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Low mood and depression – what’s the difference?

March 14, 2022

The terms ‘low mood’ and ‘depression’ are sometimes used interchangeably, to describe similar feelings or difficulties. While depression is a form of low mood, the two do have slightly different symptoms, and might need supporting or treating in a different way.

Low mood is something we all experience from time to time. We might feel sad or down after a loss or disappointment, for example, or there might be no obvious reason why we feel as we do. This normally lifts after a few days, or when the cause of the low mood is no longer there.

If the feelings last more than two weeks, and they’re impairing how well you can function from day to day, you might be experiencing depression. Low spirits may be accompanied by feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.

Whereas someone with low mood will probably struggle with motivating themselves to do things, depression is likely to be more severe, affecting the ability to work, socialise and get housework done, for example. Depression can also have an impact on our capacity for concentration, problem solving and rational thinking, as well as putting a negative slant on the way we view ourselves and the world.

Avoidance is often a characteristic of depression. People can find it hard to do things they’d normally find manageable or easy, and put them off as a result. Procrastination can create bigger problems down the line, however – leading to stress and further lowering mood. This can become a vicious cycle.

Whereas someone with low mood might not feel much like going out, a person who’s depressed might completely withdraw and isolate themselves. They may believe they have nothing to offer, or will bring others down, or assume that people won’t want to see them. This means they spend more time alone with their negative thoughts, as well as missing opportunities to connect and be supported by others and enjoy themselves – exactly the sort of positive reinforcement that helps to lift depression. Again, this can turn into a vicious cycle.

CBT treatment for depression focuses on breaking these unhelpful habits and patterns of thinking that are so easy to get caught up in. It’s also a very effective approach for managing rumination and overthinking, which is when people turn things over and over in their minds.

If you have low mood or depression it’s important to be kind to yourself, and try to quieten the self-critical voice in your mind. Don’t expect to be able to do as much as you can when you feel well, and beat yourself up if you can’t. Give yourself permission to take it easier, and set manageable goals: for instance if vacuuming the whole house feels overwhelming, do one room.

Some people may still feel ‘stuck’ after having got out of the habit of being active and sociable during the pandemic. This can contribute to low mood, as they’re not doing the things that bring enjoyment and meaning to life. If this is the case, consider the activities and connections that matter most to you, and how you can pursue them now. This could be rebuilding relationships, restarting hobbies, or focusing on longer-term plans again. Aim to get a healthy balance between work, rest, and play.

While your instinct might be to withdraw and hide away when you feel low, it’s important to reach out and let someone know how you’re feeling, whether that’s a friend, family member or your GP. Getting support and being listened to is a vital step towards feeling better. If you decide to have CBT, your therapist will be able to help you find ways to communicate how you’re feeling to others.

If you suspect someone you know might be feeling depressed, and you want to reach out to them, you might find it useful to read our blog on how to help someone with depression.

Find out if free online CBT from ieso is available in your area here.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.
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