What springs to mind when you think about depression? Sadness? Loneliness? Isolation? How does the stereotypical person with depression look and behave? You probably envision someone who struggles to get out of bed in the morning, looks on the brink of tears and rarely socialises. This is all stereotypical of depression. I want to talk to you about high functioning depression. High functioning depression is a whole different ball game and it’s something that’s quite close to home for me. I want to help you recognise the signs and symptoms in yourself and others and hopefully provide some comfort and support.
First of all, let’s define what ‘High Functioning Depression’ is. It is a form of depression that is so hard to recognise as those suffering, appear, for all intensive purposes, to be a normal, functioning member of society. People who suffer from this form of depression are usually high achievers, well educated and intelligent individuals. To everyone around them, they appear to be happy and accomplished. They have homes, cars, careers and families. They get up every morning, go about their day to day life, maintain their friendships and appear to have it all together. So what causes their depression?
What causes High Functioning Depression?
Like I’ve just described, people with High Functioning Depression are high achieving, middle class individuals. They have everything that some people can only dream of having. Families, homes, cars and jobs. So what causes this form of depression? Obviously, a lot of accumulating factors cause depression. But in high functioning depression, I strongly believe (and speaking from experience) that having a perfectionist personality goes a long way to causing this type of depression. Simply put, perfectionists will beat themselves up about the most minor of imperfections. It can make you feel like nothing, not even your own accomplishments, are ever going to be good enough. Perfectionists put an overwhelming amount of pressure on themselves in every aspect of their life. From their appearance, to how the preform in their job and how others perceive them. This is another reason it’s so hard to detect high functioning depression. Those who suffer from it either refuse to acknowledge that they’re suffering, or they hide it so well because they fear being seen as imperfect.
Let’s clarify one thing. Everyone’s idea of perfect is different. When I say ‘perfect’ I don’t mean Barbie Doll perfect. I don’t mean living on a beach in Barbados or having a fat back balance. It’s hard to explain what ‘perfect’ is, because it’s such an ambiguous term. I suppose, if something isn’t perfect, it means that it could be improved upon. To a perfectionist, let’s say you write a blog post (as I’m doing so eloquently). You’ll draft and draft and draft, but never publish. You’ll read it over and over again, making small changes to it, but you never feel like it’s good enough for others to read. This is incredibly frustrating to a perfectionist. Not being able to make something just right. So then what happens? They either never publish a blog post, or they publish it and have to struggle with the fact that it wasn’t perfect. I know I’m using this trivial example, but the principle can be applied to anything.
I want to share with you a personal example of this. Something I’ve only admitted to one person up until now. When I finished high school, I was offered a place on a Midwifery course. This particular course had over 1,000 applicants and only 100 places, so I did incredibly well to be offered a place on my first application. Some people apply year after year and never get a place. I started the course with a wonderful, intelligent and friendly cohort. Becoming a Midwife was something I’d only dreamed about, and my dream seemed to be getting closer and closer each day. But with each passing day on the course I started to doubt myself more and more. I began to think “What if I fail my exams and get kicked off the course?” and “What if I can’t do this job?”. Ultimately, these thoughts caused me to quit my dream. When I told this to a close friends, they asked “How can you be a perfectionist if you quit something? Quitting means you failed.” I explained that instead of failing an exam and being told to leave the course, I left voluntarily before this particular scenario had a chance to happen. This way it looked like I chose to leave, rather than being kicked off the course. I made up excuses like, “The course wasn’t what I thought it would be” and “I’ve changed my mind and don’t want to be a midwife anymore”. I have struggled for a long time to come to terms with this decision, and I think it’s where my High Functioning Depression started. I guess I’ve always been a perfectionist, but looking back, leaving that course was the trigger that caused my depression and it’s taken me almost four years to figure out that I’ve been living with high functioning depression, and I’m only just starting to come to terms with it.
REAL LIFE SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
I think that high functioning depression is more common among female entrepreneurs like myself than we realise. The very nature of it means that sufferers keep it hidden and sometimes don’t even realise, just as I didn’t. I want to help you not only recognise this in your loved ones and those close to you, but in yourself as well. Speaking from experience, there’s no good in bottling it up. It will only make things worse.
1. You have difficulty experiencing joy
Activities that used to bring you joy don’t anymore. Maybe you used to like going to the gym, meeting up with your girlfriends for a cocktail or two, or going out for dates with that special someone. With high functioning depression, all those activities strat to seem like more hassle than it’s worth, and you stop going to see friends and spending time doing the things you enjoy. This only put you into a deeper depression as you’re not engaging in anything that makes you laugh and smile.
