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How Depression Affects Psychomotor Skills

Unfortunately, depression affects psychomotor skills negatively. Learn about psychomotor symptoms of depression, including slow walking and movement.

Psychomotor skills are skills where movement and thinking are combined. This includes things like balance and coordination. Psychomotor skills are known to be negatively affected by depression. Greater psychomotor skill impairment is seen in older individuals and in people with longer and more severe depressions. It is not clear why depression affects psychomotor skills but magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has linked the deficit to changes in the brain seen in depression.

Depression and psychomotor skills are mentioned specifically as diagnostic symptoms in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of MentalDisorders (DSM-5), the manual used to diagnose all mental illnesses.

What are Psychomotor Skills?

Psychomotor skills are skills in which the brain and body must work together. A common example of this is hand-eye coordination tasks. Hand-eye coordination tasks include everything from pouring yourself a glass of juice in the morning to catching a ball in a game of baseball. Catching a ball is more difficult than pouring a glass of juice and so depression may affect that difficult skill more prominently.

Examples of hand-eye coordination psychomotor skills include:

  • Folding laundry
  • Applying makeup
  • Writing

Psychomotor skills also include other types of movements such as those that require manipulation, dexterity, grace, strength and speed. Fine motor control used in things like operating small instruments is also a psychomotor skill that can be affected by depression.

Psychomotor skills are typically skills that are learned, such as juggling, and can be improved with repeated performance.

Psychomotor Agitation or Retardation

Specifically mentioned in the DSM-5 is psychomotor agitation and retardation and these are considered core symptoms of depression. These are global psychomotor effects rather than effects on specific skills.

Psychomotor agitation is generally defined as an "inner restlessness or tension associated with increased motor movement." In other words, there is a feeling inside of you that you have to keep moving and this manifests as repeated, often purposeless, movements like leg shaking, fidgeting, hand-wringing or pacing.

Psychomotor retardation, is, of course, the opposite. Psychomotor retardation is a slowing down of psychomotor movements. Manifestations of psychomotor retardation in depression include slowed speech, slowed movement (such as slow walking) and impaired thinking.

Effect of Depression on Psychomotor Skills

Depression negatively affects psychomotor skills and can cause a lack of coordination, lack of movement control, a slowing of movement or repeated movements. This can hamper everyday life in many ways from signing your name on a check to practicing yoga, to even keeping up in conversation. In its most severe form, psychomotor retardation can even result in a catatonic state where little-to-no movement, including speech, is present. These detrimental effects hurt the lives of sufferers at home, work and school.

Treatment of Psychomotor Effects of Depression

Treatment of psychomotor effects of depression involves treating the depression itself, often with standard treatment such as with antidepressants and possibly also practicing the effected skills. The literature is unclear but it may be the case that tricyclic antidepressants are more effective in cases of psychomotor retardation. In severe cases, such as in those where catatonia is present, electroconvulsive therapy may be preferred and is considered effective.


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next: Depression and Slow Thinking (Reduced Processing Speed)
~ all articles on symptoms of depression
~ all articles on depression

Last Updated: 14 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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