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What is Pre-Depression? Should You Be Worried?

A lack of preventative strategies in both the clinical setting and everyday American households is one of the driving factors behind the growth in chronic illnesses, from diabetes to heart disease and osteoarthritis. The very same problem applies to mental healthcare, as well. 

While we have come to understand that a lot of mental health problems have significant genetic factors that influence their onset, not enough is being done to help protect against the prevalent risk factors that are just as, if not often more at fault for the development of conditions like depression and anxiety, in youth and adult populations alike. 

When a client shows up for an annual checkup and discovers a higher than usual blood sugar level, their doctor might declare them prediabetic. This means the symptoms of type 2 diabetes have not yet developed, and the client’s blood sugar isn’t high enough for the condition to be an immediate danger – but it is high enough to raise concern. Pre-depression is a similar concept. 

Mental health conditions like mood disorders develop through a number of internal and external factors. You often can’t pinpoint or blame a single cause for someone’s depression, bipolar disorder, or other mood disorders. 

However, understanding these risk factors – and the role that other, protective factors play in minimizing or reducing the severity of a mood disorder – can help you and your loved ones recognize signs of pre-depression early, and take action.  

Understanding Pre-Depression and Key Risk Factors

Our understanding of many mood disorders is such that they can be described as both a neurological and a psychiatric health condition – one that affects a person psychologically, biologically, and socially

  • Depression can skew the way we see the world. It can affect thinking and behavior, forcing predominantly negative and unwanted thoughts, and drowning out praise or positive contradictions. 
  • Depression can result in physical symptoms, including unexplained aches, fatigue, and a drastically reduced pain threshold. 
  • Socially, depression can be isolating, debilitating, and stigmatizing. These issues feed and worsen such mood disorders. 

There are risk factors at play that contribute to a person’s likelihood to struggle with depression long before it develops. Genetic risk, predisposition and family history, unrelenting stress at work, relationship problems, and grief are just a few ways in which mood disorders can begin impacting a person before they’re ever considered for a diagnosis. 

Neurologically, depression and other mood disorders can affect the brain. In addition to genetic likelihood, certain chronic stressors – whether it’s pressure at school or work, childhood abuse, or even the mental stress of a chronic physical health condition like diabetes or CFS – can contribute to the onset of depressive symptoms by impacting your ability to store and process neurotransmitters like serotonin, and the release of crucial endorphins. One of the primary symptoms of depression is not just sadness, but joylessness, or anhedonia, due to such changes. 

Social stigmas can push people past the edge, as well. Managing stress is one thing, but in a culture that prioritizes productivity and putting on a brave face, it can be difficult to acknowledge signs of depression and burnout before it’s too late. And like dropping a boulder off a cliff, it’s much, much harder to get it back up there than it was to let it fall.

On a systemic level, a lack of support or awareness of crucial mental health resources can contribute to the development of a person’s mental illness. Helping people learn more about the signs of pre-depression, burnout, and stress disorders can help prevent the onset of these conditions, even in people with a higher likelihood of developing them. 

If you’ve seen your loved one fall off their favorite hobbies, begin socially isolating, or talking more frequently about death and hurting themselves – even in a humorous context – be sure to ask them how they’re doing, and lend a helping hand. They may be in a dark place and may need help, even if they’re still functioning

Mental Health Issues and Substance Use

Unfortunately, one of the most common predicators for substance use disorder is a pre-existing mental health condition, such as depression. In layman’s terms, being chronically depressed or consistently anxious is very difficult, and both low mood and constant anxiety can be sated temporarily by substances like alcohol. 

This makes these substances potently addictive, not only because of the way they interact with the brain and body, but because of the psychological, “medicative” effect they have on certain mental states. Alcohol, for example, is a natural depressant and helps take the edge off anxiety for many people. It also induces a temporary state of euphoria, through the release of endorphins. 

On a neurological and genetic level, people with mental health issues are often more likely to struggle with drug dependence and the addictive qualities of substances like alcohol or nicotine, or even prescription medication. 

If your loved one has a diagnosed mental health issue and is drinking more often or is stealing away to meet up with friends and come back high or “out of it”, it’s critical to talk to them about it. You don’t need to spring an intervention on your sibling or your friend before anything else. 

Approach them as a friend or relative. Be sincere. Express your concern. People who find something that helps, even if it’s self-destructive, are sometimes unlikely to let go – so it’s important that you make clear you want to help them get real help, and not just keep them from having any fun or joy at all. 

Nothing is Predetermined

If you recognize the stages of pre-depression in someone you love, then there are things you can do to help. 

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to remember that nothing is truly set in stone – and we can change the course of our loved one’s lives through action. Talk to them. Ask them about getting professional help. Approach a counselor or therapist to learn more about their symptoms. Schedule an appointment together. Drive them to visit a professional and be with them every step of the way. 

Not everyone in the “pre-depression” stages needs psychiatric help. Sometimes, a wake-up call from our loved ones can be enough to help us realize that we need to see someone. In other cases, however, it takes more than a good talking to. 

The main environmental factors that contribute to many mood disorders ultimately trace back to stress, and pain. We need people around us to help us soothe and manage those stressors, and find better, healthier ways to cope.  

Explore those coping mechanisms with your friend or loved one, whether it’s a short-term fitness goal, helping them on their job search, reaching out to them for an opportunity, or convincing them to consider seeing a professional. No matter how insignificant or minor it might seem at the time, a few acts of kindness might be all it takes to save a life. 


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