If you have depression, you’ve probably experienced feeling so sluggish that even tiny tasks like washing your face seem insurmountable. This feeling — commonly known as “depression fatigue” — is more than mere tiredness.
“It is not the same feeling you get when you’re sleepy and need to go to bed, but more so a physical sense of having no energy in your body,” explains Michele Goldman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Columbia Health in New York City and a media advisor for Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
In some people, depression fatigue occurs from time to time, in others it’s relentless. Its symptoms vary, too, showing up as everything from malaise, weakness, difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation, and muscle aches to whole-body exhaustion, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
By making day-to-day functioning more difficult, depression fatigue can hinder a person’s ability to work or learn, strain their relationships, and send them to the doctor’s office more frequently, according to an interview with Maurizio Fava, MD, published in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience.
What’s more, this type of fatigue worsens a key symptom of depression, making you get even less pleasure from activities you used to love. “The fact that you may not be enjoying the things that previously brought you joy or provided respite, and you may be struggling to complete daily tasks — all of that compounded can be very debilitating,” says Andrew Davis, MD, a psychiatrist and the assistant chief for behavioral health at Kaiser Permanente in Baltimore.
Why Does Depression Make You Tired and Fatigued?
Exactly what causes depression fatigue is not yet clear, but experts suspect several factors may be at play.
Depression is thought to affect neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that facilitate communication between brain cells, according to Yale Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. In particular, says Dr. Goldman, “depression impacts the neurotransmitters associated with the reward system and the system that regulates alertness.”
For example, having a low level of the neurotransmitter dopamine is linked not only to depression, but also to disturbed sleep, low libido, brain fog, lack of motivation, and feelings of hopelessness, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Stress has a more profound impact on people with depression than people without the condition, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. Too much stress can cause your body to feel constantly drained of energy, per MedlinePlus.
“Depression can disrupt sleeping patterns at night, causing greater levels of fatigue during the day,” says Dr. Davis. As many as 75 percent of people with depression have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Stress is a common reason that many people with depression have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Worries about money or problems at work, for instance, are more likely to keep someone with depression wide awake at night, causing an additional layer of fatigue during the day, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Drowsiness and lethargy can be side effects of antidepressant medications, especially during the first few weeks of taking them, according to Mayo Clinic. Antidepressants also sometimes make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep, thus ramping up daytime fatigue.