What does it mean to be high functioning and living with depression (and how counseling can help)?

high functioning depression Michigan

Have you ever noticed that you experience symptoms such as low mood, changes in eating and sleeping habits, trouble concentrating, or low self-esteem? It seems like you have depression, but somehow you manage to function decently on a daily basis. As a result, not many people notice your mental state, and many people around you believe you’re fine while you’re struggling inside. Learn more about general depression here.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you might be experiencing high-functioning depression. It turns out that some people meet the criteria for clinical depression but aren’t diagnosed because they manage to function almost normally. In fact, this is the condition often described by the non-medical term “high-functioning depression.”

So, if you’re wondering what it means to be high-functioning while living with depression, you’re at the right place. In this article, we’ll explain what high-functioning depression is, how you can treat this condition, and how therapy can help.

What is High-functioning Depression?

Most troubles with mental health exist on a spectrum which means that they’re characterized by a wide range of severity of symptoms from mild to debilitating. The same applies to depression — some people experience low mood, sadness, feeling hopeless, disinterest in usual activities, or decreased self-care but this condition doesn’t interfere with their daily duties. On the other hand, other people who experience the same symptoms with greater severity are unable to fulfill many of their daily tasks.

Considering this, counselors and therapists usually measure the impact of spectrum disorders by the impact of the disorder on the level of functioning. Accordingly, high-functioning depression can be defined as a type of depression in which an individual can perform their jobs, maintain relationships, and even socialize. Of course, people who deal with high-functioning depression don’t function optimally, but their performance is satisfying enough for those around them to not fall out of the “normal” range.

High-functioning depression isn’t often outwardly intense. However, the person who experiences the symptoms of these conditions feels that there are major problems and symptoms inside them. Still, many often have trouble admitting that they need help. That’s why it’s important to understand the symptoms of this condition and learn effective coping mechanisms to regulate your emotions and deal with them.

Symptoms of High-functioning Depression

Even though high-functioning depression isn’t yet considered a formal disorder by the DSM-5-TR (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), high-functioning people who live with depression often experience the following emotional and physical symptoms:

  • Constant feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Having no energy
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Low self-esteem
  • Having trouble focusing or remembering
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Changes in sleep and appetite
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Headaches
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Digestive issues that don’t have a clear cause

Most of these symptoms are similar to the official criteria for major depression diagnoses in the DSM-5-TR. However, usually, these symptoms are less severe. Therefore, the symptoms of high-functioning people who have depression are more similar to dysthymia or persistent depressive disorder (Patel & Rose, 2022).

Who’s at the Risk of High-functioning Depression?

Similar to depression and other mood disorders, high-functioning depression can be developed by a combination of specific individual and situational factors. For example, stressful situations, traumatic events, and vulnerability to mental health disorders can lead to this condition.

People who meet the following criteria are at risk of developing high-functioning depression:

  • Specific personality traits – It turns out that certain personality traits increase vulnerability to depression. For example, neuroticism and trait anxiety enhance the risk of developing depression (Puyane et al., 2021) while a person can remain highly -functional. Low self-esteem, perfectionism, and pessimism are other personality characteristics that can lead to depression.
  • Chronic stressors – Persistent stressors such as chronic stress, job burnout, or an unsatisfying way of living are also considered risk factors for high-functioning depression (Plieger et al., 2015). Other than life stress, unresolved traumatic life experiences also contribute to developing depression, often, without even realizing it.
  • Family history – People who have a family member or a relative diagnosed with a mood disorder are also at risk of developing depression while remaining high-functioning.
  • Other health issues – Whether you manage to function day-to-day or not while dealing with depression, this condition often develops in combination with other mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, PTSD, OCD, substance use disorders, and more. People suffering from depression can also develop comorbid physical disorders (Kang et al., 2015).

Furthermore, one of the most significant risks for developing high-functioning depression is when people begin to minimize the issues in their lives. Sometimes people tend to avoid recognizing their problems. As a result, they just suppress their emotional needs, which in turn can morph into depression symptoms. The reason is that even if negative emotions are suppressed, they continue to exist and unconsciously impact your mental state.

Another cultural factor is that some people convince themselves that they “shouldn’t be” depressed. Unfortunately, they cannot accept the fact that everyone is vulnerable to developing mental health issues. For example, they might be coming from a culture or a family that stigmatizes mental health problems. Consequently, they don’t allow themselves to work on adapting to stressors, lowered mood, or other symptoms, and may develop high-functioning depression as a result.

Being High-functioning while Living with Depression: Possible Solutions

Even if you manage to be high-functioning while you notice the symptoms of depression, this doesn’t mean that you don’t require treatment. Let’s discuss some tips to manage high-functioning depression in order reduce the negative impact of this condition on your well-being and quality of life:

  • Reach out to people for support – If you realize that you need emotional support, don’t hesitate to reach out to your friends, family members, or even specific support groups or online communities. Finding a safe space where you can express your feelings is an important step toward fighting feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
  • Establish your daily routine – Set daily goals that are reasonable and achievable. Try to make adjustments to your daily routine, become more active, and add exercise to your everyday activities and establish a routine for sleep and waking. That way, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and promote a healthy lifestyle as well.
  • Get some rest – Allowing yourself to rest will help you overcome stress and fill yourself with positive emotions. Keep in mind not to oversleep though as it can make it hard to get yourself back on track.
  • Expose yourself to the sun – Studies prove that sun exposure can help people deal with low mood and anxiety by increasing serotonin levels (e.g. Taniguchi et al, 2022). On the other hand, reduced sunlight might trigger depression. So, take some time outside and expose yourself to the sun as often as possible.

How Can Therapy Help with High-Functioning Depression

If none of the tips above help you feel better and reduce the symptoms of depression, then receiving professional treatment from mental health experts could be helpful. Even though you might think that your symptoms aren’t severe enough to disrupt your daily functioning, you should know that you might still require psychotherapy. The reason is that high-functioning people who deal with depression often neglect their needs, suppress their emotions, and worsen their overall condition as a result.

However, psychotherapy can reduce the symptoms of depression and help you deal with other symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness or an inability to focus. Studies show that a wide range of psychotherapies are effective in treating depression symptoms (e.g., Cuijpers et al., 2021). For example, in a 2020 study, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) significantly reduced the symptoms of depression (Gautam et al., 2020). Other types of therapies, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mindfulness techniques, can also be helpful, based on your specific condition.

That’s why it’s important to let mental health professionals assess your condition and determine whether you’re coping with high-functioning depression or traditional forms of this disorder. Licensed Professional Counselors can help you identify specific factors that trigger your depression and build effective coping strategies to deal with them.

When to Seek Professional Help for High-Functioning Depression

All in all, sometimes people find it difficult to accept the fact that a high-functioning individual like themselves can have depression. However, the truth is that regardless of how effective or successful you are, everyone can be affected by depression, and it’s completely fine to accept the fact that you are one of those people. It’s time to stop the stigma that mental health issues are some type of personal failure or defect. We are all affected by mental health troubles from time to time in our lives. It is important to work on our mental health with the help of licensed therapists and counselors so we can return to feeling like ourselves again.

The key here is to contact professional therapists as soon as you notice you’re depressed. Counselors at Health for Life Counseling in Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI can help you deal with high-functioning depression and help you begin to feel better. They’ll provide a safe environment where you can talk about your emotions and develop effective strategies to reduce the impact of depression symptoms.

So, don’t hesitate to reach out to us in the West Michigan area or talk to our counselors online to address your depression and help you “get back” to your life..

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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