Young Adults’ Experiences of Depression in the U.S.

How depression feels

In the United States, clinical guidelines and/or DSM-V Criteria describe specific signs and symptoms professionals can use to diagnose depression*. In this section of the website, we focus on something different: how depression feels to young adults while they are living inside of it, as described by those we interviewed. (For summaries of how it feels for young adults to cycle in and out of depression, or how it feels to be healing from it, see ‘Cycles of depression and maintaining hope’ and ‘Depression and healing.’)

Young adults have a variety of experiences with depression, but one thing all those we talked to shared is the feeling that they are somehow separated from the rest of the world. Each person described, in one way or another, being in their “own little world,” losing their motivation to do things, and becoming socially isolated. One person talked about “feeling so alien to the rest of the world around me.” Sam said that when he’s depressed he has to “unplug and not really communicate with anyone.”
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For many people, that sense of isolation was accompanied by feeling overwhelmed. Some described this as everything becoming unmanageably “abrasive to my senses”: bright lights, groups of other people, noise, daylight. Others talked about everyday responsibilities like school work becoming “frightening,” or dissolving in tears while in public without knowing why.
Metaphors about depression

For many of those we interviewed, ordinary language and descriptions were not nuanced enough to capture the complexity of how depression feels. Instead, they invented figures of speech (metaphors), or a comparison between their depression and something else (analogies). One person with mild depression said it was like “the most uncomfortable nothing.” Others who were suffering more intensely said it was like being stuck in a hole or “very tight bubble,” being “uncomfortable in my own skin,” or living in a “shroud of darkness.” Ryan described his depression as “like you have this huge ball of yarn that you’re never going to untangle but you keep trying anyways and it’s just painstaking.” Colin says for him depression can be a form of tunnel vision, and feeling better would mean getting his peripheral vision back.
Numb, empty, comfortable in misery

Many people talked about emptiness of one kind or another as integral to their experience of depression. Jackson described the feeling as being “dead inside.” Colin said depression is being “empty and lost and so un-expressibly sad.” For Sophie, it is a “constant sort of flat line state,” going through the motions feeling “empty and gray.”
Many people do eventually become motivated to ease the dark feelings associated with their depression. But for others the miseries of depression can grow to feel very comfortable. For some, it creates a passive yet powerful pull to “wallow” or “give in” to depressed habits and feelings. For others, these feelings grow to be the familiar ground on which they want to remain. As Leanna put it, “… depression can kind of sometimes be like a security blanket, it can kind of be like something you want to immerse yourself in because it’s such a strong feeling that you think that like this is how I’m supposed to feel.”
Low self esteem

Depression for many people includes pervasive feelings of low self-worth. Many people said their depression includes feelings that you “don’t measure up,” are “not worthy,” or are “not good enough [and]… not doing enough." Sometimes these feelings stem from a history of abuse or neglect. In other cases, they are connected to gender and body image: a number of women we interviewed said that when they hit adolescence, self- consciousness about their bodies grew to self-loathing and became central to their depression.
For some people, perfectionism is a marked feature of low self-esteem. For people with this tendency, good feelings about themselves depend on excelling at everything. When the fragile system of perfectionism fails, as it unavoidably must, depression rushes in. As Crystal puts it, the smallest failure can result in “punishing myself to… an extreme extent.”
Being trapped in negative thought patterns

Negative or destructive thought patterns are a common part of depression for many people. People we spoke to described this as “negative self-talk;” others as being “trapped in my head,” “thoughts going crazy,” or “a mental self-sabotage spiral of just doubt, self-doubt.” People recognized these patterns as dysfunctional, but they are not easy to overcome because, as Jeremy put it, “negativity begets negativity.”
(See also ‘Depression and everyday life’, ‘Depression and relationships’, ‘Depression and anxiety’, ’Depression and eating disorders’, ‘Depression and healing’, ‘Depression, bias and disadvantage’).

*Mitchell, J., et al. "Adult depression in primary care." Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement. Updated September (2013).

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