Depression in women
Many women experience depression throughout their lives. They can find it impacts on them in lots of different ways including physically, emotionally, professionally and socially. Women can have lots of different roles – wife, mother, professional, friend, caregiver, homemaker – so it’s not surprising that women experience pressure and ups and downs from time-to-time.
However, it’s important to understand that you don’t have to struggle on your own. Depression in women is entirely treatable, and we can help you to address the unique causes of your depression, learn effective ways of coping, and take steps towards recovery.
What is depression?
Depression is a serious mental health condition that can make you feel overwhelming and persistent sadness. It’s normal for us all to feel ‘down’ sometimes, but if you find your sadness is difficult to cope with and is having a negative impact on how you function in your daily life, it may be that you’re struggling with depression.
How does depression in women differ from depression in men?
While lots of different features of depression are similar for both men and women, depression in women does differ in a number of key ways from depression in men. All of these differences are outlined in more detail later on this page. They include:
- Incidence of depression in women – depression is more common in women. In fact, statistics show that women are twice as likely to struggle with depression than men. This could be down to lots of different reasons, including fluctuating hormones that are specific to women (e.g. as a result of periods, pregnancy and menopause). Also, women may be more likely to seek help for their depression than men. Additionally, research shows that depression in women usually occurs earlier in life, lasts longer and is more likely to recur, when compared to men
- Symptoms of depression in women – there are many depression symptoms that both men and women can experience, but there are some specific signs of depression in women to look out for
- Causes of depression in women – again, while some causes of depression can be the same for women and men, there are some that are more specific to women. This is because some causes of depression are linked to unique experiences, life events and life stages that women are likely to go through
- Types of depression in women – the main types of depression, which can affect both men and women include severe depression, severe depression with psychotic symptoms, mild/moderate depression, bipolar depression, dysthymia and recurrent depressive disorder. However, research shows that there are other types of depression or depressive conditions that women are more likely to struggle with. These include seasonal affective disorder (SAD), post-natal depression (PND) and pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
Signs and symptoms of depression in women
Depression has lots of different symptoms that can affect most people. Some of the most common symptoms of depression include:
- Intense feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Feeling irritable and getting angry more easily
- Losing interest in activities and hobbies that were once important to you
- Finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Low energy and feeling tired all the time
- Sleep problems – either not being able to get to sleep, or finding that you’re sleeping more than usual and struggling to get out of bed in the morning
- Appetite changes – finding that you eat more or less than usual, causing you to either gain weight or lose weight
- Unexplained aches, pains and digestive problems
- Sexual dysfunction and becoming less interested in sex
- Relationship problems
- Being unable to function in your daily life or manage simple tasks
However, there are also some depression symptoms that are more likely to be seen in women than men. These include:
- Instead of sleeping and eating less, women are more likely to sleep more, eat more and gain weight as a result of depression, when compared to men
- Women are more likely to experience stronger feelings of guilt and worthlessness during depression, which mean they can be very self-critical
- Research suggests that females are more likely than men to feel suicidal when they’re depressed, but are less likely to act on their suicidal feelings
Causes of depression in women
There are lots of potential causes of depression, which can increase the chances of you becoming depressed at some point in your life, whether you’re a woman or a man. These include:
- Being the victim of neglect or abuse, especially if this happened when you were a child
- Going through difficult life events such as bereavement, divorce or losing your job
- Having a family history of depression or other mental health problems
- Having a personal history of other mental health problems
- Struggling with serious physical health problems such as cancer
- Having certain personality traits such as low self-esteem
As well as these more general causes of depression, there are some that are especially likely to affect women. These include:
- Hormones – women go through hormonal changes at all stages of their lives, which relate to having periods, pregnancy and childbirth, and going through menopause. Many of these can cause symptoms of depression in women.
