Motivation, Memory and Concentration in Depression

While we are familiar with the common experiences of people suffering from depression – low mood, sadness, hopelessness etc, some of the less often talked-about symptoms are the most problematic in treatment and recovery.

The impact depression has on motivation, memory, concentration and other cognitive functions such as problem solving has a significant effect on the sufferers.  These effects are the source of great frustration to family and friends who want to help, and guilt and fear in sufferers.

It is not uncommon to have a person with depression present with anxiety about poor memory and fear they are developing dementia.  It can be reassuring to find that it is often a problem caused by their depression.

We know that exercise, structure and routine, socializing and keeping busy improve the way we feel and can increase levels of serotonin believed to be important for assisting depression.  However, lack of motivation becomes a major impediment to the ability to do these things.  Those who have lived with a depressed teenager will attest to the frustration of trying to get them out of bed! 

For the depressed person asked to perform these tasks, it feels like there is a ball and chain around their ankle.  This exacerbates the low self-esteem and sense of being a failure, that often accompanies depression.  For young people, especially those studying, the pressure to perform while experiencing these symptoms is stressful, with inflexible education systems having structures that make it hard to take some time off, such as deadlines for assignments.  

In some states in the US, they are implementing “Mental Health Leave Days” to provide a legitimate excuse to be absent from school.  While the structure and routine of school can be helpful, the hope is that this will assist the authorities to identify the difficulties in some students. 

With a medical problem, it is easy for us to be understanding towards ourselves or someone else.  For example, if they have a broken leg or pneumonia, we know that it will take time to recover and the process can be difficult.  We might have to do some physio and pace ourselves because it is painful and tiring.  We understand why, so we do a little regularly and give ourselves a pat on the back.

Low motivation in depression is just as much a symptom as pain and fatigue.  The sufferer needs to be encouraged with small goals – getting up and dressed, doing some physical activity no matter how small – for example.

There is a link between concentration and memory.  Poor concentration means being easily distracted which inhibits learning.  It is essential for work, socialising, motor skills and playing sport.  The sufferer can become overwhelmed and confused.

What to do:

  • Firstly, be kind to yourself or your loved one.
  • Pace your activities.  Break down tasks into manageable chunks. 
  • Don’t judge yourself against what you can do when you’re well (just the same as you do with a broken leg).  That will come when you recover.
  • Remove distractions, these can be overwhelming and stressful.
  • Write things down.
  • Structure your day, even down to planning what to wear/eat etc.
  • Monitor diet and sleep.  Not too much or too little.
  • In the case of students, make the situation known to year co-ordinators or the counsellor at school.  At university go to the student counselling services and apply for any special considerations available and make use of these.
  • If you’re living with a person suffering from depression, take care of yourself and get support, if needed.  Take time out regularly

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