Understanding the Signs of Depression in Women

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Depression affects at least 350 million people around the world. Women are twice as likely to deal with its symptoms as men.

Countless factors can influence how the female body and mind respond to life's changes and challenges. These include genetic issues, physical problems, and social factors.

Understanding how depression develops in women can help you prevent or manage its symptoms. This article covers causes and signs of depression, along with ways to improve your mood.

Language Considerations

The words "female" and "women" are used here to refer to people who identify as cisgender women and who were assigned female at birth. We recognize that some people who identify as women do not have the same biological characteristics that are depicted in this article

woman depressed hands over face

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Differences in Female Depression

Some biological traits can make women predisposed to developing depression. Female hormones progesterone and estrogen affect mood, so imbalances in these hormones can affect emotional well-being. Genetics and hormones can have the following effects:

  • Genetics: Genetic factors may influence how depression develops differently in women. Certain genes related to behavior might put women at a greater risk of having mood disorders. Interactions with genes, hormones, and a person's environment play a major role in depression, too.
  • Hormonal: Young women report higher rates of depression than young males during puberty. The trend continues into old age. This may correspond with the beginning of menstruation, suggesting that female sex hormones account for these differences in some ways.

Symptoms of Depression in Women

Signs of depression in women are often different from what men face. Women typically show more of these behaviors:

Physical

Depression can cause some physical problems. These issues may or may not be related to other medical conditions:

  • Increased appetite
  • Constantly feeling sleep deprived, even with plenty of uninterrupted sleep
  • Pain such as muscle aches, headaches, and cramps
  • Digestive problems
  • Moving or talking more slowly or, alternately, feeling restless
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble remembering or concentrating

Emotional

Emotional upset is a common trait of depression in women. These feelings are chronic and intense:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and/or guilt
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Thoughts of suicide or death, or attempts of self-harm

Causes and Triggers

A variety of factors can cause depression in women, as well as trigger episodes of existing underlying depression. While not all of the causes and triggers listed in this section are exclusive to women, they are factors that affect many women around the world. These include:

  • Menstruation: There is a relationship between depression and the menstrual cycle. Women with depression are more likely to experience irregularities in their cycle, and women who experience menstrual concerns are more likely to have depression.
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD): Women who experience significant discomfort and symptoms of depression before their period may have PMDD. While your reproductive hormones may release normally even if you have PMDD, you would be more sensitive to changes in hormone levels. This can make you more likely to have extreme emotional changes.

PMDD Symptoms

PMDD symptoms may overlap with major depression and other mental illnesses. However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lists PMDD separately under "Depressive Disorders" with symptoms including:

  • Significantly depressed mood or self-critical thoughts
  • Feelings of being "on edge"
  • Persistent anger
  • Reduced interest in usual activities
  • Marked lack of energy
  • Sleeplessness
  • Sense of being out of control
  • Menopause: A 2021 study estimates that 45%–68% of women have severe mood swings during their menopausal transition that's known as perimenopausal depression. These women may be more sensitive to changes in the ratio of estrogen and progesterone. Your body's overreaction to normal stress hormone processes may also make menopause-related depressive symptoms worse.
  • Pregnancy and postpartum: Perinatal depression can start during or after a pregnancy. It is described as depression that occurs during pregnancy and/or the first year after childbirth. Unlike "baby blues" that occur with up to 80% of new mothers, this condition lasts more than 14 days and has more severe depressive symptoms. More than a 500,000 pregnant or postpartum women develop a depressive disorder every year.

Postpartum Psychosis

Postpartum psychosis involves delirious behavior or hallucinations driving a woman to harm herself or her baby. It is a medical emergency.

Suicide causes 20% of deaths of postpartum women, and at least one instance of depression-related infanticide (killing a child under age 1) happens every three days.

  • Genetics: Family history for depression is a consistent predictor of depression. A 2014 study found that subjects whose relatives had depression experienced more depressive episodes than participants with no such family history. Major depression may be hereditary in 37%–38% of cases.
  • Chronic health problems: Health problems often lead to depression. Serious illness, chronic pain, and depression can feed on each other. Also, some medical events or disorders cause changes in the brain that trigger depressive moods.
  • HPA axis: Some experts argue that problems with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis can contribute to perinatal depression. The HPA axis is a complex system of neurons and hormones which plays a key role in stress response.
  • Sexual dysfunction: Low sexual desire is a common symptom of depression in women, but it may also be a cause. Mental illness, medications, past trauma, and relationship difficulties can all impact arousal and pleasure, contributing to depression. Depression, anxiety, and sexual dysfunction all share risk factors. This means that any of these disorders may increase the odds that a woman does or will experience symptoms of the other illnesses.
  • Cancer: A cancer diagnosis is a major, stressful life event. Psychologically, women deal with this differently than men. Depression with cancer affects how the brain breaks down glucose for energy, and this varies by gender. In some types of cancer, females experience depressive moods 2 or 3 times more often than men.
  • Aging: In a multinational study, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans showed that older people with depression had lower volumes of gray matter in their brains. The brains of these individuals appeared to have aged faster than subjects without depression. This study also found that older people with obesity and depression had thinner brain tissues. The researchers noticed further reduced gray matter thickness in the female participants.

