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What’s a Depression Attack? How Do I Fight Back?

A depression attack is different from a panic attack or heart attack but just as strong and miserable. Learn all about them are and how to fight back, on HealthyPlace.

While not an official term or diagnosis, the term “depression attack” is an apt way to describe an episode of depression, usually a depression relapse or recurrence. It can be triggered by an upsetting event or appear to strike out of nowhere. Often, depression sneaks up on people insidiously, with depression symptoms slowly appearing and gradually worsening. In those cases, you might not realize right away that you’re experiencing depression. You might think that you’re just “off” or down or stressed or tired and that the feelings will pass—until they don’t. When people talk about a depression attack, they’re referring to depression symptoms that barge in and bring healthy functioning to a screeching halt.

Let’s look at what a depression attack is like. Then, you’ll learn how you can fight back.

What’s a Depression Attack Like?

A depression attack is different in nature from a panic attack or a heart attack. Heart- and panic attacks are short-lived (the consequences and effects do last, but the actual attack happens in a distinct amount of time). The symptoms of a depression attack can be just as gripping and intense, but their duration is more prolonged. In fact, to be considered an episode of major depression, symptoms must last at least two weeks.

In addition to lasting at least two weeks, to be considered a depressive episode, at least five of these depression symptoms must be present nearly every day (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Low mood
  • Hopelessness
  • Unintended weight loss or weight gain
  • Sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty thinking and concentrating
  • Restlessness or lethargy
  • Thoughts of death

That list of symptoms outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is accurate but doesn’t capture the essence of an attack of depression. Such episodes are forceful and can feel crushing. In a 2004 Psychiatric Times article, pediatrician Elizabeth Griffin describes her own depression attacks and echoes the experiences of countless others. Depression attacks, Griffin explains, can:

  • Shut you down completely so that you miss work, separate from family and friends, and even withdraw from yourself, neglecting self-care and the activities of your life
  • Cause frequent crying spells
  • Create or intensify strong self-hatred
  • Throw you into deep despair
  • Overwhelm you with your own crushing thoughts
  • Make you want to die

(Note: If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or call 1-800-273-8255. They exist to help.)

“Attack” is a good word for these experiences because it feels like you are under siege, held captive by depression. Even though it might feel impossible, you can fight back against depression any time it attacks.

How to Fight Back When Depression Attacks

When something assaults us, our fight, flight, or freeze response automatically kicks in. Fighting involves changes throughout the brain and body, with stress hormones flooding our system so we can tense up and strike back. Our flight response creates the urge to run and hide from the problem, withdrawing from our lives in an attempt to escape. And when we freeze, we stop in our tracks, figuratively paralyzed and unable to take action at all. These are our natural survival instincts, and following them doesn’t make you weak or bad. Yet neither fighting, fleeing, nor freezing works to stop a depression attack.

The following actions are effective ways to move yourself out of the way of depression’s advances and keep moving in the direction you want to go.

  • Use deep breathing exercises to remain calm and counter physical symptoms of depression like aches and pains.
  • Understand your depression and its attacks, and accept that they’re there. This will allow you to stop ruminating about your symptoms while you develop your character strengths, roles (parent, coworker, group member, etc.), and interests.
  • Practice self-care even if you don’t want to. Nutrition, hygiene, and exercise all combat depression attacks.
  • If your doctor has prescribed medication, take it as directed to keep a steady supply in your system.
  • Enlist the help of a mental health professional. Therapy can help thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Reach out to others for support. Talk to a family member or a friend, and consider joining a depression support group.

You can also counter a depression attack by being positive and shifting your perspective away from what’s wrong and onto the good in your life. While depression tries to hide the good from you, you can seek and find it. Practice mindfulness to be fully present in your moment rather than trapped in negative thoughts. Express gratitude, writing it down in a journal, saying it out loud to someone, or both. This also shrinks depression by growing your awareness of the good in your life.

A depression attack can be miserable. Fighting back isn’t easy. That said, moving yourself out of a depressive episode is absolutely possible.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2020, January 5). What’s a Depression Attack? How Do I Fight Back?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/depression/symptoms/whats-a-depression-attack-how-do-i-fight-back

Last Updated: May 18, 2020

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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