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In some ways, the period between ages 18 and 29 is the best ever. It’s that time when you get to develop a sense of independence in college, start new jobs, scout out the dating scene, or head off to new cities.
On the other hand, it’s a time often characterized by debt, romantic misadventures, loneliness, and a sense of uncertainty about who you are and why you’re here. Face it: Being a 20-something isn’t easy.
It’s not surprising that people in their late teens and their 20s are especially vulnerable to depression.
The symptoms of depression can range from subtle to super severe. It’s important to talk to a doctor or therapist you trust rather than DIY diagnose. That said, here are some of the common symptoms that can clue you in:
- Behaviors: You’re not interested in things you used to love. You feel tired a lot. Maybe you think about death and suicide sometimes. You’re drinking more alcohol or using drugs.
- Cognition: You have trouble concentrating or completing tasks on your to-do list. In conversation, it takes you longer to respond than it used to. You feel like it’s tougher to make decisions.
- Emotions: When you think about life, things feel kind of pointless. You may feel empty, sad, hopeless, indifferent, or guilty.
- Mood: Things have started to set you off more easily, or maybe you’re irritated and anxious about things that didn’t bother you before.
- Physical symptoms: Your body has aches and pains, or maybe you get unexplained headaches. Maybe you’re losing weight because food is kind of “meh” right now. The opposite can happen too — maybe you’re turning to comfort foods way more than usual.
- Psychomotor: You feel like you can’t sit still. You feel agitated and restless, or maybe you pace around the room.
- Sex: You’re not as interested in sex as you used to be.
- Sleep: You’re sleeping a lot more and at different hours than you used to. Or maybe you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and it’s hard to get back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night.
It’s also possible that your friends and family have noticed a shift in you. They may be saying things like, “Hey, is everything OK? You seem down lately” or “I feel like you’re not really here. What’s going on with you?”
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 7 percent of American adults have had at least once episode of depression. That number jumps to 13 percent for people ages 18 to 25. But why?
Today’s 20-somethings are going through a number of psychosocial and biological experiences that make them especially vulnerable to depression.
Loss and rejection
For one thing, depression is often triggered by loss, says Meg Jay, PhD, a psychologist who’s written about the importance of your 20s.
The period between ages 18 and 29 is filled with potential losses: breaking up with a significant other, losing friends, losing a job, failing in school or not getting into an academic program, or realizing that your dream career plans just might not work out.
The 20s, Jay says, are a time of uncertainty, which can leave people feeling powerless to change their lives.
Biological factors also come into play. In the last decade, scientists have found that the frontal lobe (the part of your brain responsible for planning and reasoning) doesn’t completely develop until the mid-20s.
This means 20-somethings are faced with making some huge decisions (where to live, what career to pursue, whether to propose) when they aren’t yet at their full cognitive capacity, which can cause feelings of angst and anxiety.
In some cases, 20-somethings might not realize certain lifestyle factors can contribute to depressive symptoms.
Binge drinking tends to be most common and intense in people ages 18 to 34 and twice as common for men as for women, according to the CDC.
A 2017 study found that peer pressure to party on weekends is a factor in binge drinking for college students and that it’s linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and long-term risk of alcoholism.
According to Cameron Johnson, MD, a psychiatrist at Loma Linda University, the transition from high school to college (and from college to post-grad life) is often marked by changes in sleep schedules, which can also cause some mental health issues.
Research backs this up. A 2015 study showed that a chronic lack of Zzz’s could lead to depression or other mood disorders.
The good news is that these emotions are pretty common and typically pass by the time people hit 30. But depression can still be a serious issue that often requires some kind of treatment. Here’s how to address those feelings when they pop up.
According to Jay, there’s little evidence that people who get depressed in their 20s will struggle with recurring depression, especially if they address it properly when it first appears.
There’s a range of practical ways to alleviate feelings of depression. This list certainly doesn’t include every way to treat depression, but it highlights some of the most effective strategies for people of any age.
1. Talk it out
Therapy is often considered the first line of defense when it comes to depression — and for good reason. A 2016 literature review showed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was effective in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD), anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions.
Getting things off your chest in a supportive setting can shine a light on what caused the depression in the first place. A good therapist will also help you heal so you can overcome your symptoms.
2. Phone a friend or family member
When it comes to dealing with depression at any time of life, mental health experts tend to agree social support is key.
