What Are 'Vegetative' Depression Symptoms?

According to the UK's National Health Service, the medical use of the term "vegetative" means a person lacks consciousness even though they're awake. Their body responds to reflexes, but their minds don't respond to their environment. 

You might assume, therefore, that "vegetative" depression symptoms would indicate something similar — that a person is so depressed that they don't care to respond to the environment. However, that's not the case. "Vegetative" depression symptoms refer to the physical symptoms of depression. These symptoms have also been referred to as painful, psychosomatic, or masked symptoms of depression, according to a 2006 article in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Now psychologists use a more neutral term — "somatic."

Somatic symptoms of depression include sleep changes, loss of appetite and sexual energy, digestive problems, and chronic pain. Chronic pain associated with depression can lead to suicidal thoughts. Women might experience changes in their menstrual cycle, and women are 50% more likely to report somatic depression symptoms.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Depression can be characterized by many symptoms

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression has many forms. Major depressive disorder refers to having depressive symptoms to the extent that they interfere with daily activities. The symptoms of persistent depressive disorder aren't as severe, but last for two years or longer. Prenatal and postpartum depression can occur in women before and after the birth of a child. You can also have seasonal affective disorder, where your depression symptoms worsen in the winter months and ease in the summer months.

Depression is typically characterized by feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities. Along with somatic symptoms, people might also feel greater impulsivity, irritability, or detachment. Not everyone experiences depression in the same way.

Although people might seek a therapist or psychologist when they feel psychological symptoms of depression, somatic symptoms might appear much earlier to a primary care physician. According to a 2023 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry, somatic symptoms seen by primary care doctors could identify not only major depression but also people who were just below the threshold of depression.

Somatic symptoms can affect the body in other ways

The symptoms of major depressive disorder can affect your daily activities. Depression is also linked to significant health effects on the body. A 2013 review in BMC Medicine found that depression often coexists with metabolic risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, visceral fat, and elevated blood sugar. Depression is also associated with higher levels of inflammation and oxidative stress. Heart rate variability, which is an indicator of how well your body recovers from stress, is often lower in people who are depressed.

According to a 2022 study in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, people can have myriad somatic symptoms that are difficult to describe to their doctors. Sometimes people with depression can't specifically locate where they feel pain or discomfort, and doctors might either misdiagnose or fail to find any physiological issues. Even if people took medication to manage their symptoms of depression, some felt medications were ineffective in treating their somatic symptoms.

Somatic symptoms of depression are particularly a problem among older adults, according to a 2010 article in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Older adults who experienced somatic symptoms with their depression had lower cognitive functioning and had more difficulty with their daily activities.