In a single year, Jessica’s weight spiraled out of control. It felt as if virtually overnight she had gone from an active, happy young woman to a restless and frustrated dieter struggling between food binges and starvation. No one could possibly understand her, she thought. She felt totally alone despite being surrounded by a loving family.

If you asked those who knew her, they would tell you Jessica is a kind, loving, hardworking person, a devoted mother and wife. Everyone thought the world of Jessica. She seemed to always have a smile on her face.

In truth, she was suffering from depression. It was at the root of her extreme negative feelings as well as her weight gain and out-of-control eating. She focused on her weight as the problem, rather than a symptom of the real problem. Instead of getting help, she criticized herself for gaining weight.

This incessant self-punishment only made her more depressed, fueling a vicious cycle that made her feel hopeless.

Depression isn’t always easy to detect. Typically we associate depression with excessive crying, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, weight loss, lack of energy and even suicidal thoughts. But depression can also be accompanied by agitation, anxiety, anger, compulsive eating and weight gain, indecisiveness or an inability to concentrate, and excessive guilt.

Having any of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed. But it also may be the case that, like Jessica, your issues may go deeper than lacking control or being misunderstood.

The fact that weight gain can be a symptom of depression is yet another reason that the quest for the ”perfect diet” so often ends in disappointment.

When we’re depressed we tend to lose interest in things that we used to enjoy. Another hallmark is fatigue and oversleeping, which can spell less activity and fewer calories burned. On the other side of the equation, when people are depressed, while some lose interest in food and eating, many eat more or eat compulsively. The exact reasons are complicated. However, eating can be comforting and the depressed person may be seeking comfort in any way possible, particularly one as immediate and accessible as food. It’s also harder to be mindful of how we’re eating when we’re preoccupied with depressive thoughts.

Jessica hoped to find a medical reason why, after never having had a weight problem, she rapidly lost control of both her weight and eating. Physicians could find nothing wrong, so, she continued blaming herself for not “just getting it together.”

Luckily, she decided to reach out for mental health support and guidance. Through that avenue, she learned that she was suffering from a biochemical depression, and discovered some things about her family history, her personality, and ways of thinking that made her more vulnerable to depression. Her treatment wasn’t a simple fix, but it ultimately was the fix she needed. With the depression managed well, she was better able to regain her physical health.

Not only wasn’t it Jessica’s fault that she had gained so much weight in such a short time, it wasn’t even her main problem. Rather, it was a symptom. Perhaps if she had not become preoccupied with blaming herself for the symptom, she could have reached out for the right help sooner.

Previously published in The Tampa Bay Times