Medically reviewed on February 15, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
From exhilarating joy to wayward sadness, temporary emotions are a beautiful part of being human. But when feelings of numbness and despair last for weeks, these emotions might signal that something’s wrong—namely, depression.
Sometimes dismissed as intense or elongated sadness, depression can be a serious mental health issue. This mental illness often interferes with a person’s life, changing their personality and capabilities. And for several reasons, this mental illness has a particularly hard grip on women.
Whether you suspect a loved one or yourself might suffer from depression, equipping yourself with the right medical education information can help. Let’s review the common symptoms of depression in women, as well as some basic facts and insights to help you along your mental health journey.
Head to toe, depression symptoms can take hold of the body. Physical symptoms are incredibly common among women with severe depression. Across both genders, in fact, these somatic changes usually appear as :
For women, a few physical symptoms stick out above the rest. Besides the symptoms associated with hormonal shifts, women with depression experience these symptoms more than men:
Body pains – According to research, depressed women experience more body pains than depressed men. One study found that 68% of depressed female subjects reported multiple pain sites, while only 45% of depressed males reported the same . Another report found that women had a higher risk of comorbid depression and chronic pain .
Weight gain – Depression can lead to weight changes in both men and women. However, long-term, depressed women typically have more weight gain due to stress, sadness, and overeating [4, 5]. Overeating is also more common among atypically depressed women (40.4%) than men (26.9%).
Menstrual irregularities – Just like menstruation can trigger moderate depression, moderate depression can trigger menstrual issues. Women with depression can experience more menstrual irregularities (dysmenorrhea), alongside earlier menopause onset .
Naturally, depression is deeply related to sadness. But the emotional scope of depression ranges far and wide. In fact, some sufferers might describe feeling a lack of emotions. For both genders, here’s a list of common emotional changes during depression:
By nature or nurture, women differ in their emotional responses to depression . A depressed and/or stressed woman might experience these emotional states more frequently:
These discrepancies may have more to do with the social conditioning of women versus men rather than anything innately biological, but these markers are still telling when identifying depressive episodes.
It’s the little things that make a big difference. To family and friends, small changes in a depressed person’s behavior often signal that something’s “off.” Over time, these behavioral shifts can lead to major—or even life-threatening—decisions.
Both men and women with depression exemplify certain behavioral and mental shifts. These can include:
Women, however, display a few striking differences in depression responses. If you suspect a woman in your life is struggling with depression, you might want to pay special attention to:
Suicide attempts – While more men die from suicide, more women attempt suicide per year . Attempted suicides particularly spike amongst young women. Unexplained hospitalizations and signs of self-harm may be linked with attempted suicide and should be addressed carefully.
Comorbid disorders – Compared to men, women with depression have higher comorbidity rates with a range of psychological conditions. These include eating disorders , agoraphobia, panic disorders, and generalized anxiety .
Oversleeping – Sleep disturbances are common during bouts of depression and anxiety. For women, hypersomnia (or oversleeping) is particularly common [11, 12].
Across the globe, depression is a major health crisis. The World Health Organization estimates that 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression, with about 700,000 committing suicide each year . Just like a broken bone or heart attack, depression deserves the care of any serious medical diagnosis.
To get a better idea of this illness, let’s dive into the official diagnoses, scopes, and causes behind depression.
Unlike periods of sadness, depression is a diagnosable illness. The DSM-5, the world’s leading psychological diagnostic manual, sets standardized criteria to qualify this difference.
Individuals with severe depression must experience a depressed mood for two weeks or longer, alongside at least four of the following symptoms :
Anyone can suffer from depression. Race, sex, age, socioeconomic status, educational level, nationality, or any other factor does not define a depressed person. However, a few demographics have been statistically linked with higher rates and likelihoods of depression.
In 2019, The National Institute of Health found that 7.8% of American citizens experienced a major depressive episode within the year . In this comprehensive study, these groups showcased higher rates:
Women – Between men and women surveyed, 6.0% and 9.6%, respectively, experienced major depression in 2019.
