Depression is not a condition that has one specific cause. It can happen for many different reasons and have many triggers. Depression is a serious condition with a spectrum of diagnoses and a wide range of severity.
Depression is a medical condition that shows its symptoms through your mood and functionality. If you have depression, you may feel sad, anxious, or hopeless. There can be a spectrum of diagnoses for depression and how severe it can be. Depression is a severe condition and, left untreated, can lead to dire consequences.
What causes depression?
Depression is not a condition that has one specific cause. It can happen for many different reasons and have many triggers. Usually, depression doesn’t work quickly or suddenly. Instead, it develops over long periods of time and can lead to a “downward spiral.”
The four major causes of depression are:
- 1. Family history. Though there are no specific genes that we can look at and trace to depression, if your family members have had depression, you are more likely also to experience depression. The jury is still out on whether or not this link is due to learned behavior or biology.
- 2. Illness and health issues. Physical illnesses or injuries can have a significant impact on your mental health. Chronic health issues, long-term health issues, or physical health issues that drastically change your lifestyle can cause depression. Often, your doctors will understand this and may even offer mental health treatment as a part of your overall treatment. Issues connected to your brain, hormones, menstrual cycle or menopause, low blood sugar, or sleep problems can be very impactful.
- 3. Medication, drugs, and alcohol. Many different medications can have the unfortunate side effect of depression. If you feel depressed after starting a new medicine or medication, you should research its side effects or talk to your doctor. There could be a better alternative they could give you. Additionally, recreational drugs and alcohol use can also cause or worsen depression. While they may initially feel like they help symptoms of depression, they will make you feel worse eventually.
- 4. Personality. Some people and personalities are just more apt to experience depression. For example, people who tend to hold in worries and stress, have low self-esteem, are perfectionists, and are sensitive to criticism are naturally more likely to be depressed.
Additional causes of depression
In addition to those causes, two of the more abstract causes of depression can be:
It has been found through research that life events can increase your chances of being depressed. Examples of events like this include:
- Losing your job
- Being in a dysfunctional relationship
- Stress at work
- Going through a breakup or divorce
- Being diagnosed with an illness
- Being unemployed for a long time
- Grieving a loved one
While negative life events can cause depression, they don’t necessarily always cause it. Often, it is more about how you deal with these difficult situations. Feeling down most of the time can lead to depression.
Chemicals in the Brain
Brain chemistry is a vastly complex and developing field of medical study. There is much that is still being researched. In addition, there are so many other factors besides simple brain chemistry that can lead to depression. Therefore, depression is not merely caused by a lack of certain chemicals. However, there are specific processes between nerve cells that can contribute to depression.
Treatments for depression
Many of the medications used to treat depression target the brain’s messaging centers. Some stimulate serotonin or noradrenaline production. In addition, some treatments like transcranial magnetic stimulation(TMS) or electroconvulsive therapy(ECT) are used to treat depression because they also target the brain’s messaging processes. However, these types of treatments are only used when therapy, lifestyle changes, social change, and medication have not helped.
A more definitive list of treatments for depression is:
- Self-guided changes to your lifestyle. Simply changing things like your sleep cycle, how you spend your time, and other daily habits can do a lot to improve your depression.
- Therapy. Beginning counseling, therapy, or psychotherapy with a mental health provider can help you better cope with your feelings and talk them through. You can do therapy for a short time or stay in it for more extended periods of time.
- Alternative therapies. Many people with mild depression can heighten their therapeutic experience by supplementing it with acupuncture, hypnosis, or biofeedback.
- Brain stimulation. For people who suffer from severe depression or psychosis, brain stimulation can be beneficial. As mentioned before, ECT or TMS are commonly prescribed. However, you can also try vagus nerve stimulation(VNS).
Of course, every person’s depression is unique to them. Because there is a broad spectrum for how depression can appear, the treatments can also vary. Just know that there is also a wide spectrum for treatment and that it may take some time for you to find the right one for you.
What are the four types of depression?
- Major depression: Major depression is a constant and overwhelming feeling of being sad. People lose interest in daily living activities such as grooming, bathing and eating. Even those activities that once pleased them (such as exercising, reading, gardening and being with their partner) now seem worthless and daunting. There may be days when they do not get out of bed. They may have trouble sleeping, crying spells, changes in appetite or weight, loss of energy and feel worthless. In extreme cases, they may have thoughts of death or suicide. Major depression is a serious mental health issue that needs timely treatment and empathy from family and coworkers. It can be successfully treated with psychotherapy and medications. For some people with severe depression, medications do not work. In such cases, electroconvulsive therapy may be effective.
- Bipolar disorder (manic-depressive disease): Individuals with this condition have alternate episodes of depression followed by periods of unusually high energy or activity. Manic symptoms look like the opposite of depression symptoms—individuals may have grandiose ideas, unrealistically high self-esteem, decreased need for sleep and an accelerated pursuit of pleasure including pumped-up sex drive, spending sprees and risk-taking behavior such as gambling or overspeeding. The manic stage often leads to self-destructive behavior and is followed by a period of depression. It is managed by psychotherapy and drugs called mood stabilizers.
- Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia): This type of depression refers to a low mood that has lasted for at least two years, but it does not reach the intensity of major depression. People with dysthymia are often able to function in day-to-day life, but they feel low or joyless (anhedonic) most of the time. Other depressive symptoms of dysthymia may include appetite and sleep changes, low energy, low self-esteem or hopelessness.
- Seasonal affective disorder: This type of depression has been linked to reduced sunlight exposure. Reduced sunlight exposure affects the biological rhythm and causes an imbalance in the levels of certain chemical messengers in the brain (serotonin and melatonin). Seasonal affective disorder emerges as days get shorter in fall and winter. Symptoms remain the same as seen in other types of depression. Treatment is light therapy, involving daily sessions of sitting close to an especially intense light source for a recommended amount of time.
In addition to these four types, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) has now included disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (diagnosed in children and adolescents) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) as other types of depression.
How to manage your depression
Proper management of depression requires support from a trained mental health professional, cooperation from friends and family members, the right medications and motivation.
Extreme symptoms such as suicidal ideation, hallucinogenic episodes and severe depression may require electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and hospitalization.
Here are a few tips to manage your depression.
- Try to be physically active and exercise daily. Exercise has been known to combat episodes of depression.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Set realistic goals for your career, family life and body.
- Spend quality time with your friends, family and confide in a trusted friend or relative with your problems.
- Join a support group for mental health disorders.
- Engage yourself in hobbies such as gardening, hiking and reading to keep negative thoughts at bay.
- Keep a gratitude journal to note down the things you should be grateful for.
- Postpone important decisions such as getting married or divorced or changing jobs until you feel better.
- Continue to educate yourself about depression.
- Eat healthy. Foods such as bananas, milk, almonds and dark chocolate have mood-elevating properties.
You may have heard about an herbal medicine called St. John’s wort as a remedy for mood disorders. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved this medication for depression. Many health professionals have serious concerns about the safety and efficacy of this herb as a standalone treatment or in combination with another prescription antidepressant. Do not use St. John’s wort or any other herbal treatment for depression before talking to your healthcare provider.
Medically Reviewed on 4/7/2022
Cleveland Clinic: “Depression.”
Mayo Clinic: “Depression.”
NHS: “Causes – Clinical Depression.”
Harvard Medical School: “Six Common Depression Types.”