Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, MSCIS, MPhil, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/20/2021
If you’ve ever searched for information about dealing with depression, you may have seen the term “unipolar depression” used to describe a type of depressive illness.
Unipolar depression is another name for major depression.
It’s a common mood disorder that affects tens of millions of people in the United States every year, affecting people of all ages, backgrounds and lifestyles.
Read on to learn more about unipolar depression along with the symptoms you may experience when you’re depressed.
We’ve also included information on treatments to help manage depression, from options such as psychotherapy and medication, to easy-to-make lifestyle changes.
The use of “unipolar” is intended to differentiate major depressive disorder from bipolar disorder, or bipolar depression — a different mood disorder that also involves depressive symptoms.
Mood disorders often involve either stable or changing moods.
For example, people affected by bipolar disorder can experience mood swings that take them from one side (or “pole”) of the mood continuum (for example, mania) to the other (depression).
In contrast, people with unipolar depression have a steady negative mood, without major mood swings or sudden changes in their symptoms.
Most of the time, the term unipolar depression isn’t used by the public.
However, it’s often used in medical literature that details different types of mental disorders and forms of depressive illness.
Unipolar depression is common. In fact, data from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggests that an estimated 19.4 million adults in the United States went through one or more depressive episodes during the year leading up to the survey.
Unipolar depression (also known as: major depression) can cause several symptoms that affect your moods, thoughts, energy levels and behavior.
It’s normal to occasionally feel sad, anxious or pessimistic, for example, and feeling this way doesn’t necessarily mean you have unipolar depression — or any type of mental illness for that matter.
In order to be diagnosed with clinical depression, the following symptoms need to occur regularly for a period of at least two weeks.
Common symptoms of unipolar depression include:
Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt or that your situation is hopeless
A pessimistic outlook and negative feelings about life
A persistent feeling of anxiety, sadness or emptiness
Reduced interest, or no interest in pleasurable activities
Irritability and a shorter-than-normal temper
Slowed movements and/or speech
Changes in appetite and weight loss or weight gain
Difficulty focusing on specific tasks or remembering information
A reduced ability to process information and make decisions
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Oversleeping and difficulty getting out of bed
Reduced energy levels and a general feeling of fatigue
Pain, cramps, aches and other physical symptoms without a clear cause
Difficulty staying still and a general feeling of restlessness
Suicidal thoughts and/or suicide attempts
It’s common to experience some symptoms of depression but not others.
Many people affected by unipolar depression only experience a few of the symptoms listed above, while others might develop a range of symptoms of varying severity.
Our guide to depression symptoms offers more information about the symptoms above, as well as what you might feel and experience if you’re depressed.
Unipolar depression can affect anyone. Although researchers aren’t yet sure of the precise causes of depression, they have identified a range of factors that may increase your risk of developing a depressive disorder. These include:
Genetic factors. You have a higher risk of experiencing depression if you have a family history of depression. In identical twins, if one twin develops depression, the other twin has a 70 percent chance of developing depression at some point in life.
Your risk of developing depression is also higher if you have previously been affected by depression.
Major life changes. Sudden changes, such as the loss of a loved one, a major financial setback, the end of an important relationship and other negative events may also cause you to feel depressed.
Stress and/or trauma. You may have a higher risk of becoming depressed if you face significant stress in life. Stressful events and traumatic experiences may also increase your risk of developing depression.
Physical illnesses. Some physical illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and others, are associated with a higher risk of experiencing depression.
Medications. Some medications, including those used to treat the illnesses above, may also increase your risk of developing depression.
People can become depressed at any point in life. Although depression is more common in adults, it can also affect children and adolescents.
Depression, and even severe depression, is almost always treatable.
If you think you may have unipolar depression, it’s important to talk to a licensed mental health provider to get professional help.
You can do this by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, reaching out to a mental health provider in your local area, or by connecting with a licensed psychiatry provider from home using our online psychiatry service.
In order to diagnose depression, your healthcare provider might ask you certain questions about your symptoms.
You may need to complete an evaluation to provide more information about the symptoms you have and how they affect you on a daily basis.
If you have unipolar depression, your healthcare provider may recommend medication, therapy or a combination of different treatments.
Depression is often treated with medications called antidepressants — which work by modifying the levels of naturally-occuring chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in your brain and body.
Several different types of antidepressants are used to treat depression, including:
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These common antidepressants are often used as a first-line treatment for depression. Your healthcare provider may ask you to take an SSRI on a daily basis to treat and manage your depressive symptoms.
Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These common medications are also widely used to treat depression. They work by targeting serotonin and norepinephrine in your brain.
Other antidepressants. In some cases, older antidepressants such as tricyclics (TCAs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are used to treat depression. You may need to use these medications if newer antidepressants fail to relieve your symptoms.
Antidepressants are effective for most people, but they can take several weeks to start working properly.
During the first few weeks, you may notice that your sleep habits, concentration and appetite improve before your moods and feelings start to get better.
You may need to try several antidepressants before finding one that’s right for you.
Make sure to let your healthcare provider know if you don’t experience any improvements after taking an antidepressant for several months.
It’s also important to inform your healthcare provider if you experience any severe or persistent side effects from your antidepressant.
Our complete list of antidepressants provides more information about the medications used to treat depression.
Depression often improves with psychotherapy — a type of talk therapy that involves discussing your thoughts, feelings, concerns and other difficulties with a mental health provider.
Research shows that a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant use is more effective than medication alone in treating depression.
Several forms of psychotherapy are commonly used to treat depression, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves identifying faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving, then taking steps to change them.
Our guide to therapy for depression goes into more detail about the different techniques used to treat depression and other affective disorders.
Sometimes, making small changes to your habits and daily routine can reduce the severity of your depression symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Try the following habits to improve your mood and deal with your depression:
Exercise regularly. Exercise is occasionally referred to as a natural treatment for depression and other forms of mental illness. When you exercise, you stimulate the release of endorphins — natural chemicals that can improve your mood.Even a small amount of daily exercise, such as a short walk around your local area or a quick workout can have a big impact on how you think and feel.
Eat a balanced diet. Some research shows that people with depression often lack important nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. Try to eat a balanced diet that’s rich in fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy fats and proteins.
Spend time with friends and family. Isolating yourself from other people has the potential to worsen depression. Try to spend time with friends and family to distract you from depressing thoughts and create a network of people to support you.
Avoid major decisions. When you’re depressed, it’s a good idea to postpone any major professional, personal or financial decisions. Move these into the future so that you can focus solely on getting better.
Set goals for your recovery. Try to set reasonable, attainable goals you can work toward. Simple things like taking part in local events can help you stay motivated and focused on the future.
Use meditation and relaxation techniques. Research shows that meditation can help improve anxiety and depression. Even a few minutes of daily meditation can improve your mood and potentially make your depression less severe.
Avoid alcohol and drugs. Research shows that depression, alcohol and drug use are closely linked. Although alcohol might make you feel better in the short term, it’s best to avoid it while you’re focusing on overcoming depression.
Our guide to helping depression shares more strategies you can use to reduce the severity of your symptoms in combination with medication and therapy.
Depression is an extremely common mental illness. If you’ve started to develop symptoms of depression, and especially if they’ve persisted for several weeks, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional.
You can meet with a mental health provider locally or from home using online mental health services.
If appropriate, you’ll receive personalized, ongoing care and medication management to assist you in treating your symptoms and gaining control over your thoughts and feelings.
Not quite ready to talk to an expert? You can also find out more about dealing with depression, anxiety and other common mental health issues with our free online mental health resources.