If you’ve just been diagnosed with clinical depression, there’s no doubt that your mind is racing. You’re most likely overwhelmed with thoughts like what caused this or what should you do now. Why did you get depression and someone else didn’t? You may be in the initial stages of treatment, or perhaps you haven’t even been diagnosed. Wherever you are in the journey towards positive mental health, one of the most confusing aspects of depression is figuring out what caused it. While there is no one single answer that fits everyone, there are several causes of depression that often pop up time and time again.
Roots of depression generally fall into two broad categories—physical and environmental. While it is certainly feasible to have the origin of your depression be one lone cause, this is not always the case. Many people who suffer from depression will have physical and environmental factors combining to form the basis for their disease.
This is a rather broad category, covering both cognitive events and experiences that you have. What follows below is a list of common environmental factors that increase the chances of depression:
- abuse, whether it is physical, emotional or sexual
- conflict, especially prolonged or with family and friends
- major events that uproot your life, both good and bad (getting married, moving, divorce)
- other personal problems like financial difficulties
- death or a significant loss
By no means is this an inconclusive list of environmental and cognitive factors. It is, however, a list of some of the factors that are consistently found in people with depression. Of course, the presence of these factors does not always lead to depression, either. For instance, everyone will experience grief, but that grief does not always mean that you will become depressed.
Beyond brain chemistry and makeup, which we’ll cover in a separate section, there are several physical factors that can account for depression. Major illnesses are often the foundation for depression, though they can often simply co-exist with sicknesses. Sometimes, treating the depression can result in improvement in regards to the other illness, according to experts. Similar is the situation of substance abuse. The depression can be a factor in the choice to use illegal drugs, or it can be a result of the usage. A particular subset of depression occurs after giving birth, known as postpartum depression. Medication can sometimes have the unfortunate side effect of depression.
Perhaps the most discussed physical factor is genetics. Studies and experience have told us that there is often a hereditary aspect to depression that it gets passed down from generation to generation. The exact way depression gets passed down is still unknown and scientists are currently studying this. Of course, many people are diagnosed with depression every day who have no family history at all, but it is important to keep in mind any familiar history of depression.
The Biology and Chemistry of the Brain
As you may or may not have heard, researchers have discovered several differences in the brain of depressed people when compared with the brains of people who don’t have the disease. One of these notable differences is the part of the brain known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is responsible for the storing of memories. The main difference observed is that people with clinical depression have shown to have a smaller hippocampus, which means that there are fewer serotonin receptors.
Why is this important? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that allows communication between the nerves and the body. Serotonin has a calming effect. If you aren’t able to receive as much serotonin as others due to a lower number of serotonin receptors, you don’t get as much as the calming effect of the chemical, or so some experts state. Another neurotransmitter thought to be involved in depression is norepinephrine. Finally, the overproduction of cortisol is another factor researchers believe may result in depression, since it is believed that cortisol has a poisonous effect on the hippocampus.
With all the theories currently presented on brain chemistry and its relation to depression, we still have a lot to learn. Luckily, as medicine and science progress, so will the ability to scan and map the brain. Hopefully then the causes of depression will be able to be identified and more specific, personalized treatment paths developed.
No matter what the origin of your depression is, do not ignore the signs and symptoms of the disease. Hopefully you have already been officially diagnosed and have started treatment. If not, please get help from a medical professional immediately. Left unchecked, depression does not usually get better. Rather, it progresses and can last for years, often worsening. Suicide can be a devastating outcome of untreated depression. Knowing the cause of your depression does not cure you of it, but it can give you some power and control of the disease. The unknown and obtuse is always more difficult and fear-inducing than knowing what it wrong with you. So, take care of yourself, and keep up with your treatments.