving a combination of antidepressants and psychotherapy, as well as regular exercise and practicing mindfulness, may offer some relief.