Low-grade depression: as Michelle Obama opens up, here’s your guide to what it is

Plus how to identify symptoms in yourself

Low grade depression: here's everything you need to know about the mental health disorder Michelle Obama suffers from the mental health condition
(Image credit: Getty)

Plus how to identify symptoms in yourself

You’re aware of the debilitating, can’t-get-out-of-bed dark cloud of depression—research suggests at least 1 in 3 people in the UK have suffered from it at some point—but would you be able to identify low grade depression, aka the less obvious symptoms?

It's been a year that’s been challenging for most thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. What seem like small day-to-day differences in your lives - you know, home-schooling, working from home, and Zoom socialising - can really take their toll on your mental health.

Know you're not alone: even stars like Michelle Obama have opened up in the past about their struggles. Last year she spoke about her 'low grade depression' being triggered by a number of things, from the pandemic, to racial injustice, to the 'hypocrisy' of the Trump administration.

Tackling emotional highs and lows and difficulty sleeping, she shared: "I'm waking up in the middle of the night because I'm worrying about something or there's a heaviness."

"These are not, they are not fulfilling times, spiritually," Mrs Obama said. "I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression. [I feel a] weight that I haven't felt in my life, in a while," she said.

One thing that has helped her? Sticking to a normal routine. "Schedule is key", she shared.

Wondering what low-grade depression actually is, how to recognise the symptoms in yourself or a loved one, and how to act if you think it may be impacting your day-to-day life?

Let our team of experts guide you.

Low-grade depression: your need-to-knows

What is low-grade depression?

In short, a type of depression that affects your day-to-day life for more than half of the week but is so subtle you may struggle to notice it, according to Doctor Aragona Giuseppe, GP and medical advisor for Prescription Doctor. "People with such a mild form of depression may not even realise they are depressed because the feelings of sadness or low mood have been around for so long that they think it is normal to feel like that".

Dr Ali Shakir of the Harley Street Health Centre shares that depression can even vary type in the same person over time, and is written off all too often. "Many people deal with chronic low-grade or mild depression that is dismissed as a different cause."

Sound familiar? While experiencing low moods occasionally is quite normal, Giuseppe reinforces that being in a constant state of low-level sadness is not and should be addressed. Take stock—do you feel sad more than you feel happy? If so, it may be time to seek medical help.

What are the symptoms of low-grade depression?

It's important to differentiate between clinical depression and any temporary sadness or low mood, Dr Shakir shares. "If you are suffering from depression of any severity, your symptoms are usually medium or long-term and interfere with your day-to-day activities".

There are a whole host of symptoms that can come with depression of any kind, including:

  • Irritability and anger — even over minor things that wouldn’t normally annoy you
  • Hopelessness – a feeling of general hopelessness, inability to visualise the future or lack of enthusiasm to seize opportunities
  • Fatigue, constant sleepiness or lethargy 
  • Insomnia
  • Feelings of guilt and regret – inadvertently living in the past, going over past decisions, feeling guilty about not “doing enough” or feeling useless when you bail on plans
  • Being hypercritical — of yourself and others
  • Difficulty concentrating — at work or with study
  • Eating too much or too little – some people report regular “fog eating” where you aren’t really aware you are eating or are “zoned out” while eating. Because depression causes a disconnect with your body, you lose touch with your appetite, might miss meals without noticing or eat things you know aren’t nourishing or good for you because you feel hopeless or guilty
  • Social withdrawal – you may avoid meeting with people you like or doing things you would normally be excited by
  • Aches and pains with no direct cause – due to the inflammation caused by the chronic presence of stress hormones and as a result of negative lifestyle factors from a lack of self-care.

If you are feeling the weight of the world at current, we've got a whole host of mental health resources that we hope could help, from self-care ideas, to stress management techniques, to a complete guide to online therapy, to our grief guide.

What's the difference between low-grade and severe depression?

Sadly, sometimes it's incredibly hard to tell. Whatever scale of depression you're suffering from, it can become near impossible to identify your symptoms as they can cloud your judgment.

"High-grade depression is usually diagnosed as people who normally feel fine. They may, over a period of time, start to develop feelings of sadness and low moods. Some may feel suicidal or unable to get out of bed. This can actually be diagnosed and treated more easily as there is a clear change," shares Dr Giuseppe.

Low-grade, on the other hand, is more tricky to identify. "Especially if people have felt this way for years—they may have just accepted that this is the way they feel or what their personality is like", he adds.

5 expert tips for if you're suffering from low-grade depression

1. Assess your feelings

Take time to really evaluate your feelings and pin-point what types of symptoms you are experiencing. "Are they mild or severe? How long have you felt this way?", asks Dr Giuseppe.

Try to think about the last time you felt joy in something or happy. Admitting to feeling constantly down and low is the first step in getting help and treating the problem.

2. Seek help

"Don’t wait until things get really bad to seek support and help. The sooner you act, the better", advises Dr Shakir. The quicker you tell your loved ones what you're going through, the sooner they can rally as a personal support network.

Dr Giuseppe agrees, advising you to seek some form of help, no matter how mild your symptoms. "Even if it's only a friend or family member, it's best to talk about how you are feeling."

If you have no one who can offer support, online support groups can be a great alternative.

3. Look after yourself

Sometimes something as simple as switching up your lifestyle can make all the difference.

"Try to eat a well-balanced diet, drink plenty of water and do a bit of exercise each day if you aren’t already", shares Dr Giuseppe. "They might just help to boost your mood and motivation."

4. Do that one thing that you know will make you feel better

An oldie, but a goodie—try do one thing that makes you happy every day. That could be cleaning your space, making a frothy coffee or going for a walk, but whatever it is, do it for you.

"Is there one thing you’ve been putting off for a long time that nags at you? What one thing would make you feel good about yourself? Taking the time to cook for yourself? Getting your nails done?" asks Dr Shakir. Whatever it is, he encourages you to identify it and do it.

5. Take it easy

Both doctors warn that there will be ups and downs, as with any mental health journey to recovery. All you can do is your best.

"Try to stop the pattern of 'failing' and then beating yourself up. Instead, break down your larger life goals into small, bitesize tasks and focus on one at a time. Depression is not your fault and it will take time to develop the tools to cope with it", shares Dr Shakir.

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.