Updated: Aug 4, 2021
by Marsal Sanches, MD, PhD, & Cordelia Collins
It is normal to feel sad every now and then. As people, we are able to feel different types of emotions, such as happiness, excitement, boredom and, of course, sadness. All of these emotions put together make us who we are and form what we call our personality. As long as there is a balance across all these emotions and none of them happens way more than the others, we are able to learn from each one of them and live good and productive lives.
However, there are times when one of these emotions happens way more than the others. Because of that, a person can end up feeling only that particular emotion, which can take over his or her mind and leave no room for the rest of them. That is what happens when a person is suffering from an illness called depression.
People with depression feel sad all the time, but it is very different from a “normal” sadness. While, in the case of normal sadness, we do not feel sad for too long and are usually able to tell what is causing us to feel sad, in the case of depression the sadness is always there and lasts for days, weeks, and even months.
A person can feel bad about themselves for no apparent reason, feel different/worse when comparing themselves to other people, and blame themselves for small mistakes. They feel tired and sometimes cannot sleep or eat well. In addition, people suffering from depression often lose all hope that things could ever get better, feeling negative and clueless about the future.
Sometimes, instead of sadness, the person can have feelings of anger or anxiety, when they worry all the time that something bad might happen but do not know what it might be. Other times, the person switches between feeling sad and feeling extremely happy, with lots of energy, sleeping very little and doing a lot of different things. That usually lasts for a few days or weeks, and then the depression often returns. When the person shows that kind of pattern, they may be suffering from what is called bipolar disorder.
Anyone who believes they may be suffering from depression or bipolar disorder should get help from a mental health professional. Mental health professionals are doctors, counselors, and other people who know a lot about these types of illnesses. After they figure out what is happening, which is called making a diagnosis, there are several ways professionals can help.
They might recommend counseling, lifestyle changes, and medications. Choosing the best treatment changes from person to person and depends on the person’s diagnosis and on how bad the symptoms that they are experiencing are, among other things.
The reason why some people have depression or bipolar disorder is still unknown. Researchers have looked into different factors that can cause someone to develop these illnesses. It is believed that part of the problem is related to the way our brain works. According to this theory, the balance of our emotions depends on different areas of our brain working in harmony, all connected with each other.
Research with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a scan that allows us to investigate the size of different brain areas and how they are working together, suggests, that in people suffering from depression or bipolar disorder, there may be problems in the way these different brain areas work, with some of them working less and others working more than what would be considered normal.
Even though it is not yet possible to use MRI to see if a person has depression or bipolar disorder, it is expected that this kind of research will continue to allow us to better understand the causes of depression and bipolar disorder, allowing the discovery of new treatments and, maybe one day, even keep people from developing these conditions.
About our guest bloggers:
Marsal Sanches, MD, PhD, is a board-certified psychiatrist with specific interests in mood disorders, neuroimaging, psychopathology, and medical education.
Cordelia Collins is a research assistant who works with Dr. Sanches at the UT Health Center of Excellence on Mood Disorders.
To learn more about Dr. Sanches and Cordelia's research efforts, visit https://med.uth.edu/psychiatry/current-studies/.