Young adults and adolescents – The highest depression and suicide rates occur in the young, with 15.2% of 18- to 25-year-olds reporting at least one major depressive episode. For children ages 14 to 15 and 16 to 17, those rates increase to 16.4% and 20.1%, respectively.
Low-income households – Below a certain threshold, poverty creates excess stress, unhappiness, and even depression. One meta-analysis found that nearly two-thirds of 26 studies demonstrated a correlation between low income and depression risk . Similarly, a 2020 study showed that low household income predicted higher depression rates .
It’s easy to imagine what makes you sad—sappy movies, leaving your childhood home, a bad breakup. But what creates lasting depression? That’s much more complicated and nuanced.
Depression is a complex, multi-factorial psychological illness. For most people, a combination of factors creates the “perfect storm” for depression, including a biological component—poorly regulated brain chemicals, a genetic predisposition, hormonal imbalances  —and usually an acute and significant life event—a fall out with family, sudden breakup, job loss, death of a close friend—or a progressive spiral of negative events .
In short, you’ll rarely find depression born from a single cause. It often arises from a combination of social, environmental, biological, and/or psychological factors that intertwine.
Women-specific depression - From adolescence to old age, women seem to experience higher rates of depression than men . And yes, biology is (mostly) to blame. However, research points to natural and conditional causes to explore.
Biological causes - In adult female bodies, hormones fluctuate week to week and even year to year. These shifts affect everything from fertility to mood . In particular, these female hormones directly impact brain regions that regulate mood and behavior:
Most women can expect a few gloomy days due to hormonal shifts. But for genetically or environmentally predisposed women, these fluctuations can trigger depressive disorders. The most common of these disorders include:
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) – While moodiness is common during PMS, a complete 180-degree turn is not. If you experience immense fatigue, suicidal thoughts, or other depressed symptoms monthly, you might have Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder .
Perinatal Depression – Many recently pregnant women experience the "baby blues," a lowered mood during the two weeks post-birth. Perinatal depression, however, is different. This mood disorder affects women during and after birth . Sufferers often endure weeks of extreme tiredness, anxiety, and numbness towards their new child.
Perimenopausal Depression – Anywhere from their mid-40s to 60s, women can enter menopause. Hormone levels shift drastically, often dragging mood along with them. While hot flashes and irritability are typical, depression is not. Women who experience prolonged sadness, fatigue, or anxiety during this time may have Perimenopausal Depression .
Depression is not a simple issue. Everything from family history to social life plays into mood disorders. And for women, this is no exception.
Over the last few decades, research has expanded into the many causes behind female depression. Combined with hormonal shifts, these exterior factors potentially contribute to high rates of depression in women:
Socialization standards – Some cultures suggest that women should be gentle and sensitive, raising young girls to act submissive. Depression research posits that these cultural norms could take away a women’s sense of self-mastery and grit, contributing to higher depression rates .
Role inequity – Across the world, pressure to meet the typical “housewife” role might contribute to female depression. Research shows the brunt of caregiving contributes to higher stress levels . Additionally, women who don’t work can display higher rates of depression than employed women.
Abuse and violence – In America, 1 in 4 women have suffered psychological or physical damage from domestic abuse, sexual violence, or stalking by an intimate partner . Concurrently, 10% of women report experiencing PTSD at some point during life, compared to 4% of men . Abuse against women and its mental impact could contribute to higher depression rates.
Unlike a twisted ankle, depression looks different for everyone. From no sleep to monthly outbursts, there’s no easy checklist to catch depression. That’s why checking in with your own health is crucial—particularly for women. Those small physical, behavioral, and emotional changes can signal that something’s deeply wrong.
Curious if the cause of your fatigue goes deeper than late-night Netflix binge sessions? We have the tool to help. The Everlywell Women's Health Test measures key biological markers in women—estrogen, progesterone, follicle-stimulating hormone, and more. Now, you can take your wellness into your own hands with an Everlywell easy at-home panel and use the insight to seek help from your doctor, ultimately receiving the care you need and deserve.
What are perimenopause mood swings?
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