Pulling Back The Mask on High-Functioning Depression

In our society, especially after the explosion of lockdown hobbies like breadmaking, we feel like we constantly need to be doing something productive. Whether working overtime at your job, being a super parent and running marathons on weekends, or having a crammed full social calendar, we feel the need to do more. And let everyone know that we are.

While work productivity, hobbies, and socializing are all essential aspects of our lives, too much of a good thing can actually be harming your mental health. You could be suffering from a high-functioning form of depression.

What Is High-Functioning Depression?

While you might hear it called toxic productivity or high-functioning depression, the official diagnosis is dysthymia. Because dysthymia is typically a milder but more long-lasting type of depression, doctors also refer to it as persistent depressive disorder (PDD).

Signs and Symptoms of High-Functioning Depression

Perfectionism or Workaholism

The most common missed sign of toxic productivity or high-functioning depression is always feeling the need to be “on.” Many things are outside your control, so you focus on the things you can control in the hopes of making yourself feel better: how you present yourself to your social circle, your work, or even others participating in hobbies or activities with you. You become a bit of a perfectionist, basing your sense of worth on your job performance or how good of a parent, partner, or even human you think others think you are.

If you take the work example, it can mean you become a workaholic. Again, you’re always on, even when it’s your time off. You’re responding to emails, joining meetings remotely when you’re sick at home, and you’re always the busiest person on the team. Part of this stems from the fact that you have short-term goals you can achieve, which can make you feel slightly better for a short time. Instead of realizing there’s an issue, you work to avoid your problems, ignoring potential relationship issues or low feelings that hit you when you’re not working.

Persistent Inner Turmoil

When you’re not channeling all your energy into something to help you ignore your inner thoughts and feelings, you may feel like something’s wrong with you even if you can’t pinpoint it. Even though you may achieve outward success, you can have persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness, numbness, or a generalized low mood. This doom and gloom mental space can be likened to the cartoon character Eeyore, as you can feel like everything is going wrong and happening to you even when you think you should be pleased with your life.

Intermittent or Persistent Overwhelming Fatigue

When you’re always on, burning the candle at both ends, you risk burnout. In and amongst your busy schedule, you may battle overwhelming fatigue or a constant feeling of exhaustion. You can experience this symptom both mentally and physically. You can only push through for so long before you end up crashing or things slip through the cracks.

Social Withdrawal or Neglecting Other Areas of Your Life

Even if you maintain your social commitments, you may feel emotionally detached or disconnected from your loved ones, contributing to your sense of isolation. Additionally, you may withdraw from other aspects of your life because you’re trying to avoid your feelings and may use work or another outlet to hide out. If you think you might be battling high-functioning depression, you can likely look back and see a slow trickle of friendships petering out or an uptick in relationship issues.

Breaking the Stigma

There’s a huge misconception with any diagnoses containing the words “high-functioning” that it means you don’t need help, right?

Wrong. There’s no reason anyone should be living with potentially life-disrupting symptoms when you don’t have to. Treatment is readily available.

And if you don’t seek support and treatment, your depression can persist or worsen. If you’re prone to withdrawing, you can ruin relationships, sending your depression spiraling even more, and it can be hard to get your life back on track. Your feelings can start to boil over into excessive anger or irritability, especially when burnout starts to creep in.

Hopefully, shedding light on high-functioning depression helps break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues. If you or someone you know is struggling with PDD, know that you can seek treatment for an illness, even if it’s a high-functioning one, and healing is possible.

Seeking Support and Treatment

Once you’ve recognized the signs of your depression and overcome any stigmas you may have of seeking support, it’s essential to understand your treatment options:

Things You Can Do on Your Own

  • Open Up: Start to share your feelings or experiences with trusted friends, family members, and mental health professionals. Speaking openly about your feelings can provide validation and support. You may find many more are struggling with these feelings than you thought.
  • Practice Self-Care: Engage in self-care activities that promote emotional well-being, such as limiting your work to established work windows, exercising regularly (as long as you weren’t overexercising as a coping mechanism before), mindfulness and meditation, adequate sleep, and nurturing deep social connections. You may find you feel more seen, heard, or even refreshed in a one-on-one environment with close friends instead of a larger social gathering. Pay attention to how you feel and what makes you feel better.
  • Work on Setting Realistic Expectations: Challenging perfectionist tendencies can be difficult. Start by setting realistic goals and practicing self-compassion. Work on your inner monologue. If you wouldn’t utter the words aloud, risking someone else overhearing, then don’t say them to yourself silently. Catch yourself and redirect with a more positive phrase. Embrace imperfection and remind yourself that self-worth isn’t contingent on external achievements.

Professional Treatments for High-Functioning Depression

  • Counseling or Therapy: Simply voicing your feelings to a professional counselor can help you feel calmer and more in control. Depending on the extent of your depression, your doctor or counselor may recommend individual therapy methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy. These can help individuals explore emotions, develop coping strategies, and challenge negative thought patterns.
  • Medication: In some cases, health professionals can prescribe antidepressant medications to alleviate some of the low moods and restore emotional balance. Your mental health professional can help determine the most appropriate medication if warranted.
  • Alternative Depression Treatments: In addition to talk therapy and medication, there are alternative treatments like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that are particularly effective in treating persistent depressive episodes.

It’s important to remember that there’s no exact recipe for treating depression, especially for a persistent variation like PDD. Speak with your medical team about your options and what treatment courses you would like to try. They can help determine the most appropriate treatment approach as they are not exclusionary. You give each one a try until you find the best treatment for you, your lifestyle, and your persistent depressive depression, or you can mix and match to optimize your response.