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The Cognitive Symptoms of Depression

The Cognitive Symptoms of Depression The cognitive symptoms of depression tend to receive less attention than other symptoms of this difficult illness. Namely, symptoms such as sinking mood, fatigue and loss of interest garner more recognition.

Yet cognitive symptoms are quite common. “[They] are actually significantly prominent in depression,” said Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Living with Depression.

And these symptoms are incredibly debilitating. “In my opinion, when cognitive symptoms of depression hit, they are more of a pressing concern than physical symptoms.”

Cognitive symptoms can interfere with all areas of a person’s life, including work, school and their relationships. Problem-solving and higher thinking, according to Serani, are greatly diminished. “This can leave a person feeling helpless and without a plan of action to defeat depression.”

Poor concentration can cause problems with communication, and indecisiveness may strain relationships, according to William Marchand, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine and author of the book Depression and Bipolar Disorder: Your Guide to Recovery.

The cognitive symptoms of depression also may get confused with other conditions, complicating diagnosis. Here’s a specific list of symptoms along with similar disorders.

Cognitive Symptoms of Depression

“Cognitive symptoms can be subtle and often go unrecognized,” according to Dr. Marchand. Fortunately, psychotherapy can help individuals become more aware of these symptoms, such as distorted thinking, he said.

Marchand and Serani shared these cognitive symptoms of depression:

  • Negative or distorted thinking
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Distractibility
  • Forgetfulness
  • Reduced reaction time
  • Memory loss
  • Indecisiveness

Disorders That Mimic Depression

“The cognitive aspects of depression usually involve a person’s thinking being sluggish, negative or distorted in quality,” Serani said. However, there are many other disorders that share these similar symptoms, because they, too, inhibit cognitive function. Unfortunately, this means that the “risk for misdiagnosis is high,” she said.

For instance, Serani mentioned attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (the inattentive type), post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Co-occurring disorders can add to the confusion. “In many cases there are comorbid conditions such as dementia (in elderly individuals), adult ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder, and it can be difficult to sort out which condition is causing the cognitive symptoms,” Marchand said.

It’s critical to receive a proper and comprehensive evaluation to make sure that you have depression or another condition. Again, psychotherapy and medication can improve cognitive symptoms along with other symptoms of depression. Also, there are many strategies you can try on your own to reduce symptoms and feel better (which are explored in another article).

The Cognitive Symptoms of Depression

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). The Cognitive Symptoms of Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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