The Effects of Depression on Cognition

Many of us associate depression with intense and long-lasting feelings of sadness or indifference, having little motivation to do things you enjoy, and feeling as if you have no energy to do anything. And while these are all very common symptoms of depression, they are not the only things that can be dramatically affected by depression.

Individuals who suffer from depression can experience cognitive changes that directly impact their daily lives because of depression. This can include alterations to anything from executive function abilities to the ability to concentrate.

Today we’ll explore the primary ways that depression can impact cognitive performance, as well as some ways to help manage these symptoms.

How Depression Affects Cognition

When it comes to categorizing and analyzing cognitive decline due to depression, there are five primary areas to focus on.

  1. Memory and learning
  2. Attention and concentration
  3. Brain processing speed
  4. Executive function
  5. Psychomotor skills

Each of these areas can be affected by depression, and each area can be affected in a variety of ways — though all symptoms are characterized by a decrease in previous cognitive abilities.

Memory and Learning

One of the most widely-established links between depression and cognitive functions is the effect depression has on memory — and by extension, learning ability.

Because our memory relies heavily on the release of dopamine during the forming and encoding process, anything that restricts the release of dopamine can negatively impact it. Since depression is known to decrease the brain’s dopamine reward signaling structures, it is no surprise that it may directly lead to memory deficits.

If depression has affected your memory or learning ability, you may find yourself:

  • Forgetting things you just heard
  • Needing to re-read something more than once to recall it
  • Missing appointments, dates, or other scheduled events
  • Feeling confused more often than you used to
  • Making errors in your job that are unusual for you

Attention and Concentration

Depression can cause a number of different challenges for the part of our thinking that allows us to concentrate and pay attention to what is happening around us.

Truthfully, depression is exhausting for the mind and body. The constant onslaught of negative thoughts and criticisms that arise during depressive episodes takes a lot of energy to process — and even more to manage. This exhaustion marks the basis for one popular theory of why depression detrimentally affects our ability to concentrate: that we use all of our energy dealing with these thoughts and have none left over to concentrate on all of the other types of thoughts we have in our daily lives.

Some of the most common symptoms you may notice are:

  • Drifting off in thought more often than you used to
  • Losing track of time or where you are
  • Constantly catching yourself making easy mistakes on things you know how to do very well
  • Feeling like you are missing parts of conversations
  • Feeling overwhelmed by distractions when you are trying to focus or being unable to multitask

Brain Processing Speed

Another way that depression can impact your cognitive capabilities is by interfering with your brain’s ability to process information. This is commonly referred to as the brain processing speed, and typically, if it is affected by depression, you will notice it slowing. Sometimes people refer to this slowed processing speed as “brain fog.”

If your brain processing speed has been lowered because of depression, you may be:

  • Missing social cues
  • Feeling overwhelmed in situations where you have to process a lot of inputs at once — such as in a store or playing a sport
  • Experiencing trouble following a series of instructions or directions
  • Requiring more time to answer a question or make a decision

Executive Function

The term executive function refers to a collection of functions that we associate with higher-level thinking. These functions are what you use to reflect on and manage your life, as well as make goals for the future and decisions that lead you to those goals.

When your executive functions are negatively affected by depression or another mental condition, it may cause executive dysfunction — a condition that is common for individuals suffering from a wide array of medical conditions, especially neurologic ones.

If you have executive dysfunction, you may notice that you struggle more now than you used to with critical skills such as:

  • Planning
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving
  • Taking initiative
  • Impulse control
  • Emotion regulation
  • Time management

Psychomotor Skills

The last primary area that depression can affect your cognitive capabilities is in skills that require simultaneous thought and action — your psychomotor skills. These skills include things like typing, driving a car, and playing an instrument.

If depression is affecting your psychomotor skills, there are two ways that this impact can appear. The first is called psychomotor agitation. This is when an individual feels a constant sense of restlessness that often appears to others as a repetitive and unintentional physical gesture.

The other way that your psychomotor activity may be affected is called psychomotor retardation. This is characterized by slower movements that the individual with depression may even have trouble producing. Oftentimes, this can appear like a lack of coordination as well, especially if you are not familiar with the individual or their previous range of psychomotor abilities.

Managing the Cognitive Effects of Depression

If ignored, the cognitive symptoms of depression can have a lasting impact or worsen over time. In fact, some research finds that the adverse cognitive effects of depression persist even after the use of antidepressants — one of the more common treatment options for individuals suffering from depression.

So, if antidepressants don’t seem to help in managing any new cognitive impairments caused by depression, what can you do to cope with them?

Whether you experience the cognitive effects of depression or not, it is typically best to approach symptom management from a variety of angles. Yes, antidepressants can be incredibly helpful in regulating emotions and helping balance neurotransmitters in the brain, but they cannot help you understand how to healthily cope when you are having a bad day.

To build the skills you need to manage your ongoing symptoms, learn healthy coping mechanisms, or find out what underlying causes may exist, you need to look for professional guidance. For many people, this means seeking therapy. It may mean seeing a physician, physical therapist, or another healthcare provider to help address depressive symptoms such as chronic pain, headaches, or sleep issues. If you have a variety of symptoms, you may benefit from working with a variety of healthcare providers.

If you have noticed any changes to your cognitive abilities and are suffering from depression, please do not hesitate to reach out to us today at Love Heal Grow or schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.


Love Heal Grow Relationship Therapy Center Sacramento

Free Relationship Therapy Starter Pack

*How to Find a Therapist

*What to Expect in Your First Appointment

*How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

*How to talk to your boss about going to therapy during the workday

*How to seek reimbursement for therapy from your PPO plan

*Over twenty pages of relationship and life stressor tips and exercises that it would usually take 10+ therapy sessions to cover.

Check your email!