The idea of walking depression (sometimes known as smiling depression) captures the experience of those who are able to go on walking, talking and even smiling while feeling depressed. Sufferers may be able to hold down jobs, relationships and family commitments without ever letting on that anything is wrong. This type of depression can be very difficult to diagnose and treat for this reason and the consequences can be severe.
The most recognisable image of a person living with depression is someone who is lethargic and gloomy, perpetually exhausted and frequently bursting into tears. The phrase “nervous breakdown” conjures up the image of a person who has simply stopped working – someone who cannot go on any longer. But what about the people who can go on, no matter how much they are suffering?
“It doesn’t occur to you that something is abnormal”
Award-winning actress Lorraine Bracco found herself suffering from low moods shortly after landing the part of Dr Jennifer Melfi on the hit TV series The Sopranos. “I kept saying, ‘Oh, next week will be better. Next month will be better.’ It’s like walking pneumonia. Instead, it’s walking depression. Or it’s a fever that you have all day long, all the time. I was dead inside.”
However, Lorraine still managed to put up a front in order to look after her kids. “They had clean clothes and a warm meal and a roof over their head but I was missing. My soul was nowhere to be found.”
Singer Billie Myers had a similar experience after the success of her number one single Kiss the Rain. Despite her single’s soaring sales, she found herself increasingly experiencing low moods and anxiety. However, Myers didn’t realise straight away that what she was experiencing was depression. “The doctors tell you it was always present, I just didn’t recognise it,” says the singer. “Your norm is your norm. And therefore it doesn’t occur to you that something is abnormal.”
The singer still managed to live her life without disrupting her hectic schedule. “You can be a functioning depressed person, the same way someone can be a functioning alcoholic,” says Myers. “If I’ve got a press interview or show, it doesn’t matter how I feel, you go in there and you act the part.”
Associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell University, Dr Gail Saltz, believes that people who are especially resilient find it easier to keep going as they don’t know how to seek help. “People are ashamed and they don’t understand [what is happening to them],” she says. She also places an emphasis on the amount of guilt a person may feel about their depression. “Guilt about everything and anything and things that are irrational. They might think, ‘I’m a bad person.’”
Even so, Dr Gail Saltz does not think this way of being is sustainable. “You can put on a face for a certain period of time. When you are severely depressed, you cannot. You really stop functioning.”
How we carry on
So why do some people find that they can keep getting out of bed day after day even while feeling so bad? There may be several answers to this. Firstly, some people may not be able to admit their experience due to feelings of embarrassment. “Sometimes [a patient] may tell you, ‘No, I’m not depressed’ – and they smile. But it’s a sad smile,” says London psychiatrist Dr Cosmo Hallstrom. Feeling that you must hide how you feel can contribute to worsening symptoms and decreased energy yet individuals with Walking Depression may find this preferable to fears of being judged by friends and family.
Then there are individuals who simply do not recognise that what they are experiencing is depression. These may be people who have never recognised a difference in how they feel day by day or have experienced a very gradual onset of low moods. Head of information at Mind, Bridget O’Connell, recognises that lack of knowledge may be a factor in Walking Depression. “The recognised symptoms of depression tend to be crying a lot, feeling lethargic, perhaps not even being able to get out of bed. But not everyone with depression displays these symptoms.”
Other sufferers may know that they are depressed or even have received a diagnosis but do not want to discuss how they are feeling with anyone. “People have this idea of themselves as a functioning, successful person who fits in and they worry about losing that image,” says Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane.
It may also cause mixed feelings in a functioning individual to admit that they are depressed. “It feels presumptuous to put yourself in that category when you’re still getting by,” says writer and life coach Alison Gresik on her blog. “You feel like it would be insulting to those who are much worse off than you.”
There can be practical concerns involved with disclosing information about mental health. According to survey Stigma Shout, conducted by Rethink in 2008, 9 out of 10 respondents living with mental health issues reported that stigma had had a negative impact on their lives. The effect of stigma can impact on areas of life such as employment, friendships, activities and having the personal confidence to enjoy life. Respondents reported that their friends, neighbours and colleagues had treated them negatively after disclosing details of their health. With the threat of being excluded or bullied by others, people who suffer from Walking Depression may simply feel they have no choice but to keep going.
Do you have walking depression?
If you are finding it hard to enjoy life and experiencing frequent low moods, you could be living with Walking Depression. Here are some pointers to help you decide.
You’re not enjoying anything
If you can’t remember the last time that you truly enjoyed something, it could be a sign of depression. Likewise, if you find it hard to find things to look forward to, it might be an indicator that something is off-balance.
Your energy is low
You might be able to keep going but just barely. Your energy levels are just as good an indicator of your health whether you are still keeping to a daily schedule or not.
You frequently feel irritated or angry
When we squash how we feel on a regular basis, it becomes harder to control our emotions when they rise to the surface. Experiencing bursts of anger or irritation which seem out of proportion to what you are experiencing could be a sign there is something deeper at stake.
You tell yourself ‘I can’t’
People who live with Walking Depression fear changing their routine too much in case they have to face how bad they normally feel. If you are frequently turning down enjoyable activities or finding excuses not to take a break, you could be feeling that you must carry on against the odds at all costs.
How to walk away from depression
Singer Billie Myers eventually managed to pull herself out of her Walking Depression with the help of her friends. “They dragged me to a psychiatrist. I was very unwilling. I thought that I was fine. He basically told me that I was incredibly depressed and I could continue to be that way or work at being better.” Myers felt grateful for the support of her friends during her depression who she described as being “really great” despite her negativity and lethargy. “I could turn somebody telling me I’d won a lottery into a disaster. You lose a lot of friends when you’re like that. Friendship is a two-way street.”
As well as gaining support from friends, other sufferers report that talking-based therapies have also helped them to cope. Marketing consultant Alison Cowan told Mail Online that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy had helped to support her through her depression. “I used to think I had to hide things away,” says Alison. After the therapy, for the first time I felt able to honestly talk about how I felt.”
Writer Alison Gresik also advocates reaching out to others for support. “Therapists aren’t the only people you can talk to,” she says. “Seek out people you can be authentic with and spend time with them. Join an online class or community. Reducing your isolation will erode your unhappiness.”
Gresik also suggests that Walking Depression is a consequence of being deeply unhappy with how you are living your life. “You face a decision: Will you do something about your unhappiness, or will you allow it to continue?” says Gresik. “I appreciate the importance of accepting what we can’t change. But what really fires me up is changing the things we can, and finding the wisdom to know the difference.”
Want more information about depression? Try our Help Guide on Depression. Or for an inspiring read, try our case study on Overcoming Depression.
What are your methods for walking away from depression? Do you have any advice for others who are in the same position? Comment below, we love hearing from you!
- The Truth About Depression, Oprah.com Stars Pull Back the Veil on Depression, 2006
- Billie Myers interview, About.com, Lesbian Life, Kathy Belge
- Could YOU be a victim of smiling depression?, Mail Online, Chloe Lambert, 2011
- 10 signs of walking depression, Gresik.ca, Alison Gresik, 2012
- Stigma Shout survey, Pinfold, Astley et al, 2008
- 10 ways to walk away from depression, Gresik.ca, Alison Gresik, 2012