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What Is a Depressive Episode?

Depression is a common mental illness. It affects about 5 percent of adults worldwide. Having a depressive episode is part of the criteria to diagnose depression.1,2

Defining depressive episode

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the official name for what most people call depression. Having a depressive episode is part of the criteria for an MDD diagnosis.1,3

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines a depressive episode as depression symptoms that last for at least 2 weeks. Some people may have more than 1 depressive episode.3

What are the symptoms?

To be diagnosed with depression, a person must show at least 5 of the below symptoms almost daily:3

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain
  • Changes in sleep
  • Unusually slow or quick and restless body movements
  • Tiredness or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Difficulty thinking or focusing
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

What is grief vs. depressive episode?

For these symptoms to be considered a depressive episode, they should not be caused by another illness or grief after personal loss. Loss might include:2,3

  • A loved one's death
  • Loss of a job
  • Loss from a natural disaster

Grief does not always mean a depressive episode. For example, if you lost your job, you may feel these symptoms. But, because that is a normal response, it may not qualify as a depressive episode. Life events can trigger symptoms like those of depression. But not all grief is a depressive episode.2,3

Risk factors for depressive episodes

Depressive episodes are not uncommon. About 8 percent of adults in the United States have had at least 1 depressive episode in the last year. But some people may be more likely to have them than others. Risk factors for depressive episodes include:1

  • Being younger – Depressive episodes are more common among people ages 18 to 25 years.
  • Being female – Women are almost twice as likely to have depressive episodes than men.
  • Being of 2 or more races

How to manage depressive episodes

Depressive episodes can be overwhelming. But there are things you can do to feel better. Talking to a doctor is important. They can assess your symptoms and determine the best treatment for you. They may recommend talk therapy, antidepressants, or both. Antidepressants are drugs used to treat depression.2

Talk therapy can help you practice new ways of thinking. It can happen in person or online. Some people may use both talk therapy and antidepressants. Antidepressants are typically only used to treat moderate or severe depression.2

Below are further steps you can take to help you feel better:2

  • Try to do activities you enjoy.
  • Talk with friends or family.
  • Try to exercise regularly, even if it is something simple like walking.
  • Try to maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits.
  • Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs. They can make depression worse.
  • Explain your feelings to a trusted friend or loved one.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately for help.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.