Aging and Depression

Aging also increases your risk of depression due to:

  • Life and relationship changes (widowhood, divorce, loss of family members and friends)
  • Reduced physical mobility
  • Negative side effects of medications
  • Onset of other ailments

Ways Women Can Cope

Depression may feel normal to you, but it doesn't have to be. You can help improve your mood with a few lifestyle tweaks or medical and psychiatric options. Keep in mind that what helps one person may not help another. Trying multiple methods and working with a qualified mental health professional can make it easier to find a solution that works for you.

Non-Medication

A few changes in your environment or routine may bring you relief from depressive symptoms. You—on your own or with a trusted person—can also find ways to channel your emotions in a healthier manner. You may wish to try the following:

  • Feel your emotions: Suppressing negative emotions might seem like your best option, but wallowing for a few moments can be more helpful. Observe your thoughts and let them flow through you.
  • Eat for your mental health: Depression may be driving you to eat too few wholesome foods or too many unhealthy options. Nutrient deficiency may trigger more depressive episodes and lead to other illnesses. Nourishing food choices help enhance your physical and emotional health. Taking charge of your eating habits can also help you build confidence in your ability to make changes.
  • Jot it down: Start writing about the rise and fall of your emotions. Recording your moods can help you discover more about yourself, your depression triggers, and methods you've found effective in managing your mood. Keep a log of your menstrual cycle so that you can learn to anticipate and steady those mood swings. A journal will provide a helpful resource for your therapist as well.
  • Get some sunshine: Go outside in sunlight for at least 30 minutes to help lift your mood. Sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D, a nutrient known to improve depression symptoms in women. 
  • Yoga: Yoga is designed to help you control your mind and nervous system. This practice shows tremendous potential to ease depression, anxiety, and stress.
  • Massage: Massage therapy can help treat depression symptoms, including pain, tension, listlessness, and fatigue. The stimulation it provides may also foster mindfulness to help diffuse depression triggers. 
  • Reach out to friends: Share your feelings and concerns with a relative or friend. In-person or virtual peer groups can also build a sense of community and empathy.
  • Get therapy: Talk therapy has benefited many women with depression. It can give you the chance to release frustrations with a neutral, caring person in private. It can also equip you with proven strategies to self-reflect and find healing within.

Choosing the Right Kind of Therapy for You

Many options are available in-person, by phone, and virtually, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Targets and changes negative thought patterns
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Focuses on how your depression is related to unresolved issues
  • Interpersonal therapy: Teaches you to make constructive changes in your relationships

With Medication

If your doctor has diagnosed you with depression, they may prescribe antidepressants to help ease symptoms such as anxiety or sleep issues. Antidepressants work by altering brain chemicals that regulate your mood.

You may only need medication for a short period. However, many women need ongoing treatment throughout their lives.

It's important to discuss the benefits and risks of any depression medication with your doctor. Side effects may include:

Summary

Women experience depression more often and more intensely than men. Genetic problems, physical changes, or life events can affect female hormones and brain function in ways that lower your mood. Early signs of depression such as lethargy, sleeplessness, or change in appetite are your body's way of calling for help and healing.

Does depression go away? It may subside, depending on the cause and severity of your illness. Major depressive disorder is a chronic condition, so it’s common to experience progress and setbacks with your mental well-being.

As with other illnesses, depression symptoms can respond favorably to self-care and expert treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Although having depression may feel lonely, it is a common disease for women of every age. Severe mood swings can cripple you physically and socially. While you can treat your mood at home, you should be under medical supervision as you would for conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or any other chronic illness.

Each day may look different with depression. You may feel more hopeful at one time and be in despair at another. Give yourself grace as you would treat a dear friend. Acknowledge where you are, be gentle and accepting of yourself, and reach out for the help you need and deserve.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you tell if a woman is struggling with depression?

    You may be able to tell is a woman you know is dealing with depression if she shows these signs or other unusual behaviors:

    • Drastic changes in appetite
    • Loss of interest in appearance
    • Decreased engagement with close family or friends
    • Extreme concerns about minor issues
    • Helpless perspective
    • Talk of hurting herself
  • How common is depression before or during your period?

    About 70%–90% of women experience symptoms of depression during their period.

  • Do female hormones make depression worse?

    Female sex hormones can make women more vulnerable to depressive disorders. Changes in the levels of these chemicals may aggravate depression in some women.

  • Can you treat depression without medication?

    Mood disorders may improve with healthy eating, exercise, meditation, aromatherapy, and many other non-medicinal applications. Your healthcare provider can help you determine the best treatment options for your situation and monitor your progress.

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