What Is Unipolar Depression?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 06, 2023
5 min read

Depression is a common mental health condition with symptoms that can range from mild to severe. Around 16% of American adults have struggled with a type of depression at some point during their lives. 

If you’ve been struggling with low mood, lack of energy, or apathy, you’ve probably considered that you might be depressed. However, when you research depression, you come across related terms such as unipolar, bipolar, clinical, and dysthymia. Suddenly, your mental state seems complicated. Learn more about what makes unipolar depression unique and understand what you can expect from treatment.

Unipolar depression is another name for a major depressive episode. This name indicates that the condition is different­ from bipolar depression. In other words, if you have unipolar depression, you do not have (and have never had) a manic or hypomanic state. 

Unipolar refers to the idea that there is only one “pole,” or side, to your abnormal mood state. In bipolar depression, there are two poles: mania and depression. If you’re not sure which type of depression you have, talk to your doctor, psychiatrist, or mental health counselor before diagnosing yourself.

Unipolar depression symptoms aren't always easy to spot — even in yourself. Here are a few you might be experiencing:

  • Apathy: You might feel nothing about situations, people, and hobbies you once enjoyed. 
  • Sadness: While not everyone feels sad when they are depressed (some feel angry and irritable), you might feel an overwhelming sadness, emptiness, or weepiness.
  • Irritability: You might feel irritable, “on edge,” or angry about things that normally wouldn’t set you off.
  • Slowness: If you think you’re speaking, moving, or thinking more slowly than usual, you’re probably right. This is a common symptom of major depression.
  • Thoughts or plans of suicide: Recurring suicidal thoughts and fantasies aren’t normal, and they should be treated as an emergency. Call your doctor, visit the emergency room, or ask a loved one for help in seeking treatment right now if this is your main symptom.

Some medical conditions can cause or contribute to mood issues. For example, hypothyroidism often presents as weight gain, lethargy, and a depressed mood. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Just as there isn’t a universal treatment for depression, there are no unipolar depression causes. Your depression may be triggered by the death of a loved one, the birth of your child, or a career crisis. It could also be the result of a lack of sunlight during the winter. 

You may be genetically predisposed to the disorder. If someone in your close family struggles with depression, you have a higher chance of developing it yourself. If you’ve had depression before, or if you have a medical condition that makes your life more difficult, you’re also at higher risk of developing unipolar depression.

It might comfort you to know that you don’t need to see a specialist to get a diagnosis of depression. There isn't one official unipolar depression test. Your primary care provider can talk to you about your symptoms, how long they've been going on, and whether you show any signs of needing emergency help. 

They can also refer you to counseling and write you a prescription for antidepressant medication if you need it. Other providers such as psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and mental health counselors can diagnose unipolar depression as well.

Unipolar depression treatment isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of therapy. It’s also not as simple as taking a specific pill and forgetting about your mental illness. You might be able to manage unipolar depression with a combination of medications, therapy, and lifestyle changes.

Taking antidepressant medication. Many antidepressant medications work to improve the amount of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin affects your mood, appetite, and sex drive. If it drops too low, you might begin to experience depression. While this isn’t the only brain chemical involved in depression, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications (known as SSRIs) work well for many people.

Don’t be afraid to try another option if you can’t find a medication that works on the first try. It’s important that you receive the correct diagnosis of unipolar — not bipolar — depression before beginning medication, as the treatment is different for bipolar disorder.

Attending therapy. Therapy is a cornerstone of depression treatment. Even if you’ve attended counseling sessions before, it can help you make sense of your overwhelming feelings (or overpowering apathy) and manage life stress that could be making your mood state worse.

Implementing specific life changes. While changing your diet might not cure your depression, what you eat, how much you sleep, and who you interact with can affect your mood for better or worse. 

  • Diet: Your doctor might recommend that you follow a healthier eating plan to help boost your mood. The Mediterranean diet, which is full of lean proteins, plant foods, fish, and olive oil, can make both the body and mind healthier.
  • Sleep: Getting enough sleep can improve your mood. While fixing insomnia or early waking won’t cure your depression, speak to your doctor about how to treat sleep problems. It’s not possible to recover from unipolar depression without high-quality sleep.
  • Relationships: It might be tempting to skip out on socializing altogether if you’re depressed — but research suggests that you shouldn’t. In a study of 515 adults, participants completed social interaction surveys for 75 days to determine the effect of these interactions on the participants' moods. Researchers concluded that interactions of good quality (like being vulnerable in a conversation or helping a stranger) improved both depressed mood and perceived loneliness in the participants.
  • Routine: Creating a schedule for yourself might be the last thing you want to do if you’re depressed. However, research has shown the benefits of going through the motions of your day even if you’re struggling. Start with simple habits like waking up at the same time in the morning, eating a healthy breakfast, and telling a loved one how you’re feeling.

If you’re struggling with depression, don’t ignore the warning signs. Talk to your doctor or mental health counselor today to determine your next steps.