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Cognitive Symptoms of Depression

Cognitive Symptoms of Depression

Depression not only depletes your energy and motivation, but it can also bring about various physical and cognitive changes that can impact your day-to-day life. The term cognitive or cognition refers to the mental action or process of acquiring and understanding knowledge through our thoughts, experiences, and senses. People with major depressive disorder (MDD or depression) often notice differences in their ability to plan, problem-solve, and make decisions as a result of the cognitive symptoms of depression. If left untreated, these symptoms can last longer and become more severe over time. Fortunately, treatment is available.  

What Is the Cognitive Model of Depression? 

The cognitive model of depression suggests that the presence of negative life events in addition to one’s perception of or reaction to those events can contribute to the development and maintenance of depressive signs and symptoms. The cognitive theory of depression believes that negative cognitions and an underlying all-or-nothing form of thinking contribute to and worsens depression symptoms.1   

Moreover, the cognitive-vulnerability stress model suggests that, in cases of negative life events, people who tend to make negative attributions about the cause of said events, themselves, and future consequences are more likely to develop depression.2 This theory goes hand in hand with the hopelessness theory of depression, which predicts that the interaction between negative cognitive styles (ways of thinking) and negative life events causes a sense of hopelessness.3   

There’s also a triad of cognitive patterns linked to depression known as the depressive cognitive triad. The cognitive triad of depression connects negative views about the world to negative views about the future to negative views about oneself, from which the cycle starts all over again.  

These theories and models help explain the cognitive symptoms of depression, how the disorder impacts a person’s thoughts and behaviors, and how they can be properly addressed and treated with mental health care.  

What Are the Cognitive Symptoms of Depression? 

When most people think of depression, they think of feeling sad and down for long periods. They might think of losing your energy, wanting to stay in bed all day, and avoiding people and the things you once enjoyed doing.  

However, in addition to these changes in mood and motivation, depression can also affect your ability to think. It can impair a person’s attention, memory, the way they process and understand information, and their ability to make decisions.   

Depression can also impact a person’s cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt one’s goals and strategies to changing situations) and executive functioning (the ability to take all the necessary steps to get something done). To better understand how this mental health disorder impacts a person’s ability to think and problem-solve, below are common cognitive symptoms of depression.   

Reduced Attention and Concentration   

There are many reasons a person might struggle to pay attention or concentrate, such as fatigue or boredom. Depression can also cause these issues.  

Reduced attention and concentration are some of the most common cognitive effects of depression, and often people who experience this show some of these signs:  

  • Your mind wanders more than it has in the past 
  • You miss parts of conversations 
  • You make careless errors or mistakes with tasks you have experience doing 
  • You lose track of your surroundings 
  • You can no longer multi-task 
  • You often feel overwhelmed by distractions  

Impaired Learning and Memory  

An impaired or inhibited ability to remember things is another example of how depression affects cognition. Learning new things is also difficult with depression, especially since memory is part of acquiring new information.  

People who experience impairment in learning and memory might:  

  • Need to reread the same material several times to understand it 
  • Forget things that they have just heard  
  • Feel confused more than they usually have in the past 
  • Miss appointments  
  • Misplace items more often than they used to  
  • Make uncharacteristic errors at work  

Some researchers theorize that the connection between depression and memory problems is due to a lower dopamine reward signaling, which can make it difficult for memories to form.  

Executive Dysfunction  

The executive dysfunction system is also known as the CEO of the brain because of the way it allows you to supervise your thoughts. You use executive functions to manage your life and achieve your goals.  

Depression can cause executive dysfunction, which can lead to changes in your abilities to:  

  • Plan 
  • Problem solve 
  • Make decisions 
  • Manage your time 
  • Stay organized 
  • Take initiative 
  • Control your impulses and emotions  

This can be stressful, but you are not alone. One study featuring 448 participants found cognitive changes in students with depression. Participants experienced cognitive dysfunction in areas like memory, inhibition control, planning, and flexibility.4  

Slower Processing Speed  

Processing speed, in this case, refers to the rate at which you can acquire information, process it, and then respond. Sometimes depression can slow down this ability, making it difficult for us to process and appropriately react to certain situations.  

People with depression who experience slower process speed may:   

  • Miss social cues 
  • Need more time to make decisions  
  • Feel overwhelmed by a lot of stimuli or input all at once 
  • Need to reread information before they can understand what they have read  
  • Struggle to follow instructions   

Research indicates that people with depression have a slower processing speed and reaction times for the things they see, except for sad faces, which generate a faster response. This also suggests that people with depression have a bias toward negative information, which ties back into the hopelessness theory of depression and the cognitive triad of depression we mentioned earlier.   

Get Help for Depression Today 

Remember that these cognitive changes do not reflect your intelligence or abilities but are rather a result of depression. Depression cognitive impairment is a common side effect of this disorder that occurs in most if not all people who develop major depression.  

Cognitive symptoms of depression can impair one’s ability to complete mental tasks, remember things, learn things, focus, and make plans or decisions. Moreover, these symptoms can manifest themselves in decreased reaction time, difficulty with communication, and reduced motor function.   

In other words, depression can make you feel as if your mind is going one mile per hour, which can be stressful for you and your loved ones. Fortunately, help is available.  

Banyan Treatment Centers offers Boca Raton depression treatment designed to address both the physical and cognitive symptoms of depression. With the help of our team, clients will have the guidance and support they need to understand their symptoms and why they occur, and how to manage their disorders in their day-to-day lives.  

Our Florida mental health rehab provides residential mental health care for other forms of mental illness, as well, including disorders like anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and others. No matter how long you have been struggling with your mental health, Banyan is here to help.  


Call our Boca rehab center now at 888-280-4763 for more information about our mental health services 



  1. NIH - Negative cognitive schema modification as a mediator of symptom improvement after electroconvulsive therapy in major depressive disorder 
  1. NIH - A prospective study of the cognitive-stress model of depressive symptoms in adolescents 
  1. NIH - The Hopelessness Theory of Depression: A Quarter Century in Review 
  1. ScienceDirect - The Structure of Executive Dysfunction in Depression and Anxiety 


Related Reading:   

Common Environmental Factors of Depression 

How to Help Someone With Situational Depression 

Jobs for People With Depression 

Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.
Cognitive Symptoms of Depression
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