The warning signs of a depression relapse may include social withdrawal, fatigue, and irritability, and can be different each time. Spotting the red flags early may help prevent a more severe episode.

Many people who experience an episode of depression for the first time will remain well. However, depression can return one or more times throughout a person’s life.

Researchers do not know why some people experience a relapse, and others do not, but treatments are available to help people navigate through a relapse.

This article looks at the signs that depression is returning, potential triggers, and ways to prevent, treat, and cope with this condition.

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Occasional sadness or a loss of interest in everyday activities is a routine part of life. However, if these feelings occur almost daily for more than 2 weeks or begin to affect work or social life, a person may be experiencing depression.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects around 5% of adults worldwide.

A 2020 article suggests that depression can return in the following two ways:

  • Relapse: When symptoms reappear or worsen during recovery from an earlier episode. This affects approximately 1 in 2 people with depression and may be more likely within 6 months of receiving psychosocial treatment for a previous episode.
  • Recurrence: When symptoms return after a person fully recovers from a previous episode. Recurrence is typically less common than relapse.

The article’s authors suggest that relapses can also affect depression severity and a person’s response to treatment. A person who experiences a greater number of depressive episodes may be more at risk of future relapse and recurrence.

Learn more about some of the common symptoms of depression.

A person may recognize the same core warning signs of depression they experienced during previous episodes, but sometimes, symptoms can be different.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the following warning signs of depression:

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, Various triggers can cause a relapse or recurrence of depression, including:

  • stressful life events during or after recovery, such as:
    • family conflict
    • relationship changes
    • grief
  • incomplete recovery, which may result from stopping treatment early
  • alcohol and drugs
  • medical conditions, such as heart disease and cancer

Risk factors for depression relapse

A 2020 retrospective descriptive study suggests the following factors may increase the risk of depression recurrence:

  • depression episode severity
  • depression episode frequency
  • early age onset of first depressive episode
  • immune system irregularities
  • family history of depression
  • history of suicide attempts
  • being female
  • older age

Learn more about what depression feels like.

These prevention strategies may help to stop depression from returning:

  • Completing treatment: Finishing the entire course of a prescribed medication can significantly reduce the risk of relapse, especially during the critical 6 months after treatment begins.
  • Mindfulness-based therapies: A 2019 study suggested people who had mindfulness-based cognitive therapy had a lower risk of depression relapse after 60 weeks than people who did not or people who had other treatments.
  • Educating friends and family: Telling friends and family what warning signs to look out for might help identify an episode early.
  • Prepare for a relapse: It may help to make a plan so that, if warning signs do appear, the individual can act upon them quickly. A doctor can help with this.

Learn about ways to avoid depression.

When worrying symptoms come back during treatment, it might mean that the current treatment is not working as it should. In these instances, a doctor may recommend changing the treatment style or increasing the medication dosage.

Treatments that can help with depression include:

  • Talking therapies: Interpersonal therapy (IPT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or both may help to treat depression and reduce the risk of a relapse.
  • Medication: Antidepressants or mood stabilizers can help some people. Following the doctor’s recommendations for taking these drugs can help reduce the risk of a relapse.
  • Exercise: Keeping active releases endorphins that can improve mood. A 2018 narrative review suggests exercise can be as effective as other types of depression treatment without adverse side effects.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy: Sometimes, a doctor may recommend electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). However, not everyone is suitable for this treatment, and it may take several sessions to see the benefits.

When a person has depression, it can be hard to find the motivation to carry out new or even everyday activities. Get some tips here to help manage this challenge.

Learn if there is a cure for depression.

Depression can have a severe impact on a person’s life, but treatments can reduce symptoms and the length of depression episodes.

The risk of depression returning is higher when the previous episode was more severe. Having other conditions, such as anxiety disorder, may also increase the risk.

Taking steps to prevent or treat each new episode that arises can improve the long-term outlook for people who have depression. People can speak with a doctor about treatment and management strategies.

Learn what might trigger anxiety.

Depression can return during or after a person’s recovery. Certain factors can increase the risk of depression returning, such as the severity of the last episode, frequency of depression episodes, and other health conditions.

A person can speak with a healthcare professional about treatment options if they are experiencing depression relapse or recurrence.

Management strategies that may help prevent a relapse or recurrence of depression include getting regular exercise or taking part in talk therapies.