Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, affecting roughly 280 million people around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

When someone has clinical depression, they may experience a wide range of symptoms, from mood changes to physical aches and fatigue, and much more. Sometimes, doctors refer to certain symptoms of clinical depression as “vegetative” symptoms, meaning that they result from the biological changes that depression can cause.

Below, we’ll explore what the vegetative symptoms of depression are, what other symptoms are common with depression, and what treatment exists for people with clinical depression.

In medicine, vegetative is a term that is largely used to describe an altered state of consciousness in which a person is awake, but is not aware of and cannot meaningfully respond to their surroundings.

When someone is in a vegetative state, their physical function remains intact, which means they are able to do things such as open their eyes while awake or fall back asleep. In some cases, they can eat food and may even vocalize sounds.

However, because people in a vegetative state lack consciousness, they do not show any expressive physical or emotional responses, like responding to voices or reacting to commands — although they may still have a functional startle reflex.

Vegetative symptoms of depression are different from the vegetative state of consciousness described above. According to earlier literature from 2006, vegetative symptoms of depression result from changes in the way that a person’s body functions because of their depression.

2013 research claimed that 50 to 95% of patients with depression in primary care settings have vegetative symptoms, which are often under-treated.

In the authors’ own survey of 787 older patients with an average age of 73, they found that 46% overall displayed at least one vegetative symptom. This included those both with and without dysphoria (a state of dissatisfaction) as a component of their depression.

Generally, the most common vegetative symptoms include changes in someone’s sleep habits, appetite or weight, and digestive system.

Other vegetative symptoms may also include:

  • heart palpitations or arrythmias
  • shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • sexual dysfunction or menstrual changes
  • changes in body temperature
  • nausea, vomiting, sweating, or other physical symptoms

Many people who have depression will experience these symptoms to some degree but generally, the term “vegetative symptoms” is used to describe the severe physical symptoms of depression.

It’s also important to know that “vegetative” is considered a somewhat outdated term when describing these symptoms in plain language. Instead, we often refer to these symptoms as the physical or cognitive symptoms of depression, as we’ll explore below.

Vegetative symptoms vs. anhedonia

“Vegetative depression” refers to a set of symptoms, especially the physical changes associated with depression. Medical and mental health professionals will likely refer to such symptoms more directly as “physical changes,” or “motivation changes.”

“Anhedonia” is considered a specific and common symptom of depression. It’s a state associated with apathy, diminished affect (your outward expression of emotions), or lack of responsiveness. Anhedonia can look like reduced interest in activities you usually enjoy, or lack of motivation.

Learn more about anhedonia as a symptom of depression.

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Physical symptoms — particularly those considered vegetative — are common in depression. In some individuals, these symptoms can be severe enough that it becomes difficult to function in day-to-day life.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), some of the physical symptoms of depression can include:

  • difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • an increase or decrease in appetite
  • an increase or decrease in body weight
  • lower energy levels than usual or chronic fatigue
  • feeling restless or frequently needing to move
  • joint, muscle, or body aches and pains

Changes in sleep habits, appetite, digestion, or body weight are considered the most common vegetative symptoms of depression. However, there are other types of vegetative symptoms that someone with depression might experience.

Mood changes are another typical feature of clinical depression. These are different than cognitive symptoms (which involve thoughts and thinking processes) in that moods have to do with your feelings and emotional regulation.

According to the NIMH, some of the mood symptoms of depression may include:

  • a persistent feeling of sadness or emptiness
  • pessimistic thinking, often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness
  • thinking that you’re helpless or worthless
  • feeling increasingly angry or irritable with others
  • intrusive thoughts about suicide or death

Thoughts and feelings are deeply connected, but not the same. They also present unique depression symptoms.

When someone has depression, they may also experience significant changes in their cognitive function. Cognitive symptoms involve a person’s thoughts, functioning, attention, learning, memory, and concentration.

Cognitive symptoms of depression may include:

  • trouble forming thoughts or remembering things
  • difficulty concentrating or focusing on things
  • trouble making plans or other decisions
  • processing things, or even doing things, more slowly
  • loss of interest in the things you usually enjoy

Research has suggested that cognitive dysfunction is a significant element of major depressive disorder and may be used to learn more about the onset or progression of someone’s depression.

If you or a loved one lives with depression, you’re not alone — and it can be treated with the right approach. Usually, depression is treated with therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of all three.


Psychotherapy is one of the most widely used treatment options for people with depression. Depending on the type of therapy approach used, you can learn how to do things like:

  • Recognize inaccurate or harmful thoughts that are contributing to your symptoms.
  • Understand the relationship between thoughts, moods, and behaviors.
  • Problem-solve and deal with difficult life events that may make your symptoms worse.
  • Practice self-care and recognize how to be compassionate to yourself.
  • Create a plan of action for when your symptoms become severe.

While there are many different types of therapies available, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered one of the most effective approaches for managing the symptoms of depression.

Part of CBT will be seeking to engage in behaviors or hobbies that provide a sense of meaning and purpose.


Medications can be used to help reduce the symptoms of depression, especially when used alongside psychotherapy. Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed type of medication for depression, and can include:

Most antidepressants work by naturally increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain, which may help to reduce the symptoms of conditions like depression and anxiety.


Lifestyle changes are often used alongside psychotherapy and medication to help manage the long-term symptoms of depression, and can include things like:

  • eating a balanced diet full of nutrient-rich foods
  • getting regular physical activity (recommendations vary by age and other factors)
  • engaging in mindful activities and other hobbies you enjoy
  • following a regular sleep schedule and getting enough sleep
  • finding new ways to manage difficult situations or emotions

While making lifestyle changes can be difficult at the beginning of your treatment, consider making these small, meaningful changes once you feel start to feel better.

Depression can make it difficult to function at your best from day to day. If you or someone you love is experiencing the symptoms of depression, consider reaching out to your doctor to learn more about the treatment options available to you.

And if you’re not sure where to start looking for depression treatment, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has both a free confidential hotline and a treatment locator that can help.

Help is out there

If you or someone you know is in crisis and considering suicide or self-harm, please seek support:

If you’re calling on behalf of someone else, stay with them until help arrives. You may remove weapons or substances that can cause harm if you can do so safely.

If you are not in the same household, stay on the phone with them until help arrives.

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Vegetative symptoms of depression refer to physical and cognitive symptoms that can be debilitating and impact your ability to function in daily life. These are different from mood symptoms, which have to do more directly with emotions.

With the right treatment, anywhere from 25% to upward of 65% of people who are treated for depression experience improvement in their symptoms. And for people who may not respond to typical medication or therapy options, other treatment options are available to help manage symptoms.

Sometimes, the first step of reaching out for help can be the hardest. But you’re not alone in living with depression — help is available, and there are plenty of resources to support your journey to managing the condition.