What is High-Functioning Depression?

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When we discuss mental illness, we normally discuss a person whose life is almost completely debilitated due to their condition. In the case of a high-functioning person (or high-functioning mental illness), this isn’t necessarily the case.

People who struggle with high-functioning depression are able to get around day-to-day life activities. However, within themselves, they are suffering from an illness that often doesn’t reach the surface.

In some cases, a person with high-functioning depression has bigger difficulties than those facing major depressive disorder. This person goes about their life as normal and most don’t think twice about them. They continue to battle a condition within themselves, sometimes unaware they’re even fighting.

Throughout this article, we’re going to look deeper into high-functioning depression and what you can do about it. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

High-Functioning Depression Symptoms

When it comes to high-functioning depression, there are a few key symptoms doctors look out for as a means of diagnosis.¹ These include:

  • A lack of appetite or overeating
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and/or helplessness
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Low self-esteem
  • Trouble with decision making and concentrating

If you suffer from two or more of the above symptoms, you’re most likely suffering from high-functioning depression.

Characterized by those symptoms, you may also feel:

  • Depression playing out the majority of the time for at least two years. Some people feel moments of relief, but these usually don’t last more than two months.
  • Depression being the only reason for your symptoms. In other words, your symptoms cannot be explained by other medical conditions (such as another mental illness or substance abuse).
  • Depression inhibiting daily activities, even if only slightly.

It’s important to remember that mental health affects us all differently. Therefore, no two people will have the exact same symptoms and experiences when it comes to high-functioning depression.

Note: If you ever feel periods of mania or hypomania – a feeling of euphoria or high energy – you’re most likely suffering from a bipolar disorder.

Characteristics of High-Functioning Depression

As discussed, anyone who feels high-functioning depression will not have a similar experience to another, even if their symptoms are similar.

What goes on in the day-to-day life of someone struggling with high-functioning depression varies greatly and the following isn’t a set and stone analysis.

If you’re suffering from this condition, you may feel the following:²

  • A consistent low mood that seems to never bring relief.
  • Difficulty sleeping at night and/or, sleeping more (sometimes much more) than the recommended 8 hours.
  • Feeling as though social activities are a commitment – feeling as though you’d rather not participate in social activities even when you do.
  • Feeling exhausted after common tasks, such as going to classes or cleaning the house.
  • Feelings of laziness – as though it’s difficult to gain enough energy to commit to common tasks.
  • Negative emotions towards yourself. Almost as though you’re unworthy and don’t deserve to be as happy as those around you.
  • Other unrelated problems, such as abusing drugs/alcohol, relationship complication, problems with responsibilities (i.e. work and school), or even physical illnesses.
  • You’re gaining or losing weight at a rate you have no control over – caused by an eating habit (either not eating or eating too much) you also feel no control over.

Risk of Major Depressive Episode/Disorder

One of the biggest risks people with high-functioning depression face is their vulnerability to major depressive disorder (or a major depressive episode). This is when somebody faces similar symptoms to those mentioned above. Only the symptoms are more intense and last for a longer period of time.³

That is, except for a major depressive episode. In this case, the symptoms remain more intense, but only last for so long (typically two weeks or more).⁴

People with high-functioning depression can catch themselves in a major depressive episode (or disorder) depending on how they’re functioning on a day-to-day basis. If their functioning slips, they may find themselves:

  • Avoiding activities they typically participate in
  • Doing poorly in school or work
  • Having the inability to complete responsibilities
  • Not caring about self-care
  • Withdrawing from social activities

These are all signs of a major depressive episode or disorder. Other symptoms a person may feel are:

  • Changes in emotional influence
  • Intense feelings of guilt
  • Paranoia
  • Suicidal ideation*

*If you or someone you love is facing suicidal ideation, it’s vital you seek help immediately. Either call 911, go to your local emergency room, or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Treatment Options

It’s important to always remember that high-functioning depression is treatable and, with the right help, you can be on your way to living a normal, mentally healthy life.

Traditionally, treatment works both through medication and therapies. However, since high-functioning depression isn’t as severe as major depression, we highly suggest you keep away from medication. Too often, medication is addictive and causes worse symptoms in people than those they are looking to treat.

Still, therapy is a great way to begin to treat your high-functioning depression. Most people will find themselves in psychotherapy – usually, something along the lines of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).⁵

The purpose of these therapies is to allow you to develop an understanding of your thought patterns. Through this understanding, you’ll have a better sense of where things are going wrong. From there, it becomes easier to work things out.

We also suggest you participate in various activities that help people either beat or better control symptoms of high-functioning depression. These activities vary depending on one’s personality. However, common ones include exercising, keeping a journal, or finding a new hobby.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning high-functioning depression?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any personal or professional knowledge on the topic, we’d also love to hear from you.

We try to reply to each legitimate comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources

¹ NIMH: Depression Basics

² Better Health Channel: Depression explained

³ MedlinePlus: Major depression

⁴ Medical News Today: How to cope with a depressive episode

⁵ HHS Public Access: Brief Psychotherapy for Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

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