What is it like to be depressed?

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What is it like to be depressed?

What does it feel like to be depressed? What is it like to be depressed? Although one of the most common health conditions, unless you’ve had depression it is hard to comprehend.

I already feel a bit of a fraud.  I’m not that depressed, and never have been.  On the other hand, I was diagnosed with depression some years ago and given cognitive behavioral therapy (which I found very useful), and I’m still taking the tablets.  So maybe I’m not such a fraud.  But I thought you’d enjoy this kind of negative thinking which I think depressed people are prone to (well I am anyway).

Being diagnosed with depression happened like this.  I went to the doctor a few times with being generally under the weather and poorly without any major symptoms.  After a couple of goes, he said something like “You know, you don’t seem very lively.  Maybe you’re depressed.”  I came home and said to my wife “You won’t believe what the doctor thinks … He thinks I’m depressed.”  She said, “Well, duh!”

I’m sometimes asked what it’s like to be depressed.  Apparently, I didn’t know until my wife enlightened me: it was all those feelings I had but didn’t know it.

What does it feel like to be depressed?

If you’ve never been depressed it’s great that somebody wants to find out what it’s like. And for my next trick, I’ll explain the color akbanoii that only I can see.   And just like colors, even if we agree that this object is green, how do we know we experience the same thing when we see it?

It also doesn’t help that depressed is an ambiguous word.  This was a problem I had when talking with my doctor or therapist.   Much of the news is depressing, and everybody might say “I got my paper rejected, that was depressing.”   So in a medical depression sense, a day with lots of depressing world and personal news may be a good day, while a day with purely good news might be a depressed and a very bad day.

Finally on to the question: what it’s like to be depressed?

For me only, the best I’ve come up with is this. I imagine an old-fashioned bathroom scale, the analog kind with an arrow and a rotating wheel. When you get off it, the arrow flies around like crazy and eventually settles close to zero. But almost never at zero, because these scales never seem that accurate.

Sometimes the arrow is at a negative number, sometimes at a positive.   If it settles at a positive number, plus three, that’s bad, right? Because you’re going to think you are three pounds heavier than you are.   If it’s negative, that’s good, because you’ll think you are lighter than you are.

I find depression is like that in the sense that my mood varies a lot throughout the day, depending on rest, outside influences, enjoyment of work or life, many many factors.  But if the arrow on my mental scales starts off on a positive number, then I’ll tend to be a bit miserable when nothing else is happening.  If the number gets large enough, I’ll start to become less able to function well.


Read more: Racism and depression – the insidious link


For example, I was thinking this before last Christmas, and one day felt miserable all day and felt that the arrow was at five.  But I was just about able to function.   The next day it seemed to be at six and it really became a struggle.  I managed to get through the day, but had to let some things go and just focus on getting through the day and not letting my daughter down.  But I had to let my wife down in a small way to get through.

When that pointer is zero or close to zero, I’m pretty happy overall.   That is to say, I’m neutral but – to be honest – my life is good in many ways so I’m delighted to have that pointer at zero.  I don’t particularly want it to be negative to make me artificially high.

The goal of my life is to have that arrow on the scales settle to zero more often than not.

Article by
Ian Gent

Ian Gent is a professor and British computer scientist working in the area of Artificial Intelligence and specializing in the area of Constraint programming. He is a professor at the University of St Andrews.


Just like colors, even if we agree that this object is green, how do we know we experience the same thing when we see it?