What Are the Physical Signs of Depression?

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Q.  I think my friend may be depressed, but she denies it when I ask her.  What are the physical signs of depression that I can look for that might indicate that she is depressed?  And what can I do to help her if she is depressed?

A.  There are many reasons that your friend may be reluctant to speak about her depression.  Even today, when so much is known about the causes of depression, there is still quite a bit of social stigma surrounding this illness.

  Many people see depression and other mental illnesses as a sign of personal weakness or a cause for shame.  Because of this, she may be afraid of what other people – such as her family, friends or employer – may think about her if she seeks professional help.

Unfortunately not seeking help when you are depressed can have very serious consequences.  Not only is your friend not living the full and happy life that she could to be enjoying, she is at greater risk for committing suicide.  Further, her depression is most likely affecting those around her who care about her, such as yourself.  For these reasons, it is very important that she does seek help.

But, how can you know if she is indeed depressed if she is afraid to confide in you?  While much about depression, like the sad and hopeless feelings that it engenders, can't be seen from the outside, there are certain physical signs that you can look for.

  Among these are:

  • Frequent crying or a sad or unemotional facial appearance
  • Anger or irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Sleeplessness or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness or a lack of energy
  • Changes in appetite or weight, either up or down
  • Inability to sit still, pacing or hand wringing
  • Worrying
  • Slowed speech or movement
  • Problems thinking, concentrating or remembering things
  • Frequent mentions of feeling guilty or worthless
  • Frequent mentions of death, suicide or feeling like it would be better if she didn't exist
  • Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

If you have observed several of these signs in your friend and they have been going on for at least two weeks then it is very possible that she needs to see a mental health professional for assistance.  While you can't force her to do something she doesn't feel ready to do, you can help her in other ways, such as:

  • Offering her your support, understanding and encouragement
  • Letting her know that you won't judge her if she does seek help
  • Reminding her that depression is a real illness with very effective treatments
  • Talking with her and being a good listener
  • Inviting her for outings and activities so she doesn't feel isolated and alone
  • Offering her crisis numbers such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) where she can speak with a trained counselor

    Finally, if you feel that she is in danger of hurting herself or anyone else, don't hesitate to take immediate action by calling 911 or the local emergency number in your area.


    Lyness, Jeffrey M.  "Patient information: Depression in adults (Beyond the Basics)."  UpToDate.  Schwenk, Thomas L., ed.  Literature review current through: Dec 2014. Last updated: Jul 16, 2014.  Wolters Kluwer Health.  Accessed:  January 29, 2015.

    Mayo Clinic Staff.  "Depression:  Major Depressive Disorder."   Mayo Clinic.  February 21, 2014.  Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.  Accessed:  January 29, 2015

    "Older Adults and Depression."  National Institute of Mental Health.  National Institutes of Health.  Accessed:  January 29, 2015.

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