Signs and Symptoms of Mild, Moderate, and Severe Depression

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on March 27, 2017Written by Kristeen Cherney on March 27, 2017

How depression is classified

It’s common to feel down from time to time, but depression is a separate condition that should be treated with care. Aside from causing a general feeling of sadness, depression is known for causing feelings of hopelessness that don’t seem to go away.

The term “depression” has become common in mainstream society. But depression is a more nuanced subject than popular usage may suggest. For one, not all cases of depression are the same. There are varying classifications of depression, and each can affect your life in different ways.

Depression may be classified as:

  • mild
  • moderate
  • severe, also called “major”

The exact classification is based on many factors. These include the types of symptoms you experience, their severity, and how often they occur. Certain types of depression can also cause a temporary spike in the severity of symptoms.

Keep reading to learn more about the different classifications of depression and how they may be treated.

What does mild depression feel like?

Mild depression involves more than just feeling blue temporarily. Your symptoms can go on for days and are noticeable enough to interfere with your usual activities.

Mild depression may cause:

  • irritability or anger
  • hopelessness
  • feelings of guilt and despair
  • self-loathing
  • a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • difficulties concentrating at work
  • a lack of motivation
  • a sudden disinterest in socializing
  • aches and pains with seemingly no direct cause
  • daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • insomnia
  • appetite changes
  • weight changes
  • reckless behavior, such as abuse of alcohol and drugs, or gambling

If your symptoms persist for most of the day, on an average of four days a week for two years, you would most likely be diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder. This condition is also referred to as dysthymia.

Though mild depression is noticeable, it’s the most difficult to diagnose. It’s easy to dismiss the symptoms and avoid discussing them with your doctor.

Despite the challenges in diagnosis, mild depression is the easiest to treat. Certain lifestyle changes can go a long way in boosting serotonin levels in the brain, which can help fight depressive symptoms.

Helpful lifestyle changes include:

  • exercising daily
  • adhering to a sleep schedule
  • eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • practicing yoga or meditation
  • doing activities that reduce stress, such as journaling, reading, or listening to music

Other treatments for mild depression include alternative remedies, such as St. John’s Wort and melatonin supplements. However, supplements can interfere with certain medications. Be sure to ask your doctor before taking any supplements for depression.

A class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be used in some cases. However, these tend to be more effective in people with more severe forms of depression. Recurrent depression tends to respond better to lifestyle changes and forms of talk therapy, such as psychotherapy, than medication.

While medical treatment may not be needed, mild depression won’t necessarily go away on its own. In fact, when left alone, mild depression can progress to more severe forms.

Learn more: Herbs, vitamins, and supplements for depression »

What does moderate depression feel like?

In terms of symptomatic severity, moderate depression is the next level up from mild cases. Moderate and mild depression share similar symptoms. Additionally, moderate depression may cause:

  • problems with self-esteem
  • reduced productivity
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • increased sensitivities
  • excessive worrying

The greatest difference is that the symptoms of moderate depression are severe enough to cause problems at home and work. You may also find significant difficulties in your social life.

Moderate depression is easier to diagnose than mild cases because the symptoms significantly impact your daily life. The key to a diagnosis, though, is to make sure you talk to your doctor about the symptoms you’re experiencing.

SSRIs, such as sertraline (Zoloft) or paroxetine (Paxil), may be prescribed. These medications can take up to six weeks to take full effect. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is also used in some cases of moderate depression.

Learn more: Therapy for depression »

What does severe (major) depression feel like?

Severe (major) depression is classified as having the symptoms of mild to moderate depression, but the symptoms are severe and noticeable, even to your loved ones.

Episodes of major depression last an average of six months or longer. Sometimes severe depression can go away after a while, but it can also be recurrent for some people.

Diagnosis is especially crucial in severe depression, and it may even be time-sensitive.

Major forms of depression may also cause:

  • delusions
  • feelings of stupor
  • hallucinations
  • suicidal thoughts or behaviors

Severe depression requires medical treatment as soon as possible. Your doctor will likely recommend an SSRI and some form of talk therapy.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, you should seek immediate medical attention. Call your local emergency services or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 right away.

Learn more: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) »

What you can do now

To treat depression effectively, it’s important that you reach out to your doctor for a diagnosis. They will work with you to determine the right treatment measures. Treatment may include SSRIs, herbal remedies, CBT, or lifestyle adjustments.

It’s especially important to contact your doctor in cases of mild to moderate depression, as the symptoms may not be noticeable to others. Though it may take time for treatment to make a noticeable difference, reaching out to your doctor is the first step toward feeling better.

If you’re dealing with thoughts of suicide or acts of self-harm, call your local emergency services or a crisis hotline right away. You can try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Keep reading: How can I get help for depression? »

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