2. Overly critical of yourself and others
Do you have a constant internal monologue that criticizes every move you make. Do you tell yourself that you and the things you do aren’t good enough? Are your boss and other work colleagues incredibly hard to tolerate? Is your once beloved partner the most irritating person in the world? If you answered ‘yes’ then it sounds like you have chronic negativity, a common characteristic of people suffering from high functioning depression. This is not something that you can easily turn off, and it’s pretty much constant.
Do you lay in bed for just a little bit longer than you know you should every morning, because you’re just so damn tired? Is it hard to open your eyes, and keep them open in the morning? During the day, does it feel like you don’t have the energy to keep going physically, mentally and emotionally? Lower energy levels could be a sign of high functioning depression.
4. Self Doubt
Are you in the right job? Are you in the right relationship? Are you coping with being an adult, or just pretending like you know what you’re doing when you have no idea? These will be the types of questions that you ask yourself a lot if you suffer from high functioning depression. You doubt every choice you make, and even have great difficulty making a decision for fear of making the wrong choice.
5. Irritable and angry
Is this how you or others would describe you? Do the smallest things set you off and make you angry? Like your partner using the wrong tone with you, a customer at work directing their frustration toward you, or accidently breaking something. These relatively minor things will trigger a disproportionate response from someone with high functioning depression.
6. Small things feel like the end of the world
Similar to above, people with high functioning depression will become disproportionately stressed out by small events like a friend cancelling plans, people not responding to messages and tasks like grocery shopping not being done on time. These relatively small events will cause those with high functioning depression a great deal of stress.
7. Worrying about the past and future
We all worry about our past and future from time to time. But those suffering from high functioning depression will worry about it more than the average joe. Thoughts about “Did I choose to do the right degree?”, “Have I chosen the right career path?”, “Have I married the right person?” and “Who will look after my parents when they get older?” all become very dominant and cause an overwhelming sense of guilt and doubt for those with high functioning depression.
8. You’re more and more reliant on you coping strategies
Does it take you longer than it used to to unwind after work? Do you drink more than you used to? Do you smoke more, or have you started smoking? Becoming increasingly reliant on coping mechanisms such as alcohol, drug and other excessive behaviours is a sign of high functioning depression.
Individuals suffering from high functioning depression put on a brave face in front of others. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmingly sad, but you can’t put your finger on an exact reason for your your sadness, then you could be suffering. When you get home after work, does it feel like you can finally take off that fake smile and put your guard down?
10. You Seek Perfection
I went into quite a lot of detail about this earlier, and I could still go on and on about perfectionism, being a perfectionist myself. Modern day society has made people crave perfection. Seeing images of perfect people and places on social media, being told we have to get good grades, go to good colleges, have the perfect career, marry the perfect person and have perfect children. It’s an absolute headache! And when you don’t live up to society’s ideology of the perfect life, it can be super stressful. It can make you feel like a failure, and encourages the need for perfection. No wonder high functioning depression is becoming more and more common.
11. Inability To Slow Down Or Rest
I can wholeheartedly relate to this one. I wake up in the morning, walk the dog, get ready, go to work, work work work, come home, walk the dog, cook tea, wash the dishes, do some laundry or other form of housework. I only stop when I get into bed and even then it’s hard to switch off. Sound like you or anyone you know? Even at the weekends they’re going hell for leather. Doing grocery shopping and catching up on housework, maybe they even have a second job. It’s all work and no play for people suffering from high functioning depression, and I think this is a huge part of why it does undetected. Society assumes that if you have depression, you lack motivation, stay in bed all day and don’t want to do anything. High function depression looks like the complete opposite. They just don’t stop.
What you can do?
If you think that you, or someone you know might have high functioning depression, it’s important that you seek professional help from a doctor. Just because this form of depression isn’t as commonly recognised, doesn’t mean that it’s any less dangerous. Essentially, those who suffer from high functioning depression will just keep going and going and end up running themselves into the ground.
Talk to someone. Sometimes talking is the best medicine. When I started to realise that I was suffering from high functioning depression, I spoke to my boyfriend. I didn’t really need him to say much, I wasn’t looking for an answer from him, but just saying things out loud helped me to think more clearly about what I was going through. The root of my problem was that I had gone from being 18 years old and just out of high school, to being an adult with a full time job, a house and trying to start my own business in the space of three years. I hadn’t had time to slow down, I hadn’t had time to process anything, and when things did start to slow down, it hit me all at once and I didn’t know how to cope. Knowing what caused your depression isn’t essential, but if you can figure it out, it puts you in a better position to prepare and cope.
If anything I’ve mentioned has affected you, or someone you care about, please feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to talk or listen, whatever you need. After all, we’re all just trying to make it in this big ol’ scary world.