- Periods – females experience hormonal ups and downs all the way through the month, depending on where they’re at in their menstrual cycles. Some women get pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) which can cause them to be irritable, tired and more prone to emotional outbursts. However, others can have more serious symptoms, where they experience intense mood disturbances, which can impact on their ability to function. This is known as pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) and can lead to depression symptoms in women
- Pregnancy and birth – women’s bodies go through lots of hormonal changes during pregnancy and birth, which can contribute to depression. Also, other issues that relate to pregnancy, such as having fertility problems or going through a miscarriage, can also cause some women to develop depression. After the birth of a baby, many women can have the ‘baby blues’, where they feel generally down and more tearful than usual. However, this normally goes away on its own after a few weeks. However, some women may go on to experience post-natal depression (PND), which is a specific and serious type of depression, that’s thought to be linked (at least in part) to the hormones that women experience after the birth of a baby
- Menopause – lots of women experience depression when they’re going through the menopause, which is likely linked to fluctuating reproductive hormones that women’s bodies go through during this time. This may therefore be a cause of depression in older women. Also, women who have experienced depression in the past are more likely to get this again when they’re going through menopause or in the period of time leading up to the menopause
- Hormonal medications – women may also take certain hormone-based medications throughout their lives, including the contraceptive pill and hormone replacement therapy (HRT). These can also cause depression as one of their side effects
- Female stress response – women produce more stress hormone than men. This means that females are more likely to develop depression after going through particularly stressful life events such as a bereavement or divorce
- Body image issues – research shows that women are more prone to having issues with their body image, which can be linked to depression. Body image issue can arise during puberty and lead to women having low self-esteem and depression in adulthood
- Juggling motherhood with work and other demands – in today’s modern world, women are faced with lots of different pressures and are expected to juggle different demands including motherhood and full-time working. This is especially the case for women who are single parents. This can therefore lead to women suffering with stress which can then trigger the symptoms of depression
- Co-morbid conditions – if women struggle with other mental health problems, such as anxiety, panic attacks, phobias and eating disorders, these are also more likely to lead to further mental health issues such as depression
Types of depression in women
There are six main types of depression that can affect both women and men. These include:
- Severe depression
- Severe depression with psychotic symptoms
- Mild/moderate depression
- Bipolar depression
- Recurrent depressive disorder
However, females are also more vulnerable to developing other types of depression. As well as the types of depression and conditions that are linked to hormones, such as PND and PMDD, women are also more likely to suffer with a specific type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), when compared to men.
SAD is a type of depression that’s only experienced during the winter months, and is linked to the lack of natural sunlight that we are exposed to during this time. Research shows that women are up to four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men.
How to help a woman with depression
If you’re worried that a woman you care about may be struggling with depression, there’s lots of things you can do to help her. For more detailed information on the types of things you can do to help, you can read our dedicated page: how to help someone with depression.
In summary, you can:
- Learn as much as you can about depression and its symptoms, especially the symptoms of depression in women
- Have an open and honest conversation with your loved one about her depression, where you:
- Listen to what she has to say
- Avoid being critical, judgemental or making assumptions
- Be there for her as much as you can and let her know it
- Support her to seek help for her depression, and then support her during treatment
- Look after yourself as well as your loved one, to make sure you have the emotional energy to support her
As well as the above, you could also encourage and help your loved one to keep a mood diary of how she’s feeling each day. By doing this, you will be able to identify what is making her feel depressed and when this is more likely to happen, so you’re able to support her accordingly. For example, by encouraging your loved one to keep a mood diary, you’ll be able to spot patterns that may relate specifically to the causes and symptoms of depression in women. For example:
- Does she feel depressed at certain times in the month?
- Does she feel worse during the winter months?
- Is she very self-critical?
- Does she feel more depressed when she’s particularly stressed?
By understanding these patterns, you’ll be better prepared to support your female friend or relative with her feelings and emotions, and learn to spot when she may be going through a particularly tough time.
You don’t have to struggle with depression – get help today
Whether you’re a woman or a man, the good news is that depression is treatable and you don’t have to struggle on your own. The most important thing you can do is seek help. At Priory, we are able to provide expert depression treatment at our hospitals and wellbeing centres, helping you get back on track. For more information on how we treat depression at Priory, you can visit our treatment programmes page.
This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Sheetal Sirohi (MBBS, MRCPsych), General Adult Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Woking, in April 2020 and is scheduled to be reviewed again in April 2022.