Recognizing Depression Relapse: How to Cope

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on May 19, 2017Written by Ana Gotter on May 19, 2017

Overview

Treatment can help resolve depression symptoms, but like many conditions, treatment doesn’t necessarily mean “cure.” Depression symptoms can relapse. A relapse is when symptoms recur after at least four months of being depression-free.

These relapses are common: One study found that 50 percent of all people who treat their depression will have at least one more episode during their life.

Symptoms of a relapse

Symptoms of a depression relapse may sometimes be different from symptoms you experienced during your first depressive episode. Because of this, you should watch for all symptoms so you can seek treatment as early as possible.

Symptoms include:

Irritability: Getting annoyed more easily than you normally do, snapping at friends and loved ones, or getting angry more quickly can all be signs of depression relapse.

Loss of your interests: This is often one of the earliest signs of depression, and shows up in a lack or total loss in previous interests or hobbies.

Loss of attraction to your partner: While this can be the outcome of any number of causes, sometimes depression leads to a fizzling relationship. This is especially true if you’re otherwise happy in the relationship and you lose interest in sex.

Difficulty concentrating: Brain fog, or difficulty concentrating, is a common symptom of depression. Many people find themselves struggling to think through the haze caused by the depression. This could mean having difficulty making decisions or a slowed-down thought process.

Sleep changes: Another early symptom of depression relapse is difficulty sleeping soundly or falling asleep. This can occur because of a tendency to fixate on what happened during the day or what you’re unhappy about, which can keep you from sleeping soundly — or at all.

Conversely, another symptom of depression is sleeping much more than usual.

Social withdrawal: This may appear as avoiding social situations, or feeling detached or isolated when attending them. This can negatively impact relationships, making depression worse.

Feeling down, teary, or hopeless for an extended period of time: Everyone has bad days from time to time. Having these feelings in reaction to external events or causes is normal. If you experience these feelings without any obvious cause or it lasts for more than two weeks, however, it could be a sign that depression is coming back.

Feeling worthless or “unworthy”: Depression can harm your self-esteem. This can manifest itself into feeling worthless or unworthy of the good things in your life. This feeling can be difficult to kick and can turn into self-loathing. If it comes out of nowhere or is prevalent, watch for other signs of depression.

Weight changes: Depression can result in a lack of interest in food, causing weight loss in some. In others, it can cause a lack of interest in healthy living and exercise, which can lead to weight gain. If you’re suddenly gaining or losing weight, consider the causes behind it. Significant weight changes should be checked by your doctor to look for both physical and emotional causes.

Fatigue: One of the tell-tale signs most people experience with depression is fatigue, so it’s a symptom to watch for. You may feel so exhausted that even getting on with your normal routine feels difficult or impossible.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of depression »

What causes depression relapses

Depression relapses can happen at any time, even if you’re already receiving treatment or are on medication for depression. It’s like any other condition — if you have it once, you may be predisposed to it and are more likely to experience it again.

Sometimes people will experience relapses caused by specific triggers, even when the treatment would have otherwise worked. Possible triggers include:

  • the death of a loved one
  • ruminating on negative experiences, mistakes, and painful memories
  • stressful life events, like a medical exam coming up or knowing that your company is laying off a large number of employees
  • changes to the family structure, like divorce or having a child move away to college
  • hormonal changes, like going through puberty, pregnancy, or menopause

The most common cause of relapses, however, is not maintaining treatment after a depressive episode. Most people benefit from sticking to their treatment plan, even if they’re not currently experiencing depressive symptoms. This includes coping mechanisms learned in therapy to combat the depression.

How to treat a depression relapse

If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression relapse, get treatment as soon as possible.

Treatment can include a combination of different types of therapies and medications. This includes:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help you identify all the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors you have that contribute to your depression. Your therapist can help you develop strategies to manage these behaviors.

Interpersonal therapy (IPT): In IPT, a therapist will work with you to help you build more positive relationships or interactions with others.

Medications your doctor may prescribe include:

  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors
  • serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
  • tricyclics, which aren’t used as commonly anymore due to the higher risk of side effects

If you’re maintaining your treatment plan when you experience depression, your doctor may recommend new methods of treatment when you experience a relapse. They may change your medication, for example, or put you on a higher dose of the medication you’re already taking. They may also introduce you to new coping strategies during therapy.

There are also several ways you can cope with relapses on your own:

  • Reach out to your friends and family.
  • Practice self-care.
  • Focus on the positive.
  • Remind yourself that this is temporary, and that you’ve overcome depression once so you can do it again.
  • Try to be active — exercise and get out of the house.
  • Get enough sleep every night.

Keep reading: 10 Self-care strategies that help me manage my depression »

Preventing depression relapse

The best way to prevent depression relapses is to stick to the treatment plan your therapist laid out for you after your first episode. In many cases, this will include lifestyle changes like stress management techniques and prioritizing getting enough sleep.

Talk with your doctor before attempting to stop your depression medication. Depressive episodes often require treatment with antidepressants for several months after depressive symptoms are gone to prevent relapse. If you’re having side effects related to your antidepressant, your doctor may prescribe a different medication. Communication with your doctor is important.

If you start to experience symptoms that could indicate a depression relapse, make an appointment with your doctor or therapist right away. It’s much easier to treat a relapse early on instead of trying to treat it later. If you experience any symptoms of depression relapse, track your mood states daily and look for other symptoms proactively. This can help you get treatment as soon as possible.

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