Depression can have both physical and mental aspects. Learning about its cognitive symptoms can help you understand its effects.

Depression does more than deplete your energy and motivation. It can also bring about physical and cognitive changes that impact your daily life.

If you experience cognitive declines as a result of depression, you may notice a difference in your executive functioning, which includes planning, problem solving, and decision making. Depression can also affect learning and memory, attention and concentration, and processing speed.

If left untreated, your symptoms of depression may last longer and become more severe over time.

The good news is that there are treatments that can improve your mood and cognitive abilities long-term.

There are many reasons a person might have trouble paying attention or concentrating, such as fatigue or lack of interest. Depression can also cause this issue.

You might be experiencing depression-induced attention and concentration problems if you:

  • catch your mind wandering more than it has in the past
  • make careless errors with tasks you know well
  • miss parts of conversations
  • lose track of your surroundings
  • can no longer multitask
  • feel overwhelmed by distractions

If this sounds familiar, it’s important to remember that it’s not a reflection of your intelligence. It just means that your depression is making cognition more challenging than it needs to be.

An impaired ability to remember is another example of how depression affects cognition. Learning also suffers, since memory is part of acquiring new information.

If you’re experiencing a change in your memory and learning ability, you might:

  • need to reread the same material more than once
  • forget things that you’ve just heard
  • feel confusion more than you have in the past
  • miss appointments
  • misplace items more often than you use to
  • make uncharacteristic errors at work

One theory for the connection between depression and poor memory is a disruption in dopamine activity during memory encoding.

Dopamine release is part of the formation of stable memories. Since depression is linked with lower dopamine reward signaling, this may make it harder for memories to form.

Executive function refers to higher-level thinking.

The executive functioning system is sometimes called the CEO of the brain, because of the way it allows you to supervise your own thinking. You use executive functioning to manage your life and reach your goals.

Depression can cause executive dysfunction. If you’re experiencing this, you may notice changes in your ability to:

  • plan
  • solve problems
  • make decisions
  • manage your time
  • control impulses and emotions
  • take initiative

You’re not alone, and it’s not your fault.

A study featuring 448 participants uncovered cognitive changes in students with depression. They experienced executive dysfunction in the following areas:

  • memory
  • inhibition control
  • planning
  • flexibility

Other students in the same study who had stress and anxiety experienced similar brain changes.

Another study involving 1,123 college undergraduates revealed similar results. Depressed mood interfered with their ability to maintain task goals and caused executive function deficits.

Processing speed is the rate at which you can acquire information, assess it, then respond. Sometimes depression can slow your processing speed.

A slower processing speed could mean that you sometimes:

  • miss social cues
  • need more time to make decisions
  • feel overwhelmed by a lot of input at the same time
  • have trouble following instructions
  • need to reread information before you understand what you’ve read

Research indicates that people experiencing depression have a slower processing speed and reaction time for the things they see, except for sad faces, which generate a faster response. This suggests that people with depression have a bias towards negative information.

Since depression creates symptoms in more areas than just mood, effective treatment for depression should be a combined approach. You might have more than one person involved in your care, like your family doctor and a therapist.

Mood

Medication can help to ease the mood changes that accompany depression. There are several types to choose from. Consulting with your doctor to discuss the benefits and side effects of each is a good way to find a medication that can help.

Some medication options include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI): sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR)
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs): clomipramine (Anafranil), imipramine (Tofranil)

Medications for depression work by balancing the neurotransmitters in your brain. These chemicals affect health and wellbeing in numerous ways, so having the right amounts at the right times can be a tremendous help.

Talk therapy may also help to ease a depressed mood. An effective option is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy explores the underlying thoughts that can affect the way you feel.

The goal of CBT is to identify the thoughts that are bringing you down. Your therapist can help you examine the accuracy of those thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones that are more helpful. CBT is also about understanding learned behaviors that may be maladaptive and connecting with unhealthy means of coping.

Cognitive changes

Cognitive remediation therapy (CRT) may be able to help with some of the brain changes brought about by depression.

CRT involves training individual cognitive skills so they can be applied to real-life situations later. For example, computer or pencil and paper tasks target areas like sustained attention and working memory.

Physical effects

Depression can cause physical changes as well as emotional and cognitive ones. If you live with depression, you might also experience issues like:

  • back pain
  • sleep disruption
  • fatigue
  • aches and pains
  • headaches
  • nausea

Some of these issues may fade as you get treatment for mood and cognitive issues, or some may persist and need their own treatment. It’s helpful to communicate regularly with your doctor about how you’re feeling so that your treatment can be adjusted as needed.

Depression affects more than just emotion and mood. It can also change the way your brain functions.

The potential cognitive changes from depression include executive dysfunction, impaired learning and memory, reduced attention and concentration, and lower processing speed.

Treatment is available to help. Medication and therapy can treat mood and emotional symptoms, and cognitive remediation therapy can help to repair depression-related brain changes. Physical symptoms may fade as you progress with treatment, or you may need additional treatment.

Learn more about how to cope with depression here.