Americans are no strangers to depression — nearly 17 million of us are affected by it every year. But that prevalence doesn’t make it any easier to go through, or even to understand: “Depression is such a vague term,” says George Tesar, MD, a psychiatrist and the chair of the Psychiatry and Psychology Department at the Cleveland Clinic. “For some it’s an illness, for some it’s a state of mind and for some it’s a stigmatized term that they don’t want to be associated with.”

That fear of being labeled can hold some people back from seeking treatment. It’s important to recognize that depression is a real medical condition, with physical as well psychological effects, and as with any condition that impairs your life, it should be addressed with the help of a health practitioner.

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Wow Fact

Researchers from Boston University have found that practicing yoga boosts a brain chemical responsible for controlling depression and anxiety.

Even if you think you know the cause — a traumatic event, for instance, or an illness — that doesn’t mean you should just accept it as fate. (In fact, depression is closely linked with multiple diseases, and ignoring your depression may worsen your prognosis for conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.) Dr. Tesar compares it to a broken bone: “If you break your leg, there may be a very good reason for it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t treat it.”

Just as a doctor will set a fractured bone so it grows whole and strong, working with a health care professional to treat depression will help you heal. There’s a range of treatments available to help those struggling with depression, the use of which is tailored to the needs of the individual. For many, antidepressant medications (which are safer and more effective than ever) offer relief. The right diet, exercise and mental approaches can increase their effectiveness and, for some people, replace medication altogether.

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