But reaching out to friends and family is harder than it might seem, since people tend to withdraw from others when they’re feeling depressed. That’s why parents can play a special role in our 20s, says psychiatrist Mark Banschick, MD.
In our 20s, many of us start to see our parents as more loving and supportive than we did in adolescence. Don’t feel like it’s babyish to pick up the phone and call Mom when you’re feeling blue.
3. Get a little movement each day
Researchers have long known that exercise can protect against depression and anxiety. A 2015 clinical review showed that exercise programs can have an antidepressant effect because of the chemical changes that occur during a sweat sesh.
Johnson recommends that his patients do 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio every morning for a positive energy boost. Whether it’s cardio bodyweight exercises or interval training on the elliptical, there are plenty of ways to get your fix.
4. Hit the hay
In Johnson’s words, sleep is the “bedrock of good mental health.” An erratic sleep schedule can cause your frontal lobe to go haywire, which can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety. Need help? Try one of these tips for sleeping better tonight.
5. Zen out
Meditative movements like tai chi and yoga are looking pretty promising in the depression department.
A 2019 study showed that tai chi can decrease cortisol (that pesky stress hormone) and reduce overall depression symptoms.
A 2017 study suggested that getting your om on in an 8-week hatha yoga program could result in “clinically significant reductions” in depression symptoms. In other words: It works.
6. Just breathe
Recent research shows that mindfulness meditation — a technique focused on learning to be present and sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings — can be especially helpful for decreasing depression.
If you’re new to meditation, start small. Set a timer for 5 minutes, relax your jaw and your brow, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Each time your thoughts drift to your to-do list or the pressures in your life, gently remind yourself to come back to the here and now.
7. Get the urge for herbal
Studies have shown that some herbal supplements have antidepressant effects. In a 2016 review of 35 studies on St. John’s wort, researchers found that it was better than a placebo and, in a few cases, on par with antidepressant medication.
Of course, in talking about herbs, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the talk of the town: cannabis (specifically, cannabidiol — aka CBD).
In 2018, researchers noted that CBD acted as a mood stabilizer in depressed animal models, though more research is needed on humans.
8. Chow down
A happy gut may lead to a happy mind. A 2019 study showed that gut bacteria can actually produce substances that communicate with our nervous systems, highlighting a possible link between our food and our feelings.
It turns out that certain nutrients and food groups may protect against depression. For example, in 2018 researchers found that depressed patients often had deficiencies in vitamin D (found in eggs, fish, and dairy).
In a different study in 2018, researchers looked at on the 34 nutrients humans need and how they relate to depression. They found 12 “antidepressant nutrients.”
Here are the 12 nutrients and some foods that have each one:
- Folate: Broccoli, beans, lentils
- Iron: Spinach, lentils, oysters, dark chocolate, poultry
- Long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA): fish, nuts, seeds, algal oil
- Magnesium: Whole grains, leafy gains, almonds, cashews
- Potassium: Bananas, organ meats, honeydew, sweet potatoes
- Selenium: Eggs, sunflower seeds, brown rice, poultry
- Thiamine: Nuts, oats, beef, pork, liver
- Vitamin A: Liver, cod liver oil, goat cheese, kale, carrots
- Vitamin B-6: Eggs, beef, carrots, sweet potatoes
- Vitamin B-12: Beef, liver, chicken, yogurt, fish, eggs
- Vitamin C: Citrus fruits, kiwi, mangos, berries
- Zinc: Beef, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts
And here’s some more food for thought: A 2016 study found that fish oil supplements helped people with major depression symptoms.
9. Try acupuncture
If the idea of little needles poking your skin makes you nervous, we get it. But the growing body of research on the topic is too intriguing to ignore.
A 2017 study found that acupuncture combined with Western medicine improved depression-related insomnia more than Western medicine alone.
A 2019 literature review noted a connection between the frequency of acupuncture visits and the reduction of depression symptoms. In other words, the more you do it, the better you’ll feel.
10. Consider additional support
We’re fans of doing whatever works. While antidepressants aren’t appropriate in every situation, they can be helpful in cases where there’s a family history of depression.
A doctor or mental health practitioner can help you figure the best treatment plan for you.
In spite of the pain it causes, depression can actually be a useful signal that something in your life needs to change, whether that means ending a relationship or quitting a job.
That said, it’s extremely important to address depression in some way, instead of just putting up with it.
Though it might be difficult to admit you’re depressed, there are people, resources, and actions available to help you live healthfully and happily throughout your 20s